“I shall not be back. But something will.”
I happened to watch The Devil Rides Out for the first time during a low point in my horror viewing. I’d been watching a lot of bad films, and I started to feel – not just jaded, but melancholy, like all the good stuff had already been watched and whatever was left was just the dreck. It wasn’t rational – there’s no way I’ve seen even a tenth of all the horror movies ever made – but the feeling was there, and it weighed on me. In the past when I’ve gotten into this frame of mind I’ve quit watching horror movies for months. (Something like stopping breathing for me.)
And then I stumbled across The Devil Rides Out. I’d heard of it, but as I’m generally not a fan of Satanic cult films I’d avoided it. A mistake on my part. I enjoyed it immensely and it had an energizing effect on me – what other awesome classics of the horror film hadn’t I seen? What new films would become classics? The moment passed and I was once again happy to have horror films to watch.
Which is all to say that I was in a mood, and The Devil Rides Out got me out of it.
The Devil Rides Out is based on a book by Dennis Wheatley of the same name. Wheatley wrote a series of novels featuring some of the same characters that appear in the film, and you can’t help but wonder if the studio hoped for a series. Unfortunately, the film did not do well at the box office, despite being directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee. The film disappeared in the flood of Dracula and Frankenstein films, and it was only years later that it experienced a re-evaluation.
I’ve never read the original source material, but it was very popular at the time of its release (1934 for the first novel). Wheatley leavened his work liberally with details gained from personal research into Satanism and the ‘dark arts’ and included many dire warnings for his readers of the dangers involved. The censors concern with the material was great enough that Lee had to personally lobby for the films production for several years before Hammer finally acquiesced. It was one of Lee’s personal favorite films he’d ever appeared in and, if the film commentary is anything to go by, he remained hopeful of a remake until his death. (A version directed by Joe Dante with Lee reprising his role as the Duc de Richleau was bandied about in the early 00’s, but went nowhere.)
For my money, it’s one of the best Hammer films ever made, even if it’s missing some of the excesses of blood and bodices that made its contemporaries so popular.
As a result of the How Many Christopher Lee Movies Have You Seen list challenge a couple of weeks ago, I ran out and purchased the 2019 Shout Factory Blu-ray release of The Devil Rides Out. A new 2k scan looks great, with plenty of detail and clarity. The disk also includes a number of extras, with two commentary tracks, features and interviews. I happened to listen to the commentary with Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson and enjoyed it, though it can be repetitive and rambling – feeling more like eavesdropping a couple of friends than an insightful overview.
The Devil Rides Out is currently unavailable for streaming, which seems like a crime.
The Devil Rides Out (released as The Devil’s Bride in the US) follows the efforts of Nicholas, Duc de Richleau (Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) to save their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) from the clutches of a devil-worshiping cult. Yes – for once Lee is cast as the good guy in a Hammer picture, and his Duc de Richleau is awesome. A modern (I think this is set in the 30’s) van Helsing, Nicholas affects a certain world-weary knowledge of pretty much everything. He consistently knows exactly what’s happening and why it’s bad before anyone else has a clue. His ever-calm nature and answer for everything makes those few moments when he loses his cool much more effective. Only Lee could make a phrase like “Good God, man!” fraught with danger and import.
Simon and a young lady named Tanith (Nike Arrighi) are to be baptised into the Satanic cult within two days time. Nicholas and Rex attempt to save both of them – even interrupting a ritual wherein the Devil himself (as the goat headed Baphomet) appears! (FYI – for future knowledge or Call of Cuthulhu games – driving a car into the middle of the ceremony and chucking a cruxifix at the demon/monster seems to be the way to go.)
The leader of the cult, a thinly disguised Aleister Crowley stand-in named Mocata (Charles Gray) will do anything in his considerable power to regain control of Simon and especially Tanith, who is a medium for his demonic powers. Gray is excellent in this role and I completely forgot he was Blofeld for at least five minutes. One scene in particular – where he visits the house in which Simon and Tanith are taking refuge only to mesmerize the lady of the house – is incredibly effective. It felt like he really was bending the woman’s mind to his, forcing her to obey him simply through the power of his will. He is an excellent villain and as an actor is able to hold his own with Lee, no mean feat.
Thwarted in his attempt to get Simon and Tanith by the timely entry of a little girl, Mocata lays siege to the house with an endless wave of black magic attacks. Nicolas is able to help the residents and Simon withstand the assault, even when the Angel of Death appears on a black horse. Unfortunately, Tanith loses her life – it seems the Angel cannot leave empty handed.
And then the survivors realize the little girl, Peggy, is missing.
The rest of the film is a desperate race against time to prevent the girl from losing her life – and possible her soul. And the only person who can help them is the recently deceased Tanith!
This is a Hammer film starring Christopher Lee and that right there generally means it’s worth watching. Production quality is of a consistently high level (by Hammer stalwart Bernard Robinson) and the film boasts a great score by James Bernard. The acting ranges from top-notch (Lee and Charles Gray) to serviceable, if a bit wooden. Of course all the characters are from upper-crust British society, so perhaps it’s that stiff-upper lip that makes them all so rigid.
The primary problem with watching the film today involves the special effects, which were made on a budget at a time when composite matting was more art-form than science. Some effects remain convincing, while others – including, the Angel of Death – tread dangerously close to being laughable.
The film is strong enough to carry us past these moments, however, and achieves a sense of impending doom and tragic sacrifice. The more straightforward, serious tone actually serves the film well – grounding the madness (and occasional silliness) in a way that the more tongue-in-cheek monster films Hammer is know for would not have.
The Bottom Line
The Devil Rides Out is a fantastic Hammer-flavored Halloween treat. I’m not that big on Satanic films, with very few exceptions (Rosemary’s Baby, for one, The Exorcist as well), but I did very much enjoy The Devil Rides Out. It’s an extremely well constructed film, and I even found myself misty-eyed at the ending – though it’s a bit of a cheat! Highly recommended for fans of Hammer horror and Christopher Lee.