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The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Director: Terence Fisher

review by J.C. Hartley

Despite feeling as if I knew this film, I realised I had never actually seen it in its entirety. Considered, I believe, to be something of a high watermark for Hammer, and a personal favourite of Christopher Lee, I'm not convinced it has stood the test of time.

The last time I can remember watching it was in the 1970s at a house party. I was getting on very well with the school swimming champion who had her hand up the leg of my jeans; but, as was so often the case, I became distracted, and she ended up ministering to a drunken and tearful friend who, thwarted in love, had chosen that occasion for a teenage nervous breakdown. I wrote a poem about the incident which I called 'The Devil Rides Out', with the same wilful obscurity that made me call a poem about a picnic with my mother, when she showed me where she wanted her ashes scattered, Master of the World, because the clouds that day reminded me of the Albatross, Robur's flying machine in the 1961 film.

Unlike this review, The Devil Rides Out doesn't suffer from any extraneous scene setting. The Duc de Richelieu (Christopher Lee) meets his old friend Rex van Rijn (Leon Greene), who lands in a biplane, and they set off in de Richelieu's yellow Rolls-Royce to call on their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), the son of an old comrade-in-arms, who has recently sufficiently lost touch with his mentors to be missing their annual reunion. At Aron's grand house, the purchase of which the pair cannot understand, van Rijn and de Richelieu interrupt an afternoon gathering.

Their reaction to the multicultural assemblage is curiously dismayed, despite the obvious affluence on display; it is as if there is something inherently distasteful in a room of mixed races and cultures. This is a genuinely baffling moment in the film as, initially, there is no obvious reason, beyond racism or extreme xenophobia, why the pair should react as they do. They are greeted, somewhat shamefacedly, by their young friend and eventually introduced to the suave yet sinister Mocata (Charles Gray) who holds some influence over the young man. This gathering is apparently a meeting of an Astronomical Society, being Aron's latest enthusiasm and, as de Richelieu and van Rijn eavesdrop on the conversations of the guests, the talk of planetary conjunctions would seem to verify this, although they also hear a remark that the number of the group must only be 13.

Rex meets Tanith Carlisle, a young woman he is previously acquainted with, who is travelling with a Countess also called Tanith, before Aron asks if he and the Duc could leave before the meeting begins. Talking his way into Aron's observatory, de Richelieu discovers that the room is decorated with satanic symbols, and upon finding a black cockerel and a white hen secreted in a hamper he deduces that Aron has become embroiled with Satan worshippers, and that the meeting is a front for a Black Mass. The Duc knocks Aron unconscious and the trio flee. During the drive to de Richelieu's home he expresses his belief that it is Mocata's intention to have Aron baptised into Satanism on the next propitious date which happens to be the very next day. The Duc hypnotises Aron and puts him to bed protected by a crucifix but Mocata uses his power to extricate the young devotee from the Duc's protective custody.

It is decided that Rex will use his former association with Tanith to get information about Mocata and his intentions. The home of de Richelieu's niece Marie (Sarah Laws), and her husband, Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington), is chosen as a safe house, and van Rijn takes Tanith there, but the girl makes off in Rex's car and an exciting chase ensues with Mocata using magic to try and ensure Tanith's escape. The chase would have been more exciting but for the necessity of using that old chestnut of back-projection for the close-up shots of the vehicles, although the effects are not that badly conveyed. Temporarily put off the pursuit by a crash, van Rijn follows Tanith to Mocata's house and then follows the coven to the site of their ritual on Salisbury Plain. He contacts the Duc and the pair watch aghast as first Mocata presides over a rather restrained orgy, like a geriatric rave, then summons the goat-headed Evil One. Using the dark-dispelling headlamps of his car, de Richelieu drives into the coven and Rex hurls a crucifix at the Devil; they rescue Aron and Tanith and drive back to the Eaton's to await Mocata's unholy onslaught.

With de Richelieu temporarily absent, engaged in research, Mocata calls upon Marie Eaton, hypnotising her and using his power to compel Aron to kill Richard, and Tanith to kill van Rijn. The Eatons' daughter, Peggy (Rosalyn Landor in her first role in what has become a successful career), breaks the spell by entering the room and Mocata leaves. The Duc de Richelieu returns with the onset of darkness and prepares those in the house for Mocata's diabolic assault, but Rex removes Tanith from the premises as she is a conduit for Mocata's powers. After some phoney baloney involving ventriloquism, Mocata conjures a huge spider to menace the group and, when this fails, summons the Angel of Death. The Duc de Richelieu performs a particular rite and saves Aron's life but the Angel cannot return empty-handed and consequently takes Tanith.

