Terence Fisher, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Patrick Mower, Niké Arrighi
The young, wealthy Simon Aron has become the protege of a strange, charismatic man named Mocata, the head of a circle obsessed with the occult. Simon’s oldest friends, the Duc Nicholas de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, are determined to rescue the young man, though he is in Mocata’s psychic sway. In order to save Simon, they must also rescue Tanith, a psychically sensitive young woman who is key to Mocata’s upcoming sabbath ritual, where she and Simon are supposed to receive their Satanic baptism. Though Nicholas and Rex are able to recognize Simon and Tanith from the ritual, the Devil appears and, thanks to Mocata’s instruction, is hot on their tails.
The Devil Rides Out is among Hammer’s trilogy of occult-themed films — which includes The Witches and To the Devil a Daughter — and is by far one of the best films of its kind to come out during this period. Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name, this is also one of Hammer’s first attempts to move out of Victorian England to something a bit closer to present day. Though set in the ‘20s, it has a far more modern, less stuffy feel than any of the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein films and practically races along through its running time with scenes of action, occult exposition, and some fantastic ritual sequences.
There is honestly a lot to recommend about this film. Acclaimed horror writer Richard Matheson penned the script and though he wrote everything from House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum to Burn, Witch, Burn, he didn’t write for Hammer very often. I wish they had collaborated together more often — Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) is another great example — as this is one of their standout scripts. The studio’s best director, Terence Fisher, returned to the helm one of his last times; after this he would only return for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1969) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1974).
Of course the best part of the movie is the interplay between its two stars: Christopher Lee, appearing in a rare heroic role as the Duc de Richleau, and Charles Gray as the diabolical Mocata. Lee, who is fantastic, as always, apparently convinced Hammer to pick up the film rights for the novel — which they waited to produce until just around the time Rosemary’s Baby struck terror into the hearts of moviegoers — and later claims that it was one of his favorite films. Gray’s Mocata — basically who I want to be when I grow up, sans the purple robe — is based on the Great Beast 666, Aleister Crowley, who Wheatley amazingly met a few times in the ‘20s. The silky, charismatic Mocata is one of the best villains of Satanic horror, avoiding any campiness and playing it straight with an edge of serious menace. In Wheatley’s novel, the character is more European than British, but here he the soul of mannered British aristocracy, dripping with politeness.
Lee and Gray are bolstered by some nice supporting performances from the likable Patrick Mower (Cry of the Banshee) and from Niké Arrighi (The Perfume of the Lady in Black) and Leon Greene (Flash Gordon, The Seven Percent Solution) as the doomed lovers who provide some real emotional depth to the film. And of course, anyone interested in Satanic cinema will love that the occult action is evident from the great opening credits onwards and basically never slows down. Matheson allegedly did research into some of Crowley’s own rituals for his script and delved pretty extensively into occult history. There are a variety of colorful Satanic rituals and one of the film’s best scenes involves a defensive ritual led by Christopher Lee, where the majority of the cast is stuck behind an elaborately drawn chalk circle.
It goes without saying that The Devil Rides Out comes with the highest recommendation and if you are on the fencing about delving into Hammer’s catalogue, this is a great place to start. Pick it up on region B Blu-ray — for those in the UK or with region-free players — or on region 1 DVD. I really wish Charles Gray had done more with Hammer, but he is damned enjoyable here and is one of the few actors other than Peter Cushing who is able to go toe to toe with Sir Christopher Lee.
Side note: This is one of a few films that uses the occult to provide an enforced happy ending, but for once I'm not upset about it at all.