His names are legion. His name is Legion. But maybe you know him as Scratch, or Ol’ Gooseberry. The Devil himself, if you will. He’s one of the most compelling literary figures of all time, despite, I imagine, the original intentions of the writers of the Old Testament. Poet John Milton turned the Devil into a brash anti-hero in Paradise Lost, and for many intellectuals who see religious fundamentalism as stifling to the pursuit of knowledge, he’s remained in his cool cat corner with lots of stories being written about him. Something about Lucifer lends to storytelling. It’s his unpredictability, perhaps. You never know if you’re getting the wretched evil Devil or the suave rebellious one. Or the witty one or the comedy one. With Jesus, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: Jesus. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Jesus — Christian or not, you can admire some crazy dude from Nazareth who took on both the Romans and the religious establishment, told people not to submit to a corrupt priesthood, and then said you shouldn’t always be bashing each others’ heads in. But where do you go from there? That’s why the only people who ever tried to write the further adventures of Christ were the Mormons.
Satan, however, is a wide-open playing field with a mythology and character that has outgrown its Christian origins. With Satan, we’re free to fill in his back-story and make up adventures for him. With Jesus, you can only tell the story of Jesus. But with Satan — well for Old Nick you can pretty much make up any damn thing you want. You can even have him fight Santa Claus and Merlin. Certainly there is a legion of films about Satan, and some of them are even good. And he gets into all sorts of hijinks in all sorts of guises, be he Mephisto or George Burns.
In the 1970s, movies about Satan usually involved boring people in robes stomping about in a circle and droning, “Hail Satan” in a listless monotonous style. But in the 1960s movies about The Devil usually featured Satanists who were part of high society, global elites who had reached the limits of human knowledge and were now seeking to expand their intelligence into more arcane and sometimes diabolical spheres. Not being a Christian myself, but always keen on learning more about arcane and esoteric tidbits, I’ve often entertained fantasies about becoming a member of one of these well-heeled groups of Satanic intellectuals. Unfortunately, my position as a Plebe means I’m forever doomed to keep running into Slayer fans or groups of people who all wear those goofy Anton LaVey devil horns. Still, a fella can dream, and one day I’ll make a movie about a young blue-collar gentleman’s struggle to climb the Satanic social ladder.
Although it seems like The Exorcist and, to a lesser degree, The Omen are about the only Satanism movies anyone can remember, the best for my money is Hammer’s superb The Devil Rides Out, which frankly sounds like the title to a spaghetti western. Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out populates that time in Hammer’s history when they were just beginning to lose their footing. Revolutions in filmmaking and changes in what was permitted to be shown on screen seemed to have passed the studio by, and their once cutting edge Gothic horror shows now seemed anachronistic and even quaint. By the late 1960s, the studio was floundering, and by the 1970s it had all but collapsed. But from this late era, a good many gems, indeed a few of Hammer’s very best productions, were made. The Devil Rides Out is among them, a classic not just of late-era Hammer but of all Hammer; and not just of Hammer horror, but horror in general.
In a rare twist of fate, king of the studio Christopher Lee gets to be a good guy, though he’s something of an ambiguously “good” good guy. He stars as the Duc de Richleau, an upper class British gentleman who is meeting up with two old friends for their annual reunion. When one of them, the young Simon (Patrick Mower, later to appear in AIP’s Vincent Price vehicle, Cry of the Banshee and as, for some reason, an Irish cowboy on an episode of Space: 1999), fails to show up, de Richleau and Rex (Leon Greene, who starred as Little John in Hammer’s A Challenge for Robin Hood) pay him a visit at his stately country manor. There they find Simon is having a dinner party with his new astronomy club, though de Richleau is instantly suspicious of the gathering when he learns there are thirteen members. Queer behavior from Simon and a quick examination of his observatory reveal the truth: this is a Satanic gathering, and Simon is to be the newest member. That’s what you get for leaving your sacrificial chicken lying around in the open.
de Richleau spirits Simon away. It’s difficult to say whether or not he rescues or kidnaps the young man, since we’re unsure whether or not Simon was dabbling in the black arts of his own free will or because he was under the spell of local occult bigwig Mocata (Charles Gray, probably most recognizable as the narrator from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Eventually, the film leans toward “under the spell,” but the whole thing seems very fuzzy, which allows the viewer to interpret the movie either as a straightforward “good versus evil” tale or a more subversive look at the subjugation of free will and intellectual curiosity at the hands of the ruling elite.
The latter reading may sound a tad over the top, another one of those “reading meaning into the meaningless” things in which critics so often indulge, except that Hammer’s previous record of anti-authority, anti-elitist themes (most notable in the Frankenstein movies) make it harder to dismiss, and so we can spend the entire movie wondering if de Richleau’s denial of Simon’s free will is any better than Mocata’s taking advantage of the young lad. Complicating this even further is the fact that, though they are ostensibly supposed to be evil, most of the Satanists seem rather polite and friendly and only interested in the pursuit of knowledge deemed “forbidden” by some guy in a funny hat down in Rome. Well, later, one of the Satanists will be revealed as possessing horrible driving manners, but that’s about the extent of their evilness.
Mocata is annoyed that Rex and de Richleau have rescued his would-be apprentice — and taken the new girl with them, to boot. He’s determined to use spooky eyes and the forces of evil to reclaim his prize, complete his coven, and summon Big Sugardaddy Lucifer for the Sabbath.
