1968, Great Britain
Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Gwen Frangcon Davies, Sarah Lawson, Paul Eddington, Rosalyn Landor
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 Bible. Poet John Milton turned the Devil into a brash anti-hero in Paradise Lost. 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 comedic Devil or the evil Devil or the suave playboy Devil.
With Jesus, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: Jesus. There’s not a whole lot of variation in his presentation. 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 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 sits at the top among them.
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, 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. You will quickly pick up that, in both the film and the books upon which it was based, the Duc excels at nothing so much as observing any normal situation and instantly ascribing some complicated esoteric threat to it. 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, Simon, 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. Though I doubt that was ever the intention of Hammer or the film’s primary booster, Christopher Lee, who wanted to make a genuine warning about the threats of black magic (or at least the belief in black magic). Whatever the case, Mocata is annoyed that Rex and de Richleau have rescued his would-be apprentice and taken the coven’s new girl with them to boot. He’s determined to use spooky eyes, soothing voices, and the forces of evil to reclaim his prize, complete his coven, and summonLucifer for the big Sabbath picnic and orgy. What are you offering in contrast, de Richleau? An evening of lectures and pipe smoking in the study?
Reading the film as subversive 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. OK, later one of the Satanists will be revealed as possessing horrible driving manners, but that’s about the extent of their evilness.
Richard Matheson’s script, based on a novel by thriller writer Dennis Wheatley, strives to maintain a high degree of accuracy in its presentation of occult rituals. 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. Of course, “did research” could mean anything, but given that it’s an old aristocrat like Lee, it’s safe to assume that at least one dusty tome of profane knowledge was involved. 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.
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. As is often the case with Hammer horror, the cast is the film’s biggest asset. 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. Though known for Dracula, he 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.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.”
The supporting cast performs with workmanlike competency. 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.
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. It is here unfortunately, in this magic circle, that the film’s one 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 only big special effects films for Hammer, and One Million Years B.C. had the services of Ray Harryhausen to carry it (not to mention Raquel Welch in a little fur bikini). 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. The devil seems a pretty casual sort of bloke. 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 strong films like The Devil Rides Out 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, sincere horror-thriller.