Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Devil Rides Out (1968) - Blu-Ray

Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out is one of the most lavish of the horror movies made by Hammer Films, and certainly one of the best. I’ve seen it before but its release on Blu-Ray makes it worth a revisit.

This is a tale, based on a terrific Dennis Wheatley pot-boiler, of the dangers of meddling with Dark Forces. Christopher Lee knew Wheatley quite well and was keen to do a film based on one of his books. He persuaded Hammer to obtain the rights to Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. The result is a movie that differs quite a bit from Hammer’s other gothic horror outings. in this case Lee’s judgment proved to be right on the money.

With Hammer’s usual array of talent behind the camera, with their ace director Terence Fisher at the helm, a fine cast headed by Christopher Lee and a script by Richard Matheson nothing was left to chance.

Christopher Lee plays the slightly arrogant but charismatic Duc de Richleau, and this time Lee is definitely one of the good guys, battling the Forces of Darkness. While de Richleau is something of as control freak that proves to be an asset, given the strength of the evil forces with which he must do battle. He is assisted by Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) who provides the brawn to match de Richleau’s brains.

Their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has landed himself in a good deal of trouble. He has been dabbling in black magic and he’s in much deeper than he realises. He has become part of a coven controlled by the powerful magician Mocata (Charles Gray). It is obvious to de Richleau that drastic means will have to be taken, with or without Simon’s co-operation. The situation is complicated by the presence within the coven of a young woman named Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi). Mocata uses her as a medium but now Rex is falling in love with her so de Richleau is going to have to rescue her as well as Simon from Mocata’s clutches.

Mocata is not averse to using strongarm tactics but for the most part he prefers to attack the heroes with the weapon with which he is most comfortable - magic. It will come down to a show of strength between Mocata’s black magic and de Richleau’s equally formidable knowledge of the occult, and to a classic battle between good and evil.

It can be a very effective tactic to suggest the supernatural elements rather than showing them overtly. That tactic would not have worked in this case. It is essential to the story that there should be no ambiguity - that the audience should know that the powers of darkness called upon by Mocata are very real. Director Terence Fisher therefore had to make the supernatural elements absolutely explicit and we had to see them at work. Given Hammer’s budgetary constraints and the technology of the day that was a bold move but in general the effects are carried off successfully. The car chase in which Mocata aids Tanith from afar is a nice touch and it’s executed flawlessly.

Dennis Wheatley was a writer of occult thrillers rather than horror novels. The distinction is subtle but important. It means that this film could not be approached in the manner of Hammer’s horror films and it meant that an outright gothic style would have been inappropriate. To their credit the people at Hammer realised this and made the necessary adjustments. Terence Fisher was aware that he was making a thriller and he adjusts the pacing accordingly - a thriller needs to move faster than a gothic horror movie.

Hammer’s genius production designer Bernard Robinson (described quite accurately by Christopher Lee as Hammer’s real star) was no doubt delighted by the chance to get away from central European settings and to create sets that evoked the moneyed classes of the interwar years. The sets aren’t gothic but there is a definite hint of decadence. It’s a world of power and money and of people who sometimes have more power and money than is good for them. Robinson’s sets are superb. The observatory in Simon Aron’s house is a particular highlight - it exudes both luxury and evil.

A movie such as this needs the right actors and this movie is well served in this department. Charles Gray makes a wonderfully sinister villain, oozing sinister charm from every pore. Patrick Mower was very good at playing abrasive characters but Simon Aron isn’t like that at all. He’s a well-meaning young man but inexperienced in the ways of the world and desperately anxious to prove himself. He’s not a fool - if he was de Richleau would have left him to his fate. Mower makes Simon sympathetic without being excessively irritating in his naïvety.

Most all such a movie needs the right lead actor and Christopher Lee is perfect. The Duc de Richleau is slightly pompous and has more than a touch of arrogance but he is a very serious adversary for the powers of darkness. He takes the occult very seriously indeed. It is no joking matter, which is why it is so dangerous for people like Simon Aron to meddle in it. Lee’s performance has the gravitas and the absolute sincerity required, and the larger-than-life quality to convince us that victory is possible despite the odds.

You can’t play Dennis Wheatley in a tongue-in-cheek manner. If you try to do so the whole thing will simply collapse and in any case Wheatley’s plots are so outlandish that such an approach would be counter-productive. You just don’t need to add any outrageousness to a Wheatley story.

Visually this movie is a feast. Vintage cars, vintage aircraft, gorgeous clothes, sumptuous settings, Black Masses, satanic manifestations, car chases and all awash in the most magnificent colours.

The old Anchor Bay DVD was very good but the Studiocanal Blu-Ray/DVD combo is well worth upgrading to. Extras include the old audio commentary from the earlier DVD release (with Christopher Lee in fine fettle and displaying immense enthusiasm for a movie he is clearly still very proud of) plus a couple of documentaries. All in all a fine release for one of the Hammer’s greatest movies. Very highly recommended. 

Screencaps are from the DVD, not the Blu-Ray.

This was one of two Dennis Wheatley adaptations Hammer made in 1968, the other being the not entirely successful but still rather interesting science fiction movie The Lost Continent.


G-8 said...

A spot on review of a great film! I wish this was on Blu-Ray here in America.

Red_Cardinal said...

G-8 Why not buy it from if you can get it for a reasonable price?