Sunday, 21 October 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

88. “Don’t look at the eyes, Rex!”



21/10/2018



There is something that feels a bit “adult Famous Five” about “The Devil Rides Out,” seeing as its main characters are a group that have been friends for years. It turns out the novel, published in 1934, is the second in a series of eleven novels by the novelist Dennis Wheatley to feature the Duc de Richleau, played here by Christopher Lee, and his friends, although not all of them deal with supernatural themes – the last one, “Gateway to Hell,” definitely did, because it was released in 1970, two years after Hammer Film Productions released their film of “The Devil Rides Out.” Furthermore, Dennis Wheatley’s writing led him to become an authority on Satanism, despite having complete disdain for it, and he became a member of the Ghost Club, an organisation set up in London, in 1862, to investigate and research the paranormal.


“The Devil Rides Out” begins with one of the friends acting strangely, having fallen in with a cult and its charismatic leader. The others must use black magic to fight the cult leader, who will face divine retribution for summoning the angel of death. It is a rollicking good adventure, almost a cautionary tale – film censorship issues over the occult were an obstruction to the film’s production for some time – and is told in a very adult and straightforward manner, with themes of brainwashing and even possible child murder, by one of the demons summoned, coming into the mix. No wonder the characters literally thank God when all is over.

Christopher Lee is having the time of his like as the Duc de Richleau, one of his favourite roles, possibly because he was playing the hero, and not the monster, although I am not clear on why he knows so much magic himself. Instead, and especially interesting for a Hammer horror film, evil has a human face, through Charles Gray as Mocata, leading a ritual on Salisbury Plain, then infiltrating a family home – “I shall not be back... but something will.”


Hammer films have a very particular look, and for one set in the 1920s, the gothic trademark of Hammer is still all over the production, with the addition of a goat-headed devil and a giant tarantula. Apart from Christopher Lee, there are many actors in this Hammer film that we will see later: Paul Eddington, playing the sceptic Richard Eaton, on whom the Duc de Richleau stakes their friendship in requesting Richard to stay within a chalk circle to bring a demon forward, would be later seen in TV sitcoms, as Jerry  in “The Good Life” and as Jim Hacker in “Yes, Minister”; Charles Gray, pre-Blofeld here, will also be found in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Shock Treatment”; and Patrick Mower, playing Simon Aron, the friend that gets pulled into the cult, is still on TV today in the soap opera “Emmerdale.”

“The Devil Rides Out” has a reputation as being one of the great Hammer horror films, and is a cult favourite, but the definitive book of the company, “The Hammer Vault,” said it flopped upon release? How could it? It had the stars, it had the horror, and it certainly had the writing – the script is by Richard Matheson, of “I Am Legend,” “Duel,” and a number of short stories and “Twilight Zone” episodes. However, what was a co-production with an American company, Seven Arts (owners of Warner Bros. at the time) did not translate to success in the US: they had their own occult hit film in the same year, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Christopher Lee’s big film in 1968 turned out to be, well, “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.”


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