A good friend of mine, not necessarily a horror “buff” but definitely a fan, once remarked in casual conversation that despite his love of Christopher Lee, he had yet to see him star in a film where he played ‘the good guy’. I immediately felt sorry for him, as it was apparent that he had not yet seen what I consider to be not only the greatest Hammer film, nor the greatest British Horror film, but simply the greatest horror film ever made – The Devil Rides Out.
Whether or not my friend has since rectified this glaring omission in his viewing I’m not sure, but speaking for myself I can count at least fifty viewings, quite possibly more, of this undoubted classic. It courses through, and helps to define, my everyday appreciation of the genre in the way only a true cornerstone can: it sums up everything good or worthwhile about horror in the way that John Coltrane’s Giant Steps does for modern jazz. In fact, it’s difficult to write an objective, unbiased review of such a film without merely gushing forth a series of clichéd superlatives, so much so that I almost shrank from the task and passed it onto someone else. On the other hand, without its existence (along with that of From Beyond The Grave, Dead Of Night and Pete Walker’s entire output) I probably wouldn’t be here today doing this for a living, so maybe it’s only fitting that in the end I should find myself writing about it.
Most people reading this will probably be familiar with at least some aspect of the film, or at least aware of its origins as one of Dennis Wheatley’s many fine occult-based novels. Actually, only a fraction of his work is concerned with the occult, the larger percentage consisting mainly of suspense, adventure and romance stories – yet his knowledge, especially for a man who (“allegedly and supposedly”) never took part in any magic rituals of either a black or white nature, was vast, and invested all of his writings on the subject with an authenticity that many – including Terence Fisher and Christopher Lee themselves admired. What Devil has in common with more of his published work is not its subject matter but its characters – Simon Aaron, Richard Eaton, Rex Van Ryn and, at the helm, the superbly masterful Duc Nicolas De Richleau – and it is this role, portrayed superbly and authoritatively here by Lee (forget Lord Summerisle, this is his masterstroke) which is both the heart and the hub of the film and carries it forth with precision, gravitas and most importantly style. And a superb moustache.
It is also to Lee’s credit that whilst Richard Matheson’s script makes several subtle ‘amendments’ to Wheatley’s original tale, his portrayal of the Duc is never far removed from how his creator would have imagined him Of course, knowing what a stickler for adherence to the text he is, it’s possible that his appearance in the film depended on it. Indeed, he has already informed us well enough of the chagrin he expressed when informed by an American distributor that they may have to change the title as the original “sounded too much like a Western”. Conversely, Patrick Mower, in the part of the vulnerable Simon, avoids playing him as a Jew (whether this was on purpose or not is not known) yet at the same time manages to convey the youthful fallibility and naivety that was always intrinsic to the character. In many of Wheatley’s original novels- such as The Forbidden Territory, still sadly unfilmed, the plot revolved around the Duc, Rex and Richard having to ‘rescue’ their young protégé from some unfortunate circumstance he had fallen into as a result of his own irresponsibility, and here is no exception – only this time the danger is greater, as he has fallen under the spell of the manipulative and thoroughly evil Satanist Mocata (Charles Gray) and joined what he refers to as ‘an astrological society’. Of course, the Duc knows better, and within five minutes of being in Simon’s new house and finding that he and Rex are unwelcome because “there shouldn’t be more than thirteen” he’s onto the game and isn’t going to easily stand by and see his friend follow the Left Hand Path.
The scene that ensues, most famously involving the discovery of a wardrobe full of hens and cockerels, is as iconic as any in the history of Brit horror, not least of all for the line “You fool!! I’d rather see you DEAD than meddling with black magic!!” followed by a swift Chris-biff to Mower’s upper jaw (but trust him, viewers, he’s only doing it for Simon’s own good) The Duc and Rex “kidnap” their errant friend, drive him back to London, hypnotise him (well, the Duc does, Rex just sits there nonplussed at the whole situation) and send him to bed, where, in the first of a series of set-pieces that have yet to be bettered in ANY film since (and are possibly only previously matched by Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon and Bava’s Black Sabbath) he is almost asphyxiated by a crucifix placed around his neck for protection. Following his subsequent escape he is swiftly pursued back to his house by his friends, who stave off a grinning African demon that just might not pass political correctness muster in the present day, but has nonetheless terrified the living daylights out of everyone who has ever seen it.
It’s a testament to the director’s sheer skill, not to mention the superb cinematography of Arthur Grant (possibly Hammer’s greatest cameraman, and the man who would later apply a similarly purple hue to the underrated Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb) that, forty years on at the time of writing, every overtly scare-based scene in this film still carries as much resonance as it did then. Even the obviously superimposed car chase between Rex and his love interest Tanith (also fleeing Mocata’s clutches) and the quite badly magnified giant spider that terrorises the young Peggy Eaton (future Guardian Of The Abyss and Cat’s Eyes starlet Rosalyn Landor in her earliest role) are imposingly effective, and even when the special effects do show their obvious budgetary and technical limitations, it seems perfectly acceptable and almost adds to the surreal beauty of the picture. Elsewhere the moonlit scenes of devil worship (alright, hands up here, everyone aged between 30 and 40 who sat in their living rooms and replied back to Gray’s cries of “Echo Babylon!” “Echo Osiris!” with shouts of “Echo and the Bunnymen!!” Just me? Oh. OK) are among the greatest ever filmed under the Hammer banner, actually seeming quite credible and fighting shy of the clichés that would soon come to infest/invest every film on the subject. Not to mention, of course, the epoch- defining appearance at this point of a certain well-known farmyard animal…..
But of course, no film, no matter how well-photographed, could stand the test of time if the acting performances were below par – which is where Devil really shines, as Fisher seems to coax sterling efforts from all involved. Lee, as we have already mentioned, is at the top of his game here, dispensing suave, swift, no-nonsense, erudite pearls of wisdom in a way one would normally associate with his best friend and regular colleague Peter Cushing, and relishing his chance to play the hero for once, yet never losing the dark, imposing majesty that he naturally brought to his more evil cinematic doings, but if anyone is in danger of stealing the show it’s Gray, subtly underplaying a part which seemed to have almost been designed for his steely Aryan gaze and impeccable sneering diction. He may have become more famous to subsequent generations of filmgoers as “that bloke what does the jump to the left bits in Rocky Horror”, but to a true horror lover he will always remain Mocata, the human personification of evil incarnate, who at several points in the film seems almost capable of outwitting the Duke – at least enough to temporarily worry the viewer out of his/her complacency. It’s a tragedy that with the exception of Rocky and his appearances in more minor-league Brit efforts such as The