09 October 2009

The Devil Rides Out—The Hammer Film

The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Niké Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Sarah Lawson, Paul Eddington.

Well, if I reviewed the novel The Devil Rides Out, I certainly have to deal with the famous Hammer movie version, don’t I?

Performer Christopher Lee was the prime mover behind Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out. The actor, one of Hammer’s principle stars, was a fan of Wheatley’s novel and knew the author personally. Lee had urged studio heads James Carreras and Anthony Hinds to tackle the material since 1963. The studio balked at the thought of a horror movie based on Satanism and black magic, fearing “ecclesiastical wrath”—until the end of the decade, when it finally seemed an interesting new path for the studio to take. Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher, was brought on, and Lee was cast as the heroic Duc de Richleau. U.S. author Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone and I Am Legend fame) wrote the screenplay to replace an earlier draft that was deemed “too British.”

The Devil Rides Out wasn’t an enormous success, either in Great Britain or the U.S. (where it was first theatrically released as The Devil’s Bride; Wheatley didn’t have as much selling power on this side of the pond), but it’s now considered one of the finest movies to come from the legendary Hammer House of Horrors. It’s also one of Christopher Lee’s personal favorites, and he has often talked about how much he would like to appear in a remake using modern special effects and playing De Richleau closer to his age from the book.

The Devil Rides Out appeared in theaters before an onslaught of Satanic-themed horror movies in the 1970s, such as The Exorcist and The Omen. Compared to them, the Hammer movie seems a touch tame and quaint with its 1930s setting and fully clothed “orgies.” But The Devil Rides Out retains the power to impress with its suspense scenes, fine acting, and usual robust direction from Fisher. I don’t think it’s the best film from Hammer or Fisher, as some other Hammer fans claim, but it’s definitely a very good one, and some of its sequences are masterful.

The screenplay adheres closely to Wheatley’s story of the Duc de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn (Simon Greene) trying to save their friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) from the clutches of a sect of wealthy and powerful Satan-worshippers under the leadership of dark priest Mocata (Charles Gray). Matheson’s script strips some of the more outrageous trappings of the book, such as the idea that Mocata will try to start a world war using Simon and the Talisman of Set, eliminates the cross-continental chase finale, and also trims away plenty of Wheatley’s Satanic exposition, although the movie does take pains to create realistic ceremonies to increase the drama. The script makes a tighter tale that requires fewer explanations to the audience. The finale, although it still defaults to Wheatley’s “clean slate” wrap-up, is far tenser and action-filled than the novel’s rushed dash to Greece.

Director Fisher orchestrates some superb scenes: Mocata hypnotizing Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson) while commanding Tanith (Niké Arrighi) to strangle Rex; De Richleau and Rex smashing an auto through a Satanic celebration to seize Simon and destroy a devil manifestation; a strange car pursuit where Mocata summons magic to slow down Rex’s car; and the astonishing stand-off in the Eatons’ house against a black magic barrage. This last scene may very well be the best thing that Fisher ever directed. A giant spider replaces the slug-thing from the book—certainly a budget issue—but the entrance of the Angel of Death upon horseback is a jaw-dropping moment, done through an optical effect that leaps off the screen. The use of editing, reversing the film, and tight shots disguises the horse-with-wings-glued-on reality of the Angel of Death and makes it extremely frightening.

As the Duc de Richleau, Christopher Lee gets to play one of his rare hero roles, and he uses the sinister charisma that made him famous for villains to create a stunning characterization. Lee is commanding and powerful, and even though far younger than the De Richleau of the novel, he acts with a wisdom that makes him seem far senior to Rex, Simon, and the Eatons who join him in his quest.

Unfortunately, and this is the film’s only casting faux pas, Lee’s opponent is a lightweight: the genteel Charles Gray as Mocata. Gray doesn’t have the Aleister Crowley sinister weight to pull the part off convincingly. Herbert Lom or Oliver Reed, both of whom had starred in Hammer movies during the decade, would have done astonishing work in the role. Producer Anthony Nelson-Keys originally wanted Gert Frobe, a.k.a. Auric Goldfinger, for the part, and he would also have been wonderful. Gray would prove a featherweight James Bond villain a few years later as “Blofeld the Fop” in Diamonds Are Forever.

Niké Arrighi, a model, was a perfect choice to play Tanith, with her exotic beauty and intense stare. Patrick Allen (the husband of Sarah Lawson) dubbed Australian Simon Greene as Rex, which changes the character from the American of the book.

The score, from Hammer’s regular composer James Bernard, is a riveting work. Bernard uses the syllables of the title to compose a powerful rising theme over the main credits, and uses its as the leitmotif over moments of Satanic power. The score serves an important storytelling function, making the influence of Mocata’s black magic felt when it would otherwise not be clear. Bernard did some fantastic scores for Hammer, but I think this is his greatest.

Dennis Wheatley, according to Christopher Lee, was thrilled with the final results on the screen. He wouldn’t feel the same way about Hammer’s second adaptation of one of his novels, 1976’s To the Devil—A Daughter and declined any more involvement with the studio. However, this is a minor issue, since Hammer stopped making horror films after To the Devil—A Daughter, and Wheatley died in 1977.

Should The Devil Rides Out be remade, as Lee urges? I’m not one to turn down a chance to see Christopher Lee do a horror film, but I don’t think the more simplistic moral world of Wheatley’s would work well today, unless the story undergoes a major rehaul—and then it really wouldn’t be The Devil Rides Out, would it?

The DVD, a double-set with Rasputin, the Mad Monk, includes a commentary with Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson. It’s one of the best commentaries I’ve ever heard, mainly because Lee is a gusher of knowledge and enthusiasm, showing himself quite as prepared to battle the occult as De Richleau himself.

Here is the credit sequence with James Bernard’s frightening main theme played over a montage of witchcraft symbols. If this doesn’t get you primed for terror…