68 – The Devil Rides Out:
“Do you believe in evil?”
“As an idea.”
Has there ever been anything more decidedly British than Hammer Horror? Well besides tea & biscuits, Carry On films, The Beatles and the Royal Shakespeare Company that is. Surprisingly enough, Hammer Horror is not totally everything you think of when you hear the term. It’s commonly associated with Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karlof as Frankenstein etc. While Hammer Horror was done in the style of those films, they were produced by Universal in America (who still distributed Hammer). Likewise, The Wicker Man isn’t actually a Hammer film – despite featuring studio regulars like Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. The actual Hammer films began as loving homages to Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man tales – but they eventually branched out into other fare. The films were standard, gothic haunted house rides that were usually cult hits with the public. Moving into the 1960s and 70s, they ended up duelling with American horrors that had better special effects and were really terrifying audiences. Their solution was to amp up the sex and nudity – meaning that there were a few lesbian vampire movies produced by the studio. The film on this list appears to take place before that period, given that it features a fully-clothed Satanic ritual. Nonetheless, it’s a film that’s still held in high regard today: The Devil Rides Out.
The film is apparently adapted from a book of the same name by British author Dennis Wheatley – who specialised in horror stories about black magic, demons, Satanism etc. Hammer only got to adapt two of his novels however. Their second attempt – To The Devil A Daughter – was so gory and sexual that they pulled the triple-whammy of offending the critics, the public and the author himself. So you can understand why he’d refuse to allow any more of his books to be put up for butchering. He did however love this one. But don’t ask me why it was retitled ‘The Devil’s Bride’ for the American release – unless the studio feared the yanks would mistake it for some kind of funky Satanic Western.
We open in the English countryside during the late 1920s, being greeted by our protagonist: Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau. He’s played by Hammer legend Christopher Lee, who carved out fame for himself playing Dracula across their various films – usually opposite Peter Cushing as the heroic Dr Van Helsing. The Hammer films were quite often Cushing vs Lee in some form for ninety minutes – so it’s even more surprising here that Lee is the heroic leading man. Cushing doesn’t show up for this one. But you can check out The Hound of the Baskervilles, where they’re both good guys – and also The Gorgon where Cushing is the villain and Lee the hero.
Nicholas welcomes a friend of his called Rex van Ryn. Played by Leon Greene (who’s dubbed for some reason). The two of them have acted as mentors and surrogate uncles to a young man named Simon Aaron. Although they have been close for their entire lives, Simon has recently been spending a lot of time on his own. Nicholas hasn’t seen him in months, and he even bought a big fancy house for himself. You’d think the Duke would be happy that Simon isn’t mooching off of him but that’s apparently suspicious.
Nicholas and Rex go over to Simon’s manor, where he’s having a social gathering of some sort. He claims he’s joined an astronomical society. But since he’s in a movie titled The Devil Rides Out, that probably isn’t the whole truth. Simon nonetheless welcomes his old friends and introduces them to two new friends – a man called Mocata and a girl called Tanith. One is our damsel in distress and the other is our villain. Try to guess.
Rex claims to have met Tanith before, but the movie never does elaborate where/when. She’s suspicious of them being there, since there apparently isn’t supposed to be more than thirteen in the inner circle. Sure enough, Simon has to politely ask them to leave. Nicholas talks his way into checking out the observatory first though. He’s rather taken aback by the floor decorations.
And there are apparently chickens being kept locked in the closet – further worrying Nicholas. Did the dude never consider that Simon might just be farming his own food? Nicholas really doesn’t want this kid to be self-sufficient does he? Well, this apparently means he’s been dabbling in black magic. Rex doesn’t know what this is all about, but Nicholas supposedly does. And it looks as if Simon isn’t entirely willing.
Nicholas knocks Simon out and he and Rex hurry from the house – that Mocata bloke giving them the death glare as they get away. Back at Nicholas’s house, he puts Simon under hypnotism and sends him to bed wearing a crucifix for protection. I have to say, it is strange to see Christopher Lee needing a mirror to hypnotise instead of those baby reds of his. Once Simon is gone, Nicholas tells Rex that the group they rescued him from were devil worshippers. They interrupted them right before they were going to perform a sacrifice. The butler then walks in with the news that Simon was nearly choked to death by the crucifix. And he’s left his room by the time they check on him.
They go back to his manor, which is now deserted. Nicholas sighs that they won’t be able to track any of the other members down, since they won’t be using their real names. Whenever one becomes a member of the circle, they’re re-baptised and choose a new name. The girl they met, for instance. Her first name Tanith comes from a goddess called Tanit in the Phoenician traditions. Rex remembers where he met her: at his hotel in London. This discussion is interrupted by the temperature dropping, smoke filling the room and a demon appearing out of nowhere.
