The Devil Rides Out


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Considered a late masterpiece by critics and fans of Hammer studios (an opinion unlikely to be shared by casual horror fans), The Devil Rides Out, is a superior, if dated, period horror film, primarily notable for the rare exploration of the occult on film and for Christopher Lee in the lead role. Contrary to the title, The Devil Rides Out isnít a supernatural western, but instead replaces the vampires, werewolves, and mummies of the earlier Hammer films with Satan worshippers and the supernatural. Instead of pre-Victorian or Victorian England, The Devil Rides Out is set in 1920s England, less than a decade after the end of the First World War.

Based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley and adapted by genre veteran Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Legend of Hell House, What Dreams May Come, in addition to numerous Twilight Zone episodes), The Devil Rides Out was directed by longtime Hammer horror director Terence Fisher (The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles), whose unobtrusive, understated directorial style is perfectly suited for the material. With another, less talented director at the helm, The Devil Rides Outís tendency toward melodramatic excess would be far more evident. Another director would have placed a greater emphasize on shocks and scares (as well as linger on the more prurient aspects of the material), and place less emphasis on the materialís potential to create an overwhelming sense of dread and menace, which itself is based on creating sympathetic central characters, including the protagonist and almost as importantly, a villain to match the heroís expertise, ingenuity and desires.

The Devil Rides Out features Christopher Lee in the rare lead role as the hero-protagonist, Duc de Richelieu, an expert in the occult and the black arts. Lee, sporting a graying goatee, an expensively tailored three-piece suit, and cane, is typically charismatic (and memorable) as the Duc de Richelieu, a man of obviously independent means well-versed in the occult sciences. Only the villain, the malevolent Makota (Charles Gray, well-known to American audiences for his role as the Bond villain in Diamonds are Forever and the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is Leeís equal (the secondary characters and actors are, at best, functional). The Duc de Richelieu is first introduced to the audience waiting for his friend and confidante, Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), as Rex lands a biplane on a grass field. Rex is essentially a Doctor Watson to the Ducís Sherlock Holmes. He serves as both skeptic and audience stand-in. His skepticism and ignorance of the occult provides the audience with the perfect opportunity to learn expository material, including key details of the black arts, and background information about a third character, Simon Aron (Patrick Bower), the Ducís ward, whoís fallen under the influence of Makota. Matheson and Fisher spend little time explaining the Simonís backstory (or for that matter, the Ducís or Rexís), efficiently giving the audience key information as the Duc and Rex travel in a car from the airfield to Simonís mansion, the site of a secret meeting of Makotaís disciples. The Duc and Rexís inadvertent appearance is quickly discovered, but not before they discover the nature of the meeting and Makotaís desire to initiate Simon into his cult. At the meeting, Rex becomes enamored of Tanith (Nike Arrighi), another initiate.

The Duc and Rex return to the mansion after the meeting, only to encounter a devilish apparition (actually, a demon disguised as an African tribesman). The Duc and Rex decide to kidnap Simon (and later Tanith) in order to prevent their initiation. Makota, however, refuses to accept the new status quo, and uses his powers of hypnosis and nature to compel Simon and Tanith into appearing at the initiation, held inside a forest clearing. Here, as the Satan worshippers writhe and gyrate to the African drums, with Makota presiding over the sacrifice of a ram, the connection between Satanism and sexual freedom and licentiousness is clearest. For contemporary audiences, the Satan worshippers in the forest will appear relatively harmless, equivalent to todayís ravers (minus the electronic music and recreational drug use). The conflict between good and evil is defined as the conflict between Christian Puritanism (or Victorianism) and pagan licentiousness and sexual freedom. The Duc and Rex, of course, ride to the rescue, kidnapping Simon and Tanith before the initiation can be completed. The entire party flees to the country manor owned by Richard and Marie Eaton (Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson), relatives of the Duc.

The Devil Rides Out then shifts back into the conflict between the Duc de Richelieu and Makota, with the battle of wills culminating in the penultimate climax, ďdark night of the soulĒ (Makota sends a series of apparitions to attack the Ducís party at the manor, protected by magical circle). Makotaís apparitions are meant to tempt or scare one of the remaining four members of the group (Tanith and Rex, by this point in the narrative, have been separated from the other four characters) into breaking the protective circle. The effects in this sequence are, of course, highly dated, but even with that caveat in mind, highly effective in creating a sense of physical and spiritual danger. Fisher and Matheson could have, however, included several more temptations to seduce each character in turn. Instead, the sequence ends far too quickly, but not before the second (and final) climax, which occurs inside a cellar, as Makota attempts a different kind of sacrifice to his god.

Outside of the dated effects, the principal problem with The Devil Rides Out lies in its script, specifically a series of plot turns, all but one minor, that indicates an inadequate attention to plot mechanics (and, as a corollary, an audienceís suspension of disbelief). For example, after crashing his car into a tree, Rex, in pursuit of Tanith, awakens inside his car, walks a short distance, finds the coven leaving another country manor for the initiation ceremony, hitches a ride, witnesses part of the ceremony, casually walks another short distance, finds a public telephone booth, calls the Duc, waits for the Ducís arrival, all while the ceremony continues unabated. As this sequence of events indicates, this strains credibility. Worse, before the penultimate climax, Richard and Marie send their daughter off to bed with the Ducís approval, protected only by an elderly manservant. No one comments on the potential risk to the girl (she, of course, disappears). A minor modification here would have helped: why not have the girl initially hide inside the protective circle with her parents and then, as Makota's attacks reach a boil, inadvertently slip outside the circle (and thus prey to Makotaís machinations)?

Problems aside, The Devil Rides Out remains a fascinating, if flawed, late Hammer film; a film memorable primarily as a cultural artifact (i.e., the equivalence of sexual freedom and deviance with the dark arts, concepts denuded well before the advent of the [i]Harry Potter[/i] series) and for Christopher Leeís compelling portrayal of the Duc de Richelieu. Unfortunately, Lee was never given the opportunity to revisit the Duc de Richelieu on film.

© Mel Valentin, 13th December, 2004

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