"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Devil Rides Out

Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out (a.k.a. The Devil's Bride as it was known in America) is a classic Hammer horror film. It contains many of the elements that made the British movie studio famous: Christopher Lee's top notch acting, Terence Fisher's excellent direction, and James Bernard's atmospheric score. In the hands of these talented artists, The Devil Rides Out proves that horror films can be intelligent and do not have to rely on gore and cheap shocks to be effective.

The Duc de Richleau a.k.a. Nicholas (Christopher Lee) and Rex (Leon Greene) are old friends that reunite every few years. During their most recent reunion, Simon (Patrick Mower), the third member of their group, is absent. Nicholas informs Rex that he hasn’t seen Simon for three months. They decide to go to Simon’s house, which he bought recently, and notice a curious-looking observatory built onto it. They walk in on an exclusive party that he’s hosting for a group of rich socialites. He tells Nicholas and Rex that it’s a meeting of an astronomical society that he’s recently joined. Simon tries to maintain an innocent enough façade but he is acting a little strange – his mannerisms seem forced and he is evasive. The look on Nicholas’ face reveals that something’s not quite right. Simon introduces his friends to some of his party guests: a cross-eyed countess and Mocata (Charles Gray), a suave socialite who is polite enough but quickly excuses himself.

When Rex makes an obvious social gaff – Nicholas’ annoyed reaction to his friend’s blunder is priceless – Nicholas rightly assumes that something is off about this "meeting of a little astronomical society" and decides to investigate further. He expertly mingles through the crowd and looks pretty suave lighting a cigarette off a candle (nice touch) as he checks out the various members of the society. The way Nicholas messes with Simon, admiring the décor in his observatory when he obviously knows its true purpose, is amusing. It becomes readily apparent that Simon is under the influence of Mocata, who, it turns out, is the leader of a Satanic cult. Nicholas then confronts Simon and tells him, “I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!” Nicholas tries to reason with Simon but when that doesn’t work out, he knocks him out with a punch and with Rex’s help they take their friend back to Nicholas’ house.

The driving force of the movie is Christopher Lee who is wisely cast against type as a thoughtful protagonist who relies on his wits and his extensive knowledge of the occult to battle the forces of evil. There are several moments in the film where Lee is shown thinking, which suggests that there is something going on behind his intense, captivating eyes. Nicholas is a smart and savvy protagonist determined to save his friend and take down the Satanic cult that has recruited him into their ranks. After playing so many villains during the course of his lengthy career, The Devil Rides Out remains one of my favorite films of his because he was so good as this endlessly fascinating character that fought for good instead of evil.

Leon Greene is the square sidekick to Lee's suave protagonist. Rex is something of an idiot. He leaves his car running with Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi) in it – a follower of Mocata who already tried to escape while the car was moving. His ineptitude balances out Nicholas’ skill, I suppose. Greene is clean-cut and wears a brown suit like some stuffy college professor, which is in sharp contrast to Lee's black suit, goatee and European cigarettes. Greene's character is the audience surrogate, our window into this strange world and he plays off Lee with a wonderful Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson dynamic.

The Devil Rides Out was originally a novel written by Dennis Wheatley in 1934. It used Satanism as a conduit to Communism and a hatred of foreigners. In September 1963, Michael Stainer-Hutchins and Peter Daw bought the film rights to a collection of Wheatley’s black magic thrillers, including The Devil Rides Out. Up to that point, the author’s agents had resisted attempts to adapt his books into films and so Stainer-Hutchins and Daw appealed to Wheatley directly. Actor Christopher Lee was a neighbor of the author and also wanted to see his novels turned into films. He asked Hammer studios to strike a deal with Stainer-Hutchins and Daw, which happened in November 1963. Lee knew Wheatley personally, told him of his desire to turn his books into films and got the writer’s blessing.

Initially, Hammer was worried that the subject of Satanism and black magic wouldn’t get past the censors or that the Church would object. However, the story showed the evils of Satanism and ended with good triumphing over evil so the filmmakers ran into no problems in terms of content. Tony Hinds commissioned a screenplay written by American John Hunter but it turned out to be “far too ‘English’” and it was rejected. In September 1964, Hinds asked Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson to take a crack at it and Hammer ended up using his script. His final draft was submitted in July 1967 and was very faithful to Wheatley’s novel, although, he did change Mocata from a foreigner to a suave, British socialite. This made the film all the more subversive as the evil comes from within.

Principal photography began on August 7, 1967 and wrapped on September 29 of the same year at Elstree Studios with a budget of 285,000 pounds. From the start, Lee only wanted to play Duc de Richleau but the studio was tempted to cast him as Mocata. The actor was so into the role and the film that he went to the British Museum to find an authentic black magic incantation to use for the Sussamma Ritual in the film. Director Terence Fisher wanted to cast Charles Gray as Mocata but Hammer’s first choice was Gert Forbe, the villain of Goldfinger (1964).

During principal photography, Tony Hinds was worried that the film wasn’t going to be very good. Composer James Bernard remembers Hinds telling him, “you have to do all you can because I’m not sure the film is working out as it should.” He was asked to come up with music that the Satanists would dance to but actually came up with the title them first. The Devil Rides Out had its premiere on July 7, 1968 and was given a general release in the United Kingdom on July 21. It was released in the United States in December of the same year.

The Devil Rides Out is an intelligent alternative to the overabundance of hack 'n' slash horror films. This film demonstrates that Christopher Lee didn't always play nasty bad guys bent on world (or universal) domination for the forces of evil. Unfortunately, it didn’t do well enough to generate a sequel, thus sinking the hopes that Lee would continue to play Nicholas – a character that appeared in ten more novels written by Wheatley and remains one of the great missed opportunities. Perhaps someone else could resurrect this character and tackle some of the other books in the series but I doubt whoever is cast as Nicholas would bring the same amount of gravitas and intelligence to the role as Lee did.

Note: the production information for this article was taken from the excellent book, Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years by Wayne Kinsey. It is a must-read for any Hammer studio fan.


  1. A great review for this classic Hammer film. I loved this exactly for the reasons you spell out, J.D. Christopher Lee playing against type was always a draw for me. I got to tee this one up again for the season. Thanks.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. It's great to see one of Hammer Horror's great films highlighted just in time for Halloween. I've always found this one to be undeniably unsettling. I do like seeing Christopher Lee in the good-guy role despite his famous appearances as Dracula.

  3. le0pard13:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, my friend. Lee is just so awesome in this film and it is performance that keeps me coming back to this one.


    This very well may be my fave Hammer film, right up there with CAPTAIN KRONOS. DEVIL RIDES OUT is an unsettling film, esp. the climactic finale when Mocata throws everthing at our heroes in a crazy standoff. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for stopping by!