Nicholas warns Rex not to make eye contact (Christopher Lee would know) and he and Rex bolt out of there, Rex now firmly on board with Agent Mulder rather than Scully. I definitely love that the movie doesn’t drag out Rex being a sceptic for too long. A lot of supernatural-themed stories can get bogged down by having a sceptic in the group. Nicholas theorises that Mocata must be the high priest of the group – and then he realises that tomorrow is April 30th. From then until May 1st is a sacred holiday in the occult tradition, known alternately as the Beltaine Festival or Walpurgis Night. The second-highest day on the Druidic witch’s calendar, and a sacred night for the Illuminati. It marks the end of the Spring Equinox and beginning of the Summer Solstice. Three guesses how they celebrate it.
Nicholas guesses that Mocata wouldn’t resist the chance to baptise Simon on such a date. But the only way to find them is to meet up with the girl, Tanith. Rex takes her out to lunch, planning to take her to meet with Nicholas’s niece Marie at their house – along with her husband Richard and their young daughter Peggy. During the car journey, Tanith reveals that she hasn’t been re-baptised yet either – and she’s just as afraid of Mocata as Simon. She has good reason; as soon as they arrive at the house, Mocata somehow hypnotises her into stealing the car and driving off.
Rex chases after her in Marie’s car, but Mocata uses his super-freaky Satanist powers to conjure up fog and make Rex crash. He tries to hitchhike but the first car he flags just keeps on driving. He recognises the woman in it from the gathering at Simon’s house, and follows the car. The woman quickly joins several people – Simon and Tanith among them – at a house with an elaborately-designed gate decoration.
Rex hides in the trunk of one of the cars as the circle journey off into the unknown. Once it’s all clear, he gets out to find himself in the woods. The circle are preparing for Simon and Tanith’s Satanic baptism. Now, if you’re savvy on Satanic rituals in horror films, you’d probably be expecting a lot of gratuitous shots of blood being poured on naked breasts and asses. But surprisingly enough, everyone at this orgy is wearing robes from neck to toe. Even the women. And neither Tanith nor Simon has to strip off. A little disappointing for those who wanted a bit of T&A, but refreshing nonetheless. The orgy does balance things out with a nasty goat sacrifice however.
Rex runs down to the nearest phone booth to call Nicholas – who arrives back from the British Museum with salt and mercury. Apparently the best weapons against the powers of darkness. Meanwhile, the dancing has now started at the orgy. Once again, everyone keeps their clothes on, and the whole thing is tamer than a Lady Gaga video. As far as Hammer pagan dances go, this one doesn’t quite compare to…
The Witches is actually a very decent movie, that bizarrely choreographed dance aside. Anyway, Mocata summons “the devil himself” according to Nicholas. Old Nick (hehe) takes the form of a creature with a goat’s head and legs, and a man’s rather well-chiselled torso. Nicholas and Rex get the bright idea (literally) to interrupt the baptism by driving the car headlong into the crowd – the light apparently weakening the devil. Rex throws the salt and mercury to make him disappear, and then grabs Simon and Tanith. They turn up on Marie and Richard’s doorstep by mid-morning, but they’re not safe yet.
Tanith wants to leave. Not because she wants to get her orgy on; she doesn’t want to put the household in danger. But Rex talks her down with some kisses on the cheek. He seems to have formed quite an attachment to this girl he’s known for all of two days and car journeys respectively. Downstairs, Nicholas gives the newcomers the 411 on what they ran from and what can be expected to come after them. Richard is another sceptic but Marie believes – and swears they’ll do whatever they can to help. They must not eat too much for the rest of the day – which I assume is to prevent Mocata from using his powers to cause uncomfortable bowel movements. They also have to keep close watch on Simon and Tanith while they sleep.
Nicholas has to leave briefly to meet with his version of Q and stock up on anti-Satan ammunition. Literally as soon as his car disappears around the corner, Mocata swaggers into the house. Marie quite politely tells him to eff off – and there is no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that he’ll be taking Simon and Tanith out of this house. Mocata pulls out the big guns, and unfortunately Nicholas forgot to warn Marie not to make eye contact with him.
With Marie now under his control, Mocata hypnotises Simon to start strangling Richard – and then Tanith to approach a sleeping Rex with a knife. But they’re saved by Marie’s young daughter Peggy forgetting to knock when she comes into the room. This breaks the contact and Marie regains her senses – ordering Mocata out of the house. Everyone else is fine, but Tanith is horrified at what she almost did, and runs out into the forest. Rex goes after her to calm her down. On an unrelated note, at this point Rex has removed his tie, and the continuity department must have fallen asleep.
Rex’s newfound shirt unbuttoning powers aside, Nicholas arrives back at the house and the rest have to prepare for what’s to come. Indeed, as soon as it starts to get dark, we see Tanith bound and gagged in a barn. She’s already writhing and screaming, while a terrified Rex looks on. He forgets not to lock eyes with her – and thus Mocata is able to act. The hypnotised Rex unties her bonds and lets her escape.
In the house, the group of Nicholas, Simon, Marie and Richard are inside a chalk circle in the drawing room. Richard is the most vulnerable as the Scully of the foursome – and he’s warned not to break the circle under any circumstance.
