4 out of 5 stars

The Devil Rides Out is an example of Hammer Films at their finest. It’s one of their most successful, critically and financially, and remains a fan favourite—although the title’s a little misleading because the devil just sort of sits there and it’s the angel of death that rides about a bit… and it’s the satanic special effects sequences that truly date this late-1960s production. Having said that, there is a disquieting charm about them that would be lost amid today’s more easily dismissed glossy digital effects. In an attempt to appeal to a modern audience, a restoration released on DVD in 2012 added new effects, but they did nothing but detract…

So, by all means, have a chuckle at the poor prosthetics and terrible rear-screen projection because they really don’t make ’em like this anymore—but it was half a century ago, to be fair! However, if you can accept them for what they are, there’s rich reward in sticking with this classic British horror. The devil may not get to do any riding, but the plot gallops along at quite a pace and there’s never a dull moment.

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For starters, there’s Sir Christopher Lee’s lead performance as the aristocratic protagonist, Duc de Richleau. It’s a role he evidently relished and was one of the parts he was most proud of. Perhaps he enjoyed being the good guy for a change! Though he still plays it with the sort of imperious power he brought to his Dracula, he’s on the side of light this time, pitted against the dark forces mustered by cult leader Mocata.

In the original Dennis Wheatley novel, Mocata is described as bald, squat, and portly with little overt charm who relies on wealth, mesmerism, and manipulation to recruit and control his followers. In the film, he’s played by the ingeniously miscast Charles Gray who brings a charismatic, steely-eyed screen presence to rival Lee’s. His commanding portrayal of the evil Mocata landed him the role of Bond’s nemesis, Blofeld, in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

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Lee and Gray are the stars and overshadow the rest of a cast, which is made up of solid British talent. De Richleau’s right-hand man, Rex Van Ryn, is fleshed-out by Leon Greene, who plays the brave and resourceful hero in the style of a Doctor Who companion—well-meaning, even though he doesn’t always have a full grasp of what’s going on.

They are caught up with Mocata’s occult order when they track down Simon (Patrick Mower), the missing son of a friend of De Richleau, and then attempt to extricate him from the clutches of the Satanic cult. It was the feature film debut for Mower, who had a notable television career including some top British cult series like The Avengers, Department S, Jason King, UFO, Space: 1999, and can currently be seen as Rodney Blackstock in Emmerdale.

the devil rides out

Tanith, an attractive young girl also in Mocata’s thrall, and who becomes Rex’s love interest, is played by Niké Arrighi, another Brit cult TV stalwart who appeared in Man in a Suitcase (1968) and The Champions (1968). She’d played a gypsy in “Many Happy Returns”, a classic episode of The Prisoner, and would do so again in Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971).

After rescuing Simon and Tanith, De Richleau and Rex seek refuge with the rather posh Mr and Mrs Eaton (Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson) who live in a grand, and conveniently isolated, house with their young daughter Peggy (Rosalyn Landor, aged 10). Things come to a head when Mocata visits the house with an ultimatum.

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After failing to hypnotically control Mrs Eaton, Mocata parts with the ominous line “I’m leaving. I shall not be back… but something will.” And so, the stage is set for the memorable climatic sequence where the Eatons, Rex, and De Richleau must stay within an impressive circle of magical protection to endure a night of hallucinatory psychic attacks and all manner of dark visitations…

It is the special effects for these visitations, supervised by Michael Stainer-Hutchins, that have attracted much criticism, even from Christopher Lee himself. But they’re still among the scenes that come to mind whenever I hear the phrase ‘classic Hammer’, and certainly influenced a generation of horror writers and heavy metal bands!

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The music for The Devil Rides Out grabs the viewer even as the occult symbols and demonic sigils are still burning behind the opening credits—a standout score from Hammer’s regular in-house composer, James Bernard, and his contribution to the distinctive feel of Hammer cannot be overstated. The luscious colour pallette and cinematography are in the hands of veteran director of photography Arthur Grant, who worked on just about any classic Hammer film that comes to mind.

The pacing is very well handled by Terrence Fisher, one of Hammer’s most revered directors. He had steered the studios into the age of colour with the seminal Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which heralded the distinctive Gothic style that would define Hammer through the ’60s and into the early-1970s. Here he’s working with a fine script by Richard Matheson, a novelist in his own right and a pretty safe bet for horror and fantasy screen adaptations. Since his first screenplay for The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) he had penned episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and a handful of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for Roger Corman. He went on to write an original screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and adapted his own novel for The Legend of Hell House (1973)—one of my favourite haunted house films.

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Part of the appeal of The Devil Rides Out is the period setting. Production designer Bernard Robinson kept it faithful to the mid-1930s milieu of the novel, with Hammer’s wardrobe supervisor, Rosemary Burrows, providing appropriately elegant suits and gowns. As it happens, Burrows was married to Eddie Powell, the regular stunt double for Christopher Lee, who also makes an appearance here, behind the mask as ‘the Goat of Mendes’.

The film also found an unexpected audience among classic car enthusiasts who enjoyed the spectacular display of vintage models parked outside Mocata’s mansion. They must have been in their element when Rex jumps into a red 1928 Lancia Lambda (famous for being owned by designer-architect Wells Coates) in hot pursuit of Tanith as she attempts to flee in a 1929 Invicta 3 Litre! And they probably still swoon with true horror as he wraps it around a tree when blinded by a mist conjured by Mocata’s magic. (They can find consolation in knowing that very same car has been reported still running in Italy, long after the film was made.)

