THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968 United Kingdom)

MovieQuiz_960-Au revoir Christopher Lee, may he rest in peace. He entertained so many around the world for nearly sixty years. This physically towering, handsome man had accomplished so much where do you begin for a tribute? Perhaps here. The man himself stated that this picture was his favourite Hammer Horror of them all.

Directed by the prolific Terence Fisher, the man who gave Hammer that glossy look, Mr Lee delivers a truly brilliant performance as the Duke De Richlieau. Playing a cultured gentleman of wisdom and authority, he absolutely commands the screen, putting his baritone voice to good use. After a decade of Dracula type-casting he had persuaded Hammer Studios to film Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 best-selling novel. Something I find interesting is that both Dennis Wheatley and Christopher Lee looked upon this story as a righteous warning against the dangers of meddling with dark forces.

One thing that you won’t find these days are the words ‘Jesus Christ’ spoken approvingly, or a film where God himself intervenes on behalf of the heroes! So what about the villain? Charles Gray is excellent as silky, sinister Mocata, the Satanists leader. He is an absolute snake of a man. In fact he nearly walks away with the acting honours in this film due to his aristocratic voice and steely blue-eyed twinkle. The segment where he shows up to warn the protagonists and wreak a little havoc at the same time is just great. Despite phony–looking special effects, watching Gray’s late night supernatural attack is still more harrowing than most of today’s horror output, which suffers from giving the viewer nothing for their imagination.

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The climax is a classic in how to present the spiritual dimension within a horror setting. Lee and company are in a chalk circle to protect themselves from the evils sent by Mocata. The nasty satanist tries every trick in the book, projecting sinister illusions like the daughter of the household being threatened by a  tarantula, as well as unleashing an Angel of Death on horseback (it is a large room). Meanwhile, outside, Rex (Leon Greene) has a potential female victim (Tanith) tied up for her own good, she later becomes a medium when the previously “threatened” little girl is kidnapped – to take the place of the medium on the sacrificial altar.

A film set in the 1920s that sides with rich, uptight British aristocrats against wild, sexy multicultural Satanists must have seemed  reactionary in the 1960s, though it’s easier to take today. Nike Arrighi (Tanith) must have been one of the few Hammer film heroines cast for her acting ability rather than how well she looked in a push-up bra (probably another reason why the film failed at the box office, but again, makes it much less dated now.) But Christopher Lee makes a delightfully virile action hero, in the Peter Cushing role for once, and the art direction is brilliant, managing to evoke an aura of the occult without resorting to black-and-red Gothic clichés.

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It is the performances, situations and the dialogue that engage us. Mr Lee seems to be enjoying himself while his old friend Rex, played by Leon Greene (but voiced by Patrick Allen) is a real stoic type, given to punching out windshields when necessary, climbing into car trunks, and throwing a crucifix from a running board to eliminate the spectre of the devil himself. Patrick Mower (Simon), Paul Eddington (Richard) and Sarah Lawson (Marie) are all first rate in their roles too. Hammer films were characterized by relatively low budgets, compensated by taut direction and expert characterization, plus a winning combination of tight studio sets and English country exteriors.

The Devil Rides Out utilizes this stagebound scenario to chilling effect: Simon’s cold gray observatory turns malevolent purely by adding scratching noises from a cupboard. The budget only lets the film down in its two major setpieces; both the final sacrificial ceremony at Mocata’s mansion and the Grand Sabbat, supposedly a grand ritual orgy for Simon and Tanith’s intended baptism, veer toward poorly-staged pantomime. When Mocata invokes Satan (`The Goat of Mendes – the Devil himself!’) at the Sabbat, the sight of a rather wretched figure with pin-on horns and raccoon eyes tends to blunt the scene’s horrific implications. This picture failed at the box office but it was the artistic climax of director Terence Fisher’s career. And it was Christopher Lee’s most pleasing performance.

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