The night begins with the water tasting salty, the lights going out and a cold wind blowing through the room. Things escalate when they hear Rex’s voice from outside, begging to be let in. Then an apparition of a giant spider appears in the room. As this is the 1960s, it’s very obviously a normal spider zoomed in and green screened. But it’s still a friggin tarantula, so no, it doesn’t ruin the scene. Peggy suddenly walks into the room and it looks as if the spider is about to attack her. But Nicholas throws (holy?) water at them both – and they disappear. Simon now gets notions of leaving the circle but Richard just socks him. You could make a running gag out of the amount of times Simon gets knocked out in this film.
Nicholas confesses that he does actually know a way to fight back – a particular line from a ritual – but he doesn’t dare use it until their very souls are in danger. It looks like that time is right now, as Mocata has summoned the Angel of Death to take them. Nicholas warns them not to catch a glimpse of his face – which is quite handy for limiting special effects shots. The movie wisely keeps it to effective shots of the black horse, and Nicholas grudgingly says his line – ridding the room of the apparition. But elsewhere, we see Tanith in some kind of distress.
The next morning, the foursome in the house appears to be safe. But Rex walks up to them holding a limp Tanith. She was apparently taken by the Angel of Death – who must always return with a soul whenever he’s summoned. Things escalate even further when it’s discovered that Peggy is missing! Mocata must have kidnapped her. Simon takes off in the car ahead of them. Nicholas has a different plan though:
He uses Marie as a vessel to allow Tanith to talk to them. She doesn’t know where Mocata is, but she does know he has Peggy. She’s blocked from seeing into where he’s hiding the child – saying “the winged serpent guards the way”. She also takes this time to say she loves Rex. He suddenly remembers what she means by a winged serpent.
Sure enough, Simon arrives at the house to bargain. Mocata however puts him back under his control and says he now has everything. He’s going to sacrifice Peggy in order to get Tanith back. But it seems that Tanith has decided to help from beyond the grave – possessing Marie once again. She helps Peggy to say the words of the ritual – which causes the entire altar to go up in flames. Then…
Nicholas, Marie, Simon and Richard wake up back in the house. This is a tiny change from the book – where the events of the third act take place in their own minds, on the astral plane. In the film, they really happen and time just resets itself. I guess a 1960s audience would probably be more accepting of time resetting than battles within the mind. Peggy is safe and Tanith is alive again. Mocata is also gone, having been claimed by the Angel of Death. He can’t leave empty handed of course, and he was taken in exchange for Tanith. And thus they all live happily ever after…until Simon suffers from all those blows to the head later in life.
The Devil Rides Out appears to be one of the last films released by Hammer before a sudden change in management. After the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby, Hammer decided to try and compete by bringing in new writers and directors. Night of the Living Dead had set a new standard for gore in American films, and Hammer realised they couldn’t live up to that. So out came the boobs. The Karnstein Trilogy – a series of vampire films loosely based on the novel Carmilla – kept the studio afloat with naked breasts and lesbian scenes galore. But they lost their mainstay Christopher Lee in the early 70s – who refused to play Dracula anymore – and they eventually went into hibernation until the revival in the 2000s. After the various Dracula films, The Devil Rides Out seems to be a big favourite among Hammer buffs. I’m only a very recent fan of it – sampling it as part of a Hammer binge two Halloweens ago. But while I think many of the Hammer productions are best enjoyed as guilty pleasures, The Devil Rides Out is still a legitimately good movie. It never fails to impress me just how solidly everything is pulled off. The story is a good one, the cast all bring it, the sets are very interesting, it doesn’t waste a second of its running time, and even the dodgy special effects aren’t that dodgy. So it probably won’t surprise you that this is the sole representative of Hammer on my list. But just for those wondering – The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Witches, Countess Dracula, Brides of Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf are some of my other preferred Hammer productions.
Do you believe in grading as more than an idea?
*Story? Most stories dealing with Satanic cults usually consist of virgin sacrifices and naked orgies, so this clever and well-crafted plot is a breath of fresh air. It approaches its subject matter in a way that makes it feel realistic. Well, as realistic as a B-movie about a cult leader summoning the powers of darkness can be. A
*Characters? Unfortunately, the film’s main downfall is that the characters don’t have much to them. Nicholas, Rex and Simon have the bare bones of some interesting backstories, but they’re mostly along for the ride. There are little bits of character depth within the others, but nothing wow-worthy. Mocata is suitably creepy as a villain, but doesn’t really stand out. C+
*Performances? The characters may be a little on the flat side, but the performances are mostly good ones. Christopher Lee plays an unambiguous hero, and it’s great to see. Charles Gray I felt could have warranted more screen time with his fine take on Mocata. Sarah Lawson also gave Marie a bit more depth. Everyone else was fine. B+
*Visuals? Hammer is known for exquisite looking sets, and this is no exception. Simon’s observatory, Marie & Richard’s drawing room, and Mocata’s altar stand out. Each of the characters were given their own distinctive looks too. B+
*Special Effects? The spider is the only effect that looks like an effect, as well as the Angel of Death’s rather fake-looking skeleton face. Elsewhere, they keep the big effects to a minimum, which helps. B-
*Anything Else? N/A
We’re revisiting the Walt Disney studio again, with Pollyanna as our next film.