There’s plenty in The Devil Rides Out that could come across as outlandish were in not for the fact that the cast is so committed to the film — one of the great hallmarks of Hammer productions. Richard Matheson’s script, based on a novel by occult-thriller writer Dennis Wheatley, strives to maintain a high degree of accuracy in its presentation of occult rituals, and Christopher Lee, who was a close personal friend of Wheatley’s, did research on the subject of Satanism and the occult and oversaw the entire project to make sure everything was presented as realistically as possible. The result is that even when bloody-eyed specters in loincloths are appearing, everything seems believable. The Devil Rides Out frequently tosses around arcane terminology, much of it taken from the writings of Aleister Crowley or other more ancient texts (the Goat of Mendes and the goat-headed image of Satan was derived by Christianity from an Egyptian cult that worshipped a Bacchus-like goat god) without bothering to explain what they mean. You’re either expected to already know, be smart enough to figure it out, or be smart enough to go to the library and look it up.
The film’ biggest asset is the cast. Allowed to be a hero for a change, Christopher Lee shines as the complex de Richleau. He is doubtless the good guy, but there remains something sinister about his charisma. For a man who isn’t a Satanist, he sure does know a lot about the rituals and doesn’t hesitate to use black magic to fight black magic. Lee brings a stern but warm authority to the figure. Even though the film doesn’t depict him as infallible, he’s the kind of guy you would want watching your back if Satanists were in hot pursuit.
On the flip side is Charles Gray, whose Mocata embodies the best of everything about being a villain. He’s polite and polished but also possessed of a wicked streak. His best scene comes when he visits de Richleau’s friends in an attempt to regain control over Simon and the woman Tanith (Nike Arrighi). He is the picture of a perfect English gentleman, but his act slowly transforms as he gives a rational and, frankly, convincing explanation of the goals of following the Left Hand Path, then uses his powers to try and control his host. When his attempts are interrupted, he has the film’s best line when he simply says calmly and with composure, “I shall not be back…but something will.”
Both Gray and Lee are completely convincing in their roles. Lee, in particular, though known for Dracula, was born to play de Richleau. There was talk of continuing with a de Richleau series as he appears in several other Wheatley novels, but unfortunately nothing ever materialized, and Christopher Lee was soon back to playing Dracula in a series of films that finally sputtered and died with Satanic Rites of Dracula not too much before Hammer itself closed up shop in the latter half of the 1970s.
The supporting cast performs with workmanlike competency, as they always do in a Hammer film. Nike Arrighi was unique in that she was not one of Hammer’s typical big-bosomed blond damsels in distress. She doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Hammer girl at all, though that wasn’t for lack of the studio trying. But director Terence Fisher, who was Hammer’s best director and responsible for the films that put them on the map, was apparently adamant that the role of Tanith be played by Arrighi. It was a wise position. Leon Greene is equally superb as the baffled friend who finds himself spending a couple nights of his life fighting Satan. His voice, it seems, was dubbed in and is actually that of Patrick Allen, who was also in Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, among others. Whatever the reason, they make a good team.
Fisher’s direction is as stylish yet unobtrusive as fans had come to expect of the man who brought Hammer’s visions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy to the screen. Although there isn’t a lot of action in the film, the pace is relentless, fueled by a growing sense of dread as the forces of evil close in on our heroes, until they are literally standing back to back in a magic circle surrounded by a whole array of creepiness. James Bernard’s grand score only adds more dread to the creeping sense of terror.
It is here, unfortunately, that the film’s main — and really, only — weakness shows itself. Hammer was never a studio that relied on special effects. At their most complex, they were usually dangling a fake bat from a wire. One Million Years B.C. and Moon Zero Two were the first big special effects films for Hammer. One Million Years B.C. had the services of Ray Harryhausen to carry it (not to mention Raquel Welch in a little fur bikini). Moon Zero Two was Hammer on their own, and it showed why the studio should have continued to shy away from complicated special effects shots. The finale of The Devil Rides Out begins with an assault on de Richleau and friends first by a giant tarantula, and then by the Angel of Death himself. The tarantula in particular is a failure of special effects that lets the film down. The tension built by the plot is grand, and it gets the carpet pulled from under its feet by the sorry spider effect. The Angel of Death is more successful but shot in a way that also weakens its impact, especially the part where looped film has Death’s horse doing a little dance.
The rest of the movie is powerful enough to disregard these ill-advised attempts at special effects, but one can’t help but wish they’d either been better executed or simply left out entirely. The red-eyed giant in a loincloth was far creepier and menacing than any of these later concoctions, and that was nothing but a big guy with a thyroid problem standing there with an evil grin. Similarly, the scene in which Mocata succeeds at summoning the Devil is effective because the effect is low-key. Satan — the Goat of Mendes — simply appears on a rock in the background, and the make-up effects are either quite good or never shown long enough for the flaws to be evident. It would have been nice, in this scene, if the British censors had allowed the wild debauched orgy of the Satanists to contain something more daring than fully-clothed actors sort of just jumping around and rubbing each other’s faces. But it was enough that they were allowing Hammer to make a movie about Satanism, which had previously been a taboo subject not allowed by the BBFC. So we can forgive the fact that their occultists were not allowed to romp around in the nude.
One would hope that a string of strong films like The Devil Rides Out and Frankenstein Must be Destroyed would signal that Hammer had found its footing again and would remain viable in the 1970s. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Hammer’s final horror film was also based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, but 1976′s To the Devil…A Daughter was a far cry from the sophisticated, brilliantly executed occult thrills and chills delivered by The Devil Rides Out. And though the future may have remained unsteady, Hammer should take pride in the fact that they crafted what is, in my opinion, the very best of all the Satanism movies and a very good, intelligent and sincere horror-thriller. Word on the street is that Christopher Lee is still interested in doing a sequel/remake and has been shopping the idea around. Whether or not his Sauruman powers can convince some studio executive to make a horror film that isn’t aimed at dolts remains to be seen. Fighting off Satan is one thing, but as they say, “against stupidity, the Gods themselves contest in vain.”