The Devil Rides Out, 1968.
Directed by Terence Fisher.
Starring Christopher Lee, Leon Greene, Charles Gray, Patrick Mower and Nike Arrighi.
After rescuing his deceased friend’s son from a bloody Satanic ritual, the debonair Duc de Richleau is pursued by a cult who will stop at nothing to destroy the Duc and his friends, even summoning the Angel of Death itself.
It doesn’t get much more Hammer than this. Magic, mystics and servants of Satan abound in this most adventurous of the studio’s efforts, all led pointy-beard-first by horror icon Christopher ‘Lock Up Your Daughters’ Lee, in a rare heroic role, no less.
Adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s original novel by Richard Matheson (the man who wrote I Am Legend, no less), and directed by the man behind genre classics The Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, the horror credentials of The Devil Rides Out are unquestionable.
An impressive pedigree is one thing. Actually delivering a gripping tale is another. Ease up on with the makeshift crucifixes though, there’ll be no banishings today. Fisher takes this opportunity to prove yet again why Hammer kept coming back to him to direct their finest material.
And so to the particulars. It’s probably the 1920s, going by the length of the girls’ dresses and the classic roadsters we’ve got chasing each other all over the place. The Duc de Richleau (Lee) and his old army chum Rex (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) are variously infuriated and confused to find their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) dabbling in Satanism. He’s fallen under the sway of Mr Mocata (Charles Gray), an Aleister Crowley-type cult leader intent on baptising young Mr Aron into the Church of Satan.
Also recommended for eternal service to the devil is Tanith Carlisle (Niké Arrighi), a spirited, fey young thing who looks as if she’s not quite alone in her head. At first, she and the rest of Mocata’s circle come off as pretentious astronomical bores who actually take star signs seriously. Once we get into kidnapping and sacrificing goats to bathe in their blood, you start to take them a little more seriously.
Richleau is already way beyond concerned. He’s clearly some kind of white witch, more than a little versed in all things magick with a k and deeply troubled about the kind of power Mr Mocata has at his fingertips, as he reveals to Rex: “The power of darkness is real. It is a living force which can be tapped at any given hour of the night.”
To be fair on Leon Greene, any man put next to Christopher Lee is going look a little unimpressive, but really, his heroic posturing and dashing off to save Niké Arrighi all the time comes off as a little bit overcompensating. It doesn’t really matter; you’ll find your attention is squarely fixed on Richleau and Mocata, the two central performances of The Devil Rides Out.
Christopher Lee we already know to be the greatest screen Dracula. Seeing him playing a hero is quite something else. Naturally, his kind of hero is curt, eccentric and fiercely intellectual; a man with a hidden past you can’t sum up in flashbacks. His Duc de Richleau is every bit as compelling and dynamic as his Count Dracula, asserting that formidable presence wherever he happens to stride on screen.
It’s only fitting then, that his opponent is every bit his equal. Mr Mocata is the best kind of villain, all the scarier for considering himself justified and chosen for glory. His power reaches anywhere his victims try to flee, gazing out of mirrors or ceilings to hypnotise and to destroy. It was about time Charles Gray got a role like this, where he can convince us utterly that Mr Mocata is a man of unrelenting power and indomitable will. He’s used to getting what he wants, and when he doesn’t, there’s no telling what he’ll do. “I shall not be back,” he hisses on being forced to retreat. “But something will.”
It’s all about the eyes in The Devil Rides Out. Wherever you look there are tense, firmly held close-ups on piercing gazes; on eyes glimmering with unearthly light. Here they are truly the windows into the soul. Mocata stops all resistance in its tracks with one fixed glare, bending even the strongest of wills to his. Niké Arrighi’s entire performance pivots on those dazzling green eyes of hers, telling us who occupies her mind as she drifts in and out of Mocata’s sway.
Chalk circles on the dining room floor and fastidious rituals of protection bode ill for the night still to come for our heroes, standing back to back, hands clasped. The realisation of Mocata’s trick and illusions are, admittedly, inconsistent in their effectiveness. However, with echoed voices, breezes, monsters and mockeries of loved ones quick to follow, we’re not left disbelieving for long.
Richleau fights his friends’ skepticism as much as Mocata’s conjurings, earning their trust and their faith degree by painful degree until they’re forced to alter time and space themselves to protect the ones they love. It’s a fairly un-subtle Christian message of faith we’re left with, but against imaginary foes like Satan, why not? The Devil Rides Out promises danger and romance and witchcraft; it delivers with every single frame of film it can muster. Don’t get your knickers in a twist about whether it’s high art or not. This is Hammer Horror; the last word in gory, lusty, bloodthirsty entertainment. And you know what? The world would be that much safer and duller without it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.