The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: October 29th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
British horror is almost inexorably tied to the occult: nobody ever did this particular strain of horror better than the Brits, and few of the country’s forays into devilry have endured quite like The Devil Rides Out. Arguably Hammer’s best non-franchise affair, this adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel is a quintessential dalliance with the dark forces lurking on this planet. Paradoxically, it’s also one of the most forceful rejoinders against these dark forces in its almost evangelical insistence that Christ’s legion will forever combat those forces. Even more surprising? Christopher Lee—Hammer’s usual go-to for villainy—is the one leading the charge against the occult for once. Welcome to the weird, wild world of The Devil Rides Out, a film almost unlike any other in Hammer’s canon.
I say “almost” because the typically lavish production design and the presence of several familiar faces are distinctly Hammer. Otherwise, however, this one is a strange affair with a loose, shaggy structure that’s quick to jump into the action but then equally as quick to luxuriate away from it. We begin almost in medias res, with Duc de Richleau (Lee) and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) staging an intervention of sorts, as they’ve intruded into a secret society in search of mutual acquaintance Simon (Patrick Mower). An expert in all things occult, de Richleau surmises that they’ve stumbled right into the den of a demonic cult that has lured Simon into its clutches. A quick inspection of the grounds—which uncovers pentagrams and sacrificial chickens—confirms his suspicions and touches off a conflict with the cult’s leader, the enigmatic Mocata (Charles Gray).
What follows is a sprawling bit of pulp, as the narrative unravels at a strange, jagged pace, introducing new characters (like Nike Arrighi’s Tanith, who is also under Mocata’s spell) along the way. Most films of this sort might play coy about its sinister forces lurking in the margins, but not this one. The Devil Rides Out is eager to give up its ghost(s) at nearly every turn, whether it’s in the form of the demonic spirit that attempts to hypnotize de Richleau and Van Ryan or the actual devil that appears during a ritual in the middle of the movie. The film is eager to embrace the diabolical imagination of Wheatley’s text, and Hammer infuses it with their signature sense of flair. The Devil Rides Out feels like a blockbuster horror movie before such a thing came back in vogue during the 70s, when Hollywood studios truly began to invest in the genre again. (Coincidentally fellow occult film Rosemary’s Baby served the same purpose across the pond, putting both sides of the Atlantic on the path towards Satanic Panic for the next decade and beyond).
Simply put, The Devil Rides Out feels like a big movie. It’s spectacular in its sense of grandeur, and Hammer’s bold, extravagant approach. For a studio that was notoriously stringent with its budgets, you’d never guess it here, as Hammer legend Terence Fisher helms his most impressive production for the studio in terms of sheer scope, scale, and special effects. The script traverses several impressive locations, with each proving to be more sinister than the last for the most part: the implied horrors lurking within the cult’s manor eventually spill over into a hedonistic Baptism ritual presided over by the goat-horned devil himself. Even de Richleau’s safe haven comes under siege by Mocata and his fiends when the cult summons an angel of death astride a winged horse to claim a wayward soul. A climactic confrontation with Mocata features another ritual that’s somehow even more sinister than anything that’s come before. In between, there’s a car chase, a giant spider, and exorcisms via headlights and a flying cross, resulting in a delectable cocktail of action-packed devilry.
Adding to the uncanny effect is Lee in the hero role as de Richleau, an almost preternaturally confident Christian soldier. It’s a different side of the Hammer star that audiences rarely saw in the studio’s productions (or beyond) that heightens the uncanny effect of The Devil Rides Out. Despite de Richleau’s noble intentions, there’s still something slightly unnerving about him. You can sense the menace Lee brought to so many performances still lurking at the edges, shadowing de Richleau ever so slightly so that his conviction sometimes feels like mania. Every time I watch The Devil Rides Out, I’m further convinced that this must have been the role that inspired John Carpenter to try and cast Lee in the role of Dr. Loomis. De Richleau is slightly deranged in his singular quest to root out evil and destroy it, and he’s matched by an unnervingly cool and collected Mocata. Gray’s turn is mostly marked by a suavity isn’t completely disarming; something about Mocata just gives off bad vibes. While this silver-haired Satanist looks as if he could just as easily be an accountant, that’s what makes him so sinister: Hammer (and Brit occult horror at large) often explored the notion of evil lurking in plain sight, and Gray deftly captures that in his performance as Mocata.
