It’s Hammer Time!
This year’s Halloween viewing was Hammer’s sensational “The Devil Rides Out” (1968), one of the greatest achievements from the famous British studio. It moves like a bullet, and segues from one marvelous set piece to another without catching a breath. In that respect, it’s one of the most contemporary of their films, and a splendid introduction to someone unfamiliar with Hammer’s legacy of horror.
Helmed by Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher, and with a screenplay by famed fantasy writer Richard Matheson, adapting Dennis Wheatley’s best-selling novel, and ominous scoring by James Bernard, it’s Hammer operating at full thrusters, fully confident they are the best in the business and no one is going to tell them otherwise. Along with the great “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1969), it’s probably the studio’s last classic film, though there were quite a few good titles to come. But everything comes together in “The Devil Rides Out.”
While it’s not particularly scary, it is creepy, and possesses an unworldly aura about it. It’s also as much an adventure film as it is a horror epic. And as an added bonus, it’s set in England in the 1920s, so there’s marvelous period décor to look at and an assortment of beautiful automobiles with running boards,. Running boards come in very handy when one is trying to rescue a beautiful girl from a nighttime Satanic orgy in the forest. (I love running boards on old automobiles).
The Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee, playing the hero for a change and very well too) meets his friend Rex Van Ryn (Rod Taylor look-a-like Leon Greene) to inform him their old friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) did not show up for a planned reunion. They go to Simon’s new country house just as a party is going on, filled with odd-looking people of various ages and nationalities, including the mysterious Mocata (plumy-voiced Charles Gray, oozing malevolence out of ever pore in what is arguably his best performance) and a beautiful girl, Tanith (Nike Arrighi), who Rex is instantly attracted to. .
Richleau suspects something is amiss and discovers that Simon has fallen into the hands of Satanists, headed by Mocata, who plans to baptize Simon and Tanith into their cult.
For the rest of the movie, Richleau and Rex attempt to keep Simon and Tanith out of Mocata’s clutches. Mocata doesn’t just dabble into the occult, but has supernatural powers, including the ability to affect the actions of other with his mind from far away, and the ability to conjure up all sorts of deviltry (literally) to stop our heroes.
Richleau and company go to the country estate of Richleau’s niece Marie (Sarah Lawson), her husband Paul (Richard Eaton) and their daughter Peggy (Rosalyn Landor), but Mocata follows them there. Rosalyn Landor turned down a role in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) to do this film. Way to go Rosalyn! You made the right choice.
Mocata hypnotizes Marie to tell him where Simon and Tanith are, but is interrupted by Peggy. Marie snaps out of her trance and she orders Mocata out of their house. He says, “I shall not come back. But something will. Tonight. Something will come for Simon and the girl.” Gray delivers these lines with great relish.
With this message in mind, Richleau gathers Simon, Marie and Richard into a magic circle to protect themselves against Mocata’s messenger.
I said earlier that everything comes together in “The Devil Rides Out.” Well, maybe not everything. The special effects are sorely lacking, a charge even the film’s staunchest defenders agree with. It’s especially galling as they occur in what should be the highlight of the film, the aforementioned sequence with our heroes standing in a magic circle while the forces of Hell pummel them. On one hand, it’s a lost opportunity but the rest of the film is so strong, the mood and direction so sure, that one can overlook the shoddiness of the special effects.
And they are shoddy. One of Hell’s visitors is a tarantula, which is normal-sized in one scene and giant-sized in the next scene, then back to normal-sized. Most egregious is the appearance of the Messenger of Death on horseback, very badly matted in and with the horse moving backward and forward in fast motion. When Death is revealed, it’s against a black screen with nothing in the background. It’s almost as if they filmed these sequences last and ran out of money.
Much more effective in this sequence, are very simple, practical effects, like them hearing a pounding on the door, and Rex’s anguished pleases to be let in and, when refused by Richleau, the voice fades away into the ghostly distance.
In a 1975 issue of Cinefantastique Terence Fisher was astute enough to identify the film’s other main fault: “The love angle was very superficial. I don’t know why, probably my fault. The relationship between Nike Arrighi and Leon Greene never develops as it should have. The film would have been much stronger if it had. You see, it’s easy to put characters into a situation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s black magic or cops and robbers. It doesn’t matter a damn…but unless those characters have emotion in their interrelation with the situation they are put into, no audience in the world is going to be interested. The important thing is the emotional relationship they have, apart from the situation itself. And the worse the situation you put them into, the more excited the audience will become because they understand their feelings apart from what they are faced with.”
Fisher is right. Also missing is a scene explaining what attracted Tanith and Simon to Mocata’s coven in the first place. Even a short scene explaining their actions would have gone a long way to making us care about them.
“The Devil Rides Out” was based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, one of England’s most successful novelists of the 20th century. While he wrote in a variety of genres, it was his stories on the occult and black magic that were most popular. When it was published in 1934, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and “Random Harvest” author James Hilton called “The Devil Rides Out” the best novel of its kind since “Dracula.”
Wheatley was considered an expert on the occult and his books are full of peeks into hidden rites and ceremonies. Each of his black magic books comes with this preamble:
I desire to state that I, personally, have never assisted at, or participated in, any ceremony connected with Magic – Black or White.
The literature of occultism is so immense that any conscientious writer can obtain from it abundant material for the background of a romance such as this.
In the present case I have spared no pains to secure accuracy of detail from existing accounts when describing magical rites or formulas for protection against evil, and these have been verified in conversation with certain persons, sought out for that purpose who are actual practitioners of the Art.
All the characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary but, in the inquiry necessary to the writing of it, I found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practiced in London, and other cities, at the present day.
Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I find that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into practice of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature – Dennis Wheatley
Christopher Lee had been friends with Wheatley and had tried to interest Hammer in his novels. “I had been at Hammer for quite a long time,” Lee said. “There’s a writer I know very well and he sells all over the world in every language you’ve ever heard of – his books would be ideal. I thought Dennis’ black magic stories were incredibly exciting – not quite Gothic, but very close to it. Hammer were (sic) very worried for a long time because they thought the black magic elements would cause them problems with the Church. I couldn’t understand why, because Dennis’ stories were based on truth: evil against good, the power of darkness against the power of light. The power of light always won, and I couldn’t see how anybody in the Church could object to that. Obviously I would never have advocated showing anything which related to a black mass itself, which would have been an indescribably obscenity and blasphemy.” (Quote taken from the notes to the film’s soundtrack CD).
Lee later said that since the film came out, he has received many calls and letters, and been stopped in the street from representatives and leaders of every major religion, thanking him for making the movie, and showing the very real danger and consequences of getting involved in the occult.
(I remember an afternoon about 30 or 35 years ago at the Catholic church I attended growing up. In all those Sundays, we never heard any sermons about Hell or Satan, except one time, when the pastor related how a teenager in the parish had started experimenting with the occult, and how awful it’s been for him and his family. He asked for our prayers for the family, and admonished the young people in the parish to never, ever delve into the occult. He didn’t go into specifics, but I remember his voice trembling as he said that, and he had very real fear in his voice.)
Hammer filmed two more Wheatley books. His novel “Uncharted Seas” became the basis for the looney tunes, but hugely enjoyable “The Lost Continent” (1968) – think “Ship of Fools” with rubber suited monsters, big breasted women and the Spanish Inquisition. Really.
Hammer’s last horror film was another Wheatley adaptation, “To the Devil A Daughter” (1976) with Christopher Lee as a defrocked priest trying to lure Nastassia Kinski to become a Satanic bride. Richard Widmark was the hero this time, looking like he’d rather be anywhere but there. It’s one of Hammer’s weakest films.
While “The Devil Rides Out” did very well in England, where Wheatley was better known, it died in the States. It had the bad luck to open after George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and no way could Hammer’s period horror compete with the new breed of zombies. 20th Century Fox handled stateside distribution and didn’t like the title, thinking it sounded too much like a western. In the U.S. the title was changed to “The Devil’s Bride”, but it didn’t bring in the money Hammer thought it would.
There’s a new Blu Ray of the film from England, and supposedly Hammer cleaned up some of the effects and made them more effective. I can’t say I’m very happy about that, but if it must be done at least have the original version available. I find it interesting how technicians in years past overcame budgetary and technological obstacles, and don’t think that should be erased just because it can be done better today.
Regardless, “The Devil Rides Out” continues to enthrall. Its pace is very contemporary and it’s time trickery ending would not be out of place in today’s cinema scene.
It’s funny how superstitions work on us. I consider myself pretty enlightened, and don’t believe in ghosts, or communicating with the dead. Yet, I wouldn’t attend a séance or play with a Ouija board for all the money in the world. I know, I can’t explain it either. I have zero interest in dabbling in the occult. But I will watch movies on the subject as long as they are as enthralling as “The Devil Rides Out.”