The Devil Rides Out DVD
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Directed by Terence Fisher
Produced in 1968
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - British Film
In the 21st-century, it's hard to realise just how popular the writer Dennis Wheatley was. His success was something of a phenomenon, and he achieved a virtual superstar status before such things were a regular occurrence for writers; he was (to some degree) a JK Rowling avant-la-lettre, and relished his celebrity. Wheatley's novels were mostly in the adventure field, but if he is remembered today (and there are many readers for whom his name would mean very little), it is for his supernatural outings - and of these, by far the most significant was his 1934 Gothic adventure The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley would preface his books with portentous, slightly hilarious warnings about the dangers of indulging in supernatural practices (such as those he wrote about) and suggested steering well clear of evil black magic cults (like the one that his aristocratic hero the Duc de Richleau tackles in his most famous book - and, frankly, which was not likely to be on the radar of most his readers), but this was of a part with the writer's own unerring instinct for self-promotion - Wheatley was well aware that the 'verisimilitude' imparted by these spurious warnings no doubt helped the popularity of his work. Read today, the book still functions strongly on a basic storytelling level (Wheatley undoubtedly possessed a glittering eye which could hold the reader), but the crudeness and lack of sophistication of his writing has dated badly (leaving aside the racial elements which would hardly conform to current standards - not to mention the rabid anti-communism, though the latter is not a feature of The Devil Rides Out).
When Hammer decided to film the latter novel in 1968, the writer's name still carried a commercial charge, although his literary star had seriously waned. It was to be the first in a series of adaptations of Wheatley, but (in similar fashion to the proposed series of Conan Doyle adaptations that Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles was designed to initiate), the film led to no further sequels - and this remains one of the great might-have-beens in the studio's history, not least because of the casting of Duc de Richleau, played by one of the studio's great assets, Christopher Lee, who perfectly incarnates the combination of romantic energy and cool intellect in the face of unspeakable evil. The film also represented the last time Lee worked with the studio's signature director, Terence Fisher, who turned in one of his most authoritative jobs (sabotaged only by some now-dated special effects - one might speculate on a fantasy version of the film with the impeccable acting and direction of the original intact but complemented by more sophisticated effects work).
The conflict (usually at one remove) between two charismatic and powerful figures, the Duc de Richleau and the sinister cult leader Mocata, is one of the unalloyed pleasures of the film, particularly as the cult leader is played by another great character actor of the day, Charles Gray (before the latter began to turn in performances which were virtual caricatures of his best work), and there is the same sense of the well-equipped savant up against an utterly ruthless and implacable enemy - but with the versatile Lee playing the former this time rather than the latter, thereby reversing the dynamic of his relationship with Peter Cushing in Dracula. Once again (as in earlier Fisher/Lee films), there are other less experienced, younger figures - to some degree, potential cannon fodder - who are caught in the clash of these two authoritarian figures, and whose destruction is guaranteed if they do not allow themselves to be guided by possessors of superior knowledge. (In narrative terms of course, these younger figures exist in order to be rescued by the savant hero, who is thereby permitted to demonstrate expertise and exigent decision-making). Fisher's approach (as so often in his career) is to treat the material in an absolutely straightforward, stylistically unfussy fashion, allowing his narrative to make its maximum effect without any directorial flourishes - the precise approach, in fact, which occasioned (at the time) a dismissal of the director as a rather dull, stolid filmmaker, but who is now perceived more sympathetically as a formal classicist who knows precisely when to trust the mise-en-scéne he has fashioned with such skill. The aforementioned maladroit special effects (such as a spectral horse and rider which invade a country house a disappointing demon in a cheap-looking mask glimpsed at a black magic ritual) are less effective than the scenes in which Fisher allows his actors to produce their effects with perfectly honed dialogue and nuanced performance, such as the sequence in which the evil cultist hypnotises a female character in order to draw back into his web one of his disciples, the character Simon (played by Patrick Mower) who has been rescued from the cult by de Richleau. Scenes such as this - and the various mini-lectures delivered by Lee on the precise capabilities and level of threat of his devil-worshipping enemies - are extremely effective, and while the more dated elements of Wheatley's narrative subtly excised, there are resonances which in the 21st century seem ever more pertinent - such as the terrifying hold that cults have over the disciples they have wrenched from a former life (and the now well-known attempts to brainwash cultists and remove all influence of former friends and family). But while Fisher's technique remains as unshowy as ever, he is even able to incorporate into his sinister narrative a certain energetic romantic impulse - the film, with its handsome vintage cars, sumptuous production design and exciting chases - functions on this more straightforward level quite as effectively as it does in conveying a sense of insidious evil (the tense traversal of a now-deserted site of a black magic ritual by de Richleau, finding evidence of devil worship, is as subtly disturbing a scene as any of the conspicuous bloodletting to be found elsewhere in Hammer products).
The contribution of American screenwriter Richard Matheson should not be under-estimated; in some ways, he was the perfect fit for Fisher's vision; always foregrounding the uncluttered imperatives of the narrative but allowing characterisation to grow out of situation; in many ways, his admirable screenplay is an improvement over the lively and eventful but baggy original novel. As ever with Fisher, the treatments of elements of the supernatural (such as the spirit of a dead woman performing a crucial function in the defeat of evil at the end of the film) are treated in an unspectacular fashion which allows them to make their effects with quiet authority.
Barry Forshaw on 25th October 2012
Author of 565 reviews
The Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) is concerned by the disappearance of his young friend Simon (Patrick Mower) from the social scene. Accompanied by former army colleague Rex (Leon Greene), de Richleau discovers that Simon has joined a group of Devil worshippers, led by the evil Mocata (Charles Gray). Through de Richleau's attempts to wrest Simon from Mocata's influence, Rex becomes romantically involved with Tanith (Nike Arrighi), another member of the cult.
The Devil Rides Out is Hammer at its best, with a script by the great Richard Matheson that manages to keep the magical lore of the original Dennis Wheatley novel. Lee gets a rare chance to play the hero, and does so wonderfully, and Gray is utterly captivating as the tremendously urbane devil worshipper.
Publisher: Optimum Releasing
Length: 91 mins
Aspect ratio: 1.85 Anamorphic Wide Screen
Format: DVD Colour
Released: 23rd October 2006
Cat No: OPTD0697
by Anon on 14th September 2006
One of Hammer's most effective films, bringing Dennis Wheatley's novel to the screen, also allows Christopher Lee to play a force for good. Lee's suave urbanity as, sa... Read on
One of Hammer's most effective films, bringing Dennis Wheatley's novel to the screen, also allows Christopher Lee to play a force for good. Lee's suave urbanity as, say, Dracula made life as an undead acolyte at least worthy of consideration. Here, as a man whose knowledge of esoteric doctrines suggests a close call of his own in the past with devilry, but in whom good has won out (just), he has the conviction of a convert. He plays the Duc de Richleau, who tries to save his friend's son when it becomes apparent that the boy's 'astronomical society' is actually a circle of devil-worshippers preparing to initiate him at the impending witches' sabbath. He must somehow counter the icy blue-eyed Charles Gray as the ‘Adept of the left-hand path’ Mocata.
One of director Terence Fisher's talents was for staging the arresting moment. Here he also displays his skill with quietly unsettling effect too - Mocata's eyes appearing in a car mirror for example. The score is unmistakeably from Hammer’s most prolific composer James Bernard - thoroughly dominant in all the right places. Hide