What endures, however, isn’t the wickedness that drives The Devil Rides Out. Rather, Lee’s utter conviction in the role of de Richleau eventually defines the film. Darkness threatens to snuff out the light at nearly every turn, only to be constantly thwarted by de Richleau’s faith. It’s interesting that he doesn’t even take on an active role during the climax; rather, he’s reduced to the role of a bystander, paralyzed by fear at the sight of Mocata’s latest monstrous act. Only the divine power of God himself can intervene and unleash a fiery vengeance in his smiting of the cult for a spectacular—and spectacularly reassuring—resolution that sprawls into an unusual coda to affix a nice, tidy bow onto the proceedings.
Despite its title, The Devil Rides Out is a blazingly optimistic film, one that supposes that faith will be duly rewarded by divine justice. For all its bizarre, Satanic imagery (its vision of The Dark One is especially unnerving), the film endures as an unrepentant testimony for the power of the cross. It’s almost hard to believe Hammer took half a decade to finally produce it because they assumed the Satanic material would inspire censorship. In hindsight, its release in ’68 feels like a pivotal moment for the studio, whose glory days were slowly drawing to a close as the 70s approached, at least from a box office standpoint. In many ways, The Devil Rides Out feels like one its last gasps in this respect, and a closing of a decade-long loop for good measure. After effectively pioneering the Hammer horror style with Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Fisher helmed this, arguably the last great film of the studio’s epoch. He’d only go on to direct a pair of Frankenstein sequels for the studio, which soon found itself losing favor with audiences seeking more contemporary thrills.
Somewhat ironically, The Devil Rides Out put Hammer at the forefront of the looming Satanic panic that would inspire multiple hits throughout the next decade; unfortunately, however, they would spend most of the 70s simply retreading familiar ground before adapting Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter. At that point, it was too little, too late, though, as Hammer was all but done by ’76, less than a decade following the release of The Devil Rides Out. What looked to be a bold new direction for the studio now endures as one of its final stands, if not something of a missed opportunity to reinvent itself going forward.
Scream Factory’s access to Hammer’s titles in recent years made a Blu-ray upgrade for The Devil Rides Out inevitable. As one of the studio’s most beloved titles, it was only a matter of time before Scream gave it the deluxe treatment. Their release doesn’t disappoint: once again, they’ve given viewers the option to watch the film in its original 1.66:1 to aspect ratio or a reformatted 1.85:1 ratio, with both options boasting sparkling transfers and uncompressed DTS audio tracks. If there’s one studio whose work has always begged for an HD upgrade, it’s certainly Hammer, what with its lavish, vibrant productions that need the uptick and resolution and color reproduction to truly shine on home video. Simply put, The Devil Rides Out has never looked better than it has here, particularly its more extravagant and fantastical special effects scenes.
Scream’s assortment of extras doesn’t disappoint either. The disc carries over the old commentary with Lee and actress Sarah Lawson, plus a new commentary featuring historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, plus screenwriter Richard Matheson. A couple of newly produced interviews with historians Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby provide some historical context for the film and more. “Satanic Shocks” finds the typically erudite Newman recounting not only the film’s production and reception but also the larger context surrounding it, such as Wheatley’s storied career and the resurgence of occult interests in Britain at the time. As always, Newman name-drops dozens of films, books, and historical figures to give a complete picture of The Devil Rides Out.
Rigby offers much of the same in “Folk Horror Goes Haywire,” which focuses a bit more on this particular genre while offering up some further insight into Wheatley’s career, particularly the books that Hammer adapted. “Dennis Wheatley at Hammer,” an entirely different 13-minute segment offers even more in this regard, though it largely focuses on The Lost Continent and To the Devil a Daughter. Finally, “Black Magic: The Making of The Devil Rides Out” is ported over from Studio Canal’s older UK release from 2012. It features an assortment of cast, crew, and historians, who recount the film’s production, release, and reception. Matheson offers some insight into why this material is so alluring to audiences, while the children of effects supervisor Michael Staiver-Hutchins explain their father’s attachment to Wheatley’s sordid tale. This is a bit of a patchwork retrospective that tries to account for a little bit of everything without delving too deeply into any one corner of the film.
Between the various interviews on the disc, there’s a lot of crossover information, with certain anecdotes and facts being repeated (such as Lee's relationship with Wheatley himself). However, all told, it does make for quite a thorough dive into The Devil Rides Out and Hammer itself. In addition to the usual collection of trailers and production stills, the disc also features the World of Hammer episode simply dubbed “Hammer,” which provides a 25-minute look at the studio’s various successes during its glory days. Thankfully, those glory days live on thanks in part to releases like this one. Of all the Hammer releases from Scream Factory so far, this one is among the best that I’ve personally had the pleasure of encountering. They aren’t done, either, as several more Hammer releases are in the pipeline, including Demons of the Mind, The Mummy’s Shroud, and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde. Here’s hoping they also manage to unearth The Shadow of the Cat, which has yet to see any kind of release on home video here in the States.
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