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Dennis Wheatley wrote 56 novels, most of them bonafide bestsellers, though only half-a-dozen have been adapted for the big screen. Forbidden Territory (1934) was the first, based on his debut novel that introduced the recurring hero Duc de Richleau, followed by The Secret of Stamboul (1936), an adaptation of his spy-thriller The Eunuch of Stamboul. Both these films were made within a year of the books being published and must have been a great confidence boost for the young writer, but alas the Great Depression and World War II interrupted all that…

It was another 30 years before his Lost World novel, Uncharted Seas, was made into The Lost Continent (1968) by Hammer Films, shot back-to-back with The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley became the darling of Hammer as they continued to buy the rights to his other works, with a view to further screen adaptations, including plans for a TV anthology series. Wheatley had certainly written enough material by then!

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With Hammer’s Satanic follow-up To the Devil a Daughter (1976), the honeymoon was over. Not only was the studio in dire financial decline, Wheatley hated their version! He slammed it as perverse and obscene and withdrew the rights to his other works, including The Satanist (which was in the planning stages with Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland attached) and The Haunting of Toby Jugg was also shelved indefinitely during pre-production.

As it turns out, this was all irrelevant, as Hammer Films were to close down in 1979. The company limped on with a couple of TV series, Hammer House of Horror (1980), a co-production with ITC, and finally Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984) for 20th Century Fox Television, but then they remained dormant until their 2007 revival.

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The excellent Hammer House of Horror series included a loose, though harder-hitting, re-make of The Devil Rides Out in its episode “The Guardian of the Abyss”, directed by Don Sharp and starring Rosalyn Landor, then aged 22, in effect playing the Tanith role. The episode’s opening audio is lifted wholesale as the intro for Akercocke’s ground-breaking 2003 Brit Black Metal album Choronzon.

The occult elements, or as Rex would have it, “hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo, black-magic,” are based on Aleister Crowley’s writings on the ritual practices of the Golden Dawn, a genuine Occult Order. Wheatley and Crowley knew each other and even dined together. Mocata is clearly based on Crowley’s public persona as ‘The Great Beast 666’ and Duc de Richleau, perhaps, on his more scholarly, real personality—although by all accounts Crowley didn’t take himself nearly so seriously!

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Another contender for the inspiration behind Duc de Richleau might be Evan Frederic Morgan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, another occultist who Crowley knew and referred to as “Adept of Adepts”. Morgan had already provided inspiration for the characters of Ivor Lombard in Aldous Huxley’s 1921 novel Crome Yellow, and for Eddie Monteith in Ronald Firbank’s 1923 novel The Flower Beneath the Foot. Interestingly, Crowley, Morgan and Wheatley all worked for the British Secret services, in one form or another, during WWII.

Charles Grey plays an intense Mocata, possibly representing a foreign threat. Well, that would be one way to read it, given Wheatley’s militaristic background and views. But the hero, Duc de Richleau, also sounds rather Euro. Of course, here they are both portrayed as typical members of the English aristocracy, with country piles and collections of class cars. The novel did have a balance of nationalities on both sides, but often in Wheatley’s fiction the villains are portrayed as ‘the other’—either foreign or having an outward impediment.

Wheatley’s politics were unashamedly conservative and colonialist. He was clearly an elitist imperialist who openly decried the dissolution of the Empire. Speaking of post-war Britain granting its former colonies self-rule, he likened it to locking children in the kindergarten with loaded guns. So, when we see Mocata’s little cult made up of various nationalities (there’s definitely a representative of India and Africa there) he’s not necessarily showing us an example of how we can all get along and work together. The intended message was more likely that left to their own devices, free from the influence of Britannia and its hereditary ruling elite, these fledgling nations will be easily led astray by evil influences and could then pose a threat to world order.

Here’s a little sample of just one of his tirades from his well-researched and highly opinionated key work, The Devil and All His Works:

In every city in Europe and the United States malcontents create riots in which they smash the windows of embassies, ruin sports grounds, set fire to buildings and commit outrages which no proper government would tolerate. Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?

I know! There’s very a simple answer to that one!

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It’s not its quaint visual effects, but rather Wheatley’s underlying retrograde opinions that would be a bigger stumbling block to the enjoyment of The Devil Rides Out, especially as we see echoes of those same views becoming louder once more in our contemporary politics. Luckily, though, I don’t feel that Hammer transcribed his outdated bigotry into their adaptation beyond reflecting a more general 1930s worldview, and there’s no doubt he could spin a rollicking good yarn.

Wheatley saw the increasing interest in witchcraft and magic as a symptom of decadence and at least partly responsible for the moral laxity he thought to be afflicting western civilisation. He really intended his occult-themed fiction to be cautionary. When the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, he was an advocate of reintroducing criminal prosecution for unlicensed psychical experimentation and the practicing of black magic. Little did he know that he was stoking the widespread fascination with those Dark Arts and contributing to their revival.

If you went to a party in the 1970s, chances were an Ouija board would come out at some point, and it seems everyone knew of someone in the neighbourhood who frequented Satanic orgies or at least did some skyclad rituals in their back garden! Ironically, also in 1968 four Birmingham boys got together to form one of the first heavy metal bands, they loved horror films and called themselves Black Sabbath…

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Cast & Crew

director: Terrence Fisher.
writer: Richard Matheson (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley).
starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Niké Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Sarah Lawson & Paul Eddington.