Unfortunately, it is discovered that Peggy has also been spirited away and, wracked with guilt, Simon sets off in pursuit. Using the deceased Tanith as a spirit medium, de Richelieu is able to extract enough information for the group to determine where Peggy has been taken. At Mocata's house, where van Rijn had earlier followed Tanith, the Mage intends to sacrifice the child to consolidate his power. Marie Eaton is suddenly possessed, and speaks with a voice that may be Tanith's, she frees Peggy and tells her to repeat the rite that de Richelieu used to banish the Angel of Death. In the resulting conflagration the cult members are killed and the room is cleansed of its satanic trappings, revealing a cross decorating a wall. The room may have always been a chapel such are the perverse devices of devil-worshippers. Simon, the Eatons, and de Richelieu wake up back at the Eatons' home, and Rex appears with the restored Tanith. The Angel of Death has claimed Mocata, Peggy has been returned, Tanith is alive, and time has been rewound.

The film is fairly faithful to the early part of Dennis Wheatley's novel, although the book opens out somewhat in the second half, with a quest to find a satanic artefact that ranges across Europe culminating in a battle in a Greek monastery. The Devil Rides Out was Wheatley's second novel, the first, Forbidden Territory, also featuring the Duc de Richelieu, Simon Aron and Rex van Rijn in a more conventional thriller, had been an instant best-seller and was filmed in 1934 by Gaumont-British. The Devil Rides Out had to wait until it was felt Satanism could be dealt with in the cinema, and the X-certificate reflected concerns, despite the leisurely and fairly tame proceedings; of course the Devil does appear with his goats-head but plays a relatively passive role.

Wheatley was a prolific talent, writing historical novels, thrillers and supernatural adventures, using a recurring cast of characters, and always crossing genres so that at least one of his novels in a particular style featured a supernatural narrative. I remember there were a few of his books in the house where I grew up and, having heard of his racy reputation, I trawled the pages hoping to alight upon something scandalous. I would have better spent my time just reading them. Despite his reputation Wheatley was a pillar of the establishment, his books endorsed the old order of wealth, aristocracy, Queen and country; he was certainly no advocate of tampering with the occult, and his stories were designed to stress the peril of doing so.

Director Terence Fisher had a similar agenda, despite the lurid milieu in which he made his reputation. It has been suggested (by Peter Hutchings in his guide to British film directors, and on the BFI's screen online) that this film, along with Frankenstein Created Woman, were notable for a more anti-establishment theme questioning authority and morality, but it is hard to endorse that view with regard to The Devil Rides Out. There is a more palpable sense of transgression in Fisher's Dracula (1958) when the Count's coffin is discovered secreted in the heart of the Holmwood home. Fisher is now receiving the critical attention his career deserves, as academic scrutiny of the Gothic imagination casts its net ever wider.

A word on the cast, Christopher Lee is his usual authoritative self, in a role that requires him to be little more than commanding. The film would have benefitted from some more confrontation between de Richelieu and Mocata. Leon Greene was a conundrum, with his square jaw and manly voice I wondered that he hadn't done more in matinee idol roles, and then I read that for The Devil Rides Out he was dubbed by Patrick Allen, husband of co-star Sarah Lawson. This was a bit bizarre as Greene sang bass for D'Oyly Carte and at Sadler's Wells, and one would presume he had the requisite timbre, unless of course he still had an Aussie accent from his birth in that continent.

A sequence in the extras reveals that, as Allen did the voiceover for the trailer Greene's actual voice was used here, and it must be said it sounds perfectly adequate and convincing. Mower went on to a variety of tough-guy roles, in Callan with Edward Woodward, and in Special Branch with George Sewell, before washing up in one of the circles of hell in ITV's bucolic soap-opera Emmerdale.

Lee's notion that the film would benefit from a remake with modern CGI rather misses the mark of current trends in horror. Would it really do, even as a period costume piece? Satanic cults do crop up in film of course, notably presumably in Ben Wheatley's Kill List, but what horrors would have to be unleashed for The Devil Rides Out to titillate jaded modern appetites? As it is, the kidnap of Peggy makes for uncomfortable viewing given the current climate.

