The Devil Rides Out – UK, 1968

The Devil Rides Out is a 1968 British Hammer horror film, based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley. It was written by American writer Richard Matheson and directed by Terence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein; Dracula; The Mummy). In the US it was released as The Devil’s Bride.

Main cast:

Christopher Lee, Leon Greene, Charles Gray (The Rocky Horror Picture Show; The Legacy), Patrick Mower (Incense for the Damned; Cry of the Banshee) and Nike Arrighi.

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The powers of good are pitted against the forces of evil as the aristocratic Duc de Richelieu (Lee) wrestles with the charming but deadly Satanist, Mocata (Grey), for the soul of his friend, Simon Aron (Mower), who has been associating with Mocata and his coven. Set in 1920’s England, the Duc and his friend, Rex van Rijn (Greene), soon find more and more evidence of ritual sacrifice, black magic and the Dark Arts, with not only Mower but respectable members of society and a young girl called Tanith (Arrighi) having been lured into Mocata’s inner circle. The film develops as the Duc, van Rijn and their far more sceptical friends, Richard and Peggy Eaton (Paul Eddington and Rosalyn Landor), realise the gravity of the situation, interrupting a forest-based Satantic mass, attended by Satan himself. Mocata manoeuvres to bring Peggy under his spell, finally unleashing the full force of the Left Hand Path upon the group, who rely on all the Duc’s knowledge and white magic to save them.

Lee had been stamping his feet for a long time for Hammer to bring flesh to Wheatley’s words but there was understandable reticence on the part of the hallowed British production house. Eleven of Wheatley’s novels are steeped in Satanism, the practices and the history, which though lending itself to Hammer’s already rich history of storytelling, brought with it very real threat of Britain’s head censor, John Trevelyan cutting it to ribbons, if indeed he allowed it to exist at all. Hammer had already brought the first of Wheatley’s novels to the screen earlier in 1968, the Devil-less fantasy film The Lost Continent.

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The rights to filming Wheatley’s book had belonged to Michael Staiver-Hutchins (who was also responsible for the film’s special effects) and an early attempt to make the book acceptable for the screen was made in 1963 with American writer John Hunter (Never Take Sweets From a Stranger) penning a treatment. though the producer, Anthony Hinds, declared it ‘too English’ for mass appeal. As such, the celebrated American, Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, many episodes of Twilight Zone) was approached at the end of the decade, charged with thinning out the lengthy descriptions of Satanic lore and picking up the pace somewhat.

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There was also the need to change the plot slightly; in the book, Mocata’s diabolical plan is to start a World War by seizing the Talisman of Set (a mummified phallus, always check before you seize anything). This involved budget-worrying plane chases and even more special effects, so this was jettisoned. In the novel, Aron’s character is Jewish, lending the book an entirely different tone, which again is omitted in the film. The dialogue is very snappy, brevity lending an urgency and mystery to the proceedings.

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Lee’s passion for the source material, as well as his close association with Wheatley meant he was always going to bag a lead role, here playing the hero to magnificent effect. Well versed in the ways and history of Black Magic himself, Lee throws himself into the role and clearly relishes every minute, delivery one of his greatest screen roles. Mower (later seen in Incense for the Damned and Cry of the Banshee) is also very believable as the naive young man in well over his head. Matching Lee’s performance is Charles Grey (best remembered as Bond villain, Blofeld but also playing key roles in Theatre of Blood, Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Beast Must Die, amongst many others), magnificent as Mocata, quietly oozing evil and seduction, without resorting to histrionics or cliches, as much Matheson’s triumph as the actor’s. His eyes stare through the screen offering mere suggestions at the carnage he can make possible.

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Paul Eddington, later known for his comedy roles in the The Good Life and Yes, Prime Minister, is an effective ‘everyman’, understandably doubtful as to the accusation of sorcery and witchcraft going on. Less effective is Arrighi, slightly alluring but distant even considering her dazed and hypnotised state in character. Worse still is Greene, not only looking like he’s wearing a stuffed suit but bumbling through, getting in the way and doing that dreadful thing horror films often lapse into, giving the impression he’s never heard of the devil/vampires/zombies etc as if that’s the norm. The icing on the cake is that his voice is dubbed by Patrick Allen, which would be just about ok, if only Allen didn’t have one of the most recognisable voices in British television.

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Production designer,  Bernard Robinson, does an amazing job with the sumptuous, grand set-pieces in the stately home settings and the film’s climax, working to a tight budget yet delivering sets of great style. The relocation of the filming from Hammer’s traditional home of Bray to Elstree studios gave him much more space to explore the Satanic sabbath and indoor scenes. Fisher, entering the twilight of his career (only Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell followed), allows the actors to work with Matheson’s script without distraction, with plenty of close-ups and tightly-framed shots showing the fear and concern on the actors’ faces.

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The Satanic Mass itself is a rather staid affair, a bit of dancing in frocks being about as shocking as Fisher dare venture without risk of Trevelyan involving himself unnecessarily. It does however give us the chance to see a rarely-glimpsed sight of the Devil himself in a horror film, referred to here as Baphomet or most famously, ‘The Goat of Mendes’. Easy to make ridiculous, the depiction is actually extremely startling, a slight smile on his goaty lips and an element of fear even on Mocata’s face. The Dark Lord was played by the famous stunt performer, Eddie Powell, who also served as Lee’s double in 1958’s Dracula.

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Less impressive, effects-wise are the scenes towards the climax of the film where our heroes entrench themselves in a holy circle to fend off attacks from a giant spider an the Angel of Death himself. Both suffer from a lack of budget, the spider clearly clawing at a glass pane and the Angel’s horse rearing up again and again on a crudely edited loop. The horse was no actor, wings or no wings, possessing only one lung and wheezing after the slightest exertion (incredibly, not a joke). Digital intervention for the recent Blu-ray release attempted to fix some of these flaws and achieved this to some extent, removing many of the matting issues. There is, however, charm to the creakiness and overall detracts little if at all from the tone and action.

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James Bernard’s score is of the highest calibre, delivering instant dread and threat whilst remaining hauntingly beautiful, one of the greatest ever scores for a horror film. Costing a mere £285,00, the film did reasonable business, though despite pleasing Wheatley himself immensely,  did not lead to further excursions for the Duc. Renamed The Devil’s Bride in the USA, so as not to confuse cinema-goers into thinking it was a Western, the film stands up extremely well, the 1920’s setting lending the film a timelessness and one of an almost historical document for the ages.

One of Lee’s favourite films, he is an advocate for the film being remade to redress the special effects issues, though, sadly his wish to play the Duc once more seems more than slightly unlikely. To quote Mocata’s most famous line: “I shall not be back… but something will”.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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Buy Hidden Horror: A Celebration of 101 Underrated and Overlooked Fright Flicks book from Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com

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