Retro Review: The Devil Rides Out (1967)

THE DEVIL'S BRIDE (1968, known as The Devil Rides Out in its native England) is one of the last fine examples of the classic Hammer Horror style. Before closing up shop in the mid-1979s, the studio's subsequent output would include some good, and even a few great, films, but the familiar motifs had been mostly played out, and later experiments with gore and nudity resulted in an uneven, hit-or-miss approach that lacked the finesse and sure-handed control of the earlier efforts. For despite Hammer's reputation for a reliance on shock effects over story, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (like most of their classic output) reveals a careful, even reserved, handling of the material, coupled with superb craftsmanship and a close attention to detail.

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, the screenplay by Richard Matheson (The Legend of Hell House) concerns the Duc du Richleau (Christopher Lee) as he tries to rescue a young friend from a coven of Satan-worshippers, led by Mocata (Charles Gray). Wheatley’s novels have earned a reputation for well-researched authenticity, and Matheson's strength was for placing horror in realistic, believable settings, so the film is imbued with an aura of conviction, setting it apart from the spooky-creepy clichés typical of the horror genre. This lends a fresh, contemporary feel, no doubt enhanced by the early 20th century setting, complete with automobiles and airplanes (this is one of the few Hammer horrors set not in the Victorian era).

This solid narrative is handled like an adult fairy tale by director Terence Fisher (who helped launch Hammer Horror with 1957's Curse of Frankenstein). Fisher’s work featured a clear demarcation between Good and Evil, light and darkness, yet somehow this simple approach never seemed simplistic. Despite the religious overtones, his films felt secular, as if the battle between righteousness and blasphemy were a well-matched chess game in which the winner was not the most devout but the most skilled. The results were, at their best, clear-headed, with characters that shone through like well-defined archetypes.

Christopher Lee as the Duc de Richleau
Christopher Lee as the Duc de Richleau

This is certainly true of The Devil Rides Out, thanks to fine performances from Lee (who proves here, as in The Gorgon, that he could plays heroes as well as villains) and Gray (the latter making a suggestively sinister impression despite relatively brief screen time).

Unfortunately, The Devil Rides Out suffers somewhat in the horror department. The storytelling does a fine job of setting the stakes and preparing us for frightening consequences, but the manifestations of evil are seldom as eerie as intended. One senses fear of censorship in some cases: the satanic orgies are notably mild. In other cases, the special effects, though adequate in their day, suffer under modern scrutiny.

Beyond this, there is perhaps a problem of sensibility. Hammer Horror, particularly when directed by Fisher, was usually at its best when portraying a tangible menace (for example, Horror of Dracula turned the Count into a full-blooded physical being lacking the spooky supernatural power to turn himself into a bat). In The Devil Rides Out, on the other hand, Fisher is dealing with the uncanny, with visitations that might be hypnotically induced hallucinations or actual demons from the pit, and he lacks the vision that would bring these manifestations to convincing life. (Fisher’s Italian contemporary, Mario Bava, would have excelled at these scenes, but then, Bava probably would have bungled the rest of the film surrounding them.)

The Devil Rides Out Charles GrayIt may seem odd to praise a horror film when the visual horror is disappointing, but The Devil Rides Out offers compensation in other areas. One example is a scene in which Mocata pays what appears to be a social call while the Duc is out. This long sequence, wherein he gradually lulls his victim into a hypnotic trance, is a great piece of writing, acting, and directing, with an economical use of tighter and tighter camera angles that convey his gradually increasing mental domination, culminating in a perfectly calibrated high-angle shot looking down on him as he raises his head and sends his power into the upper rooms of the house, urging one sleeping victim to commit murder. After a fortuitous interruption breaks the spell, he also gets one of the film’s best lines as he departs, only temporarily defeated: 'I won’t be back for Simon—but something will…' (The film’s other most memorable line occurs when the Duc is asked to lend a car: 'Of course,' he says casually. 'Take any of them.' We never see how many he has, but the way Lee tosses off the line conjures up visions of an entire fleet.)