I found myself longing for some more exposition than de Richelieu's primer in the occult. How, given his sheepish looks throughout the film, has Simon fallen under the influence of Mocata? What is Mocata's motivation? What actually happens at the end? One review suggests that Peggy is possessed by the spirit of Hecuba, Queen of Witches, but I don't know where this comes from. These shortcomings aren't just critical nit-picking, if I'm asking those questions then it's because the narrative isn't gripping me enough to overlook them. I can actually believe in Mocata and de Richelieu et al, it's just I need a little more to get my teeth into. Karswell and Holden's duel in Night Of The Demon (1957), for example, is a whole lot more convincing, and it's a scarier film without recourse to giant spiders and angels of death. A glance at other horror films of 1968 turns up Rosemary's Baby, a truly terrifying film without recourse to stage-managed shocks and manifestations, and Night Of The Living Dead. It is films like these which would prove to have a lasting influence on the horror genre.

There is a pretty good selection of extras on this disc. Standard fare is the stills gallery and the World Of Hammer TV episode with clips from Hammer's back catalogue. This features the laconic commentary of Oliver Reed, mixed under the soundtrack from the various clips so that the music and dialogue completely drown out Olly's words of wisdom. It's quite bizarre. There is an interesting feature on the restoration of the film revealing how, apart from cleaning up the print, and removing obvious evidence of optical effects, sequences that had been filmed in an incomplete state were enhanced in an attempt to present the original vision of the production. The making-of short includes observations from various critics and authorities of the horror genre and Hammer Studios itself, as well as the urbane and ubiquitous Mark Gatiss.

The six-foot-tall Patrick Mower recalls being dwarfed by Greene and Lee, and makes the interesting observation that, as a young man enjoying the cultural ambience of the late-1960s he felt disappointed at the final film, feeling it was stilted. He modifies his remarks, saying that he feels the film has matured with age. I think his original feelings were justified. The film does not lack for plotting or pace, but the playing of individual scenes is so static that as one character speaks all others present stand around theatrically and listen, it comes across at times as the adaptation of a stage production. The orgy on Salisbury Plain is a particular low point; in three years time of course Ken Russell would outrage everyone with his call-that-an-orgy set piece in The Devils (1971).

Also featured is prolific novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson who penned the screenplay. Matheson's writing credits in print, film, and TV, have scope to provide careers for lesser writers several times over. He had previous involvement with Hammer who had planned to produce an adaptation of I Am Legend under the title 'Night Creatures' until the BBFC shot the idea down in flames. Hammer attached the title to a version of the story of Doctor Syn, as they had already publicised the fact that a film so titled was to appear, and to differentiate their story from Disney's effort starring Patrick McGoohan. Matheson recalls receiving a grateful letter from Dennis Wheatley, thanking him for keeping the screenplay tolerably faithful to the latter's original novel.

The other extras featurette concerns Wheatley and Hammer. It was Christopher Lee, a friend of Wheatley's, who apparently suggested that the studio consider adapting some of his books. It is noted that the 1960s, with its concomitant fascination with the occult and alternative belief systems, down to rock musicians according to one commentator, was a fillip to Wheatley's declining career. This feature includes one of my favourite films, the once-seen-never-forgotten The Lost Continent (1968), based loosely upon Wheatley's Uncharted Seas. A friend and I stumbled upon this movie on late-night telly after a night down the pub. Looking like a gritty overwrought melodrama set upon a rundown tramp-steamer, the film lurches into madness when an attempted rape is forestalled by a tentacle whipping through a porthole to throttle the attacker. Becalmed upon a rotting and miasmic plateau of seaweed in the Sargasso Sea, the crew encounter a society ruled by despotic Jesuit inquisitors surviving from god-knows-when, murderous oversized crustaceans, and the beautiful and buxom Dana Gillespie held aloft by flotation balloons. Neither this nor The Devil Rides Out cracked the American market, and neither did the very late To The Devil A Daughter (1976), also based upon a Wheatley book, by which time tastes in horror had moved in different directions.

As someone comments, it is necessary to see the film in the context of its time to assess its impact. A period piece, Matheson praises the decision to keep the 1930s setting, dealing with a subject that had been taboo for British cinema. It is certainly serious-minded and may well have been terrifying for its 1968 audience. One critic even recalls an ovation at an early screening. I cannot help comparing it with the Holy Grail of terror The Haunting (1963) and my own favourite as stated earlier The Night Of The Demon, both of which are more stylish, have more psychological depth and are genuinely scarier. Matheson had his own spin on possession in The Legend Of Hell House (1973) based on his own novel, and featuring a mannered performance by Roddy McDowall bordering on the camp, and incidentally strikingly similar to Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting Of Hill House, and the Robert Wise film The Haunting. I must admit I was a little bit disappointed with The Devil Rides Out, time and reputation had given it the aura of a classic that this viewing did not fulfil.

The Devil Rides Out



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