Although decades later, we can look at the plot with a different, more ambiguous perspective, the film itself still rings true. The Duc’s rescue of his friend reads almost like a cult deprogramming, and one could argue that he is intervening where he has no right to do so, but the strength of The Devil Rides Out is in convincing us that he is waging a righteous battle that will save the very souls of all involved. This fairy-tale simplicity yields strong, satisfying dramatic conflict, stirring up a rich brew of mythic undertones of the sort that enhance the best horror films. The film may flirt with cornball melodrama, and rely on excess dialogue to explain the convoluted twists that lead to the happy ending, but one emerges from the experience feeling as if one has relived a vivid dream in which ancient archetypes have crossed swords in a sort of ritual re-enactment of some eternal conflict. This is not a film that one wants to oversell to viewers seeking intense shock effects, but it remains, along with The Exorcist, one of the great portrayals of the battle between Good and Evil.

Out-of-print DVD from Anchor Bay
Out-of-print DVD from Anchor Bay
DVD DETAILS

The Devil Rides Out has received better treatment than many Hammer films have on DVD in the U.S., thanks to the Starz-Anchor Bay disc released in 2000. The supplemental materials are meager, but at least there is an audio commentary – an element missing from many of the classic films released on disc in the states. The DVD preserves the color photography in sharp detail – showing off the ornate production design that was always a significant aspect of Hammer Horror. The image is matted to a theatrical widescreen (non-scope) ratio, enhanced for 16x9 TV screens. There are English and French dialogue tracks and two trailers: one British release and one American (virtually identical except for the title change).

There is a nice documentary called The World of Hammer, narrated by Oliver Reed (who starred in Curse of the Werewolf). Unfortunately, it does not focus on The Devil Rides Out, and the selection of clips from Hammer's output is hit-and-miss. Mixed in with the Gothic chillers are glimpses of war films and appallingly bad footage from some forgotten comedies. With so much great material available, it is incomprehensible that the documentary includes so much sub-part footage.

Also disappointing is the audio commentary. Lee and co-star Sarah Lawson provide some interesting tidbits, and they evince a well-deserved sense of pride in their work, but too often they lapse into explaining the plot. Which is bad enough on its own but made considerably worse by the fact that, decades later, they are fuzzy on the details and so, with the movie's soundtrack turned off so that they may record their commentary, they end up merely speculating on why characters are performing certain actions.

Those willing to suffer through this chit-chat will be rewarded with some interesting details. For example, Lee was instrumental in convincing Hammer to adapt one of Wheatley’s novels (presumably the reason the actor was given the lead, somewhat against type), and Lawson’s husband dubbed the voice for the film’s other male lead, Leon Green, who was supposed to sound American. Lee also praises the overall authenticity of the film (thanks to Wheatley’s research), identifying only one fictional invention, a ritual invocation that dissipates the power of evil twice in the film. (Lee failed to find a real-life counterpart for this in his own research, so he had to invent the words for it, which were not given in the book.) It’s nice to see that Lee takes the subject matter seriously, and one wishes that more of the commentary featured more information of this kind.

Sadly, the Anchor Bay disc is out of print. A Blu-ray disc is planned for October 2012.

CONCLUSION
The characters seek safety within a magic circle while fending off the forces of darkness.
The characters seek safety within a magic circle while fending off the forces of darkness.

Although not perfect, The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer's essential films. Its strengths mostly outweigh the weaknesses, which lay mostly in the area of outdated special effects. In fact, Lee’s audio commentary mentions that this is one Hammer film that could truly benefit from a remake, thanks to the advances in digital technology. Director Joe Dante (The Howling) has expressed an interest in doing just that, with Lee reprising his role as the Duc. Unfortunately, the project seems to be lost in limbo. According to Dante, Lee remains philosophical about the delay, pointing out that the advancing years will only make him look more like the character as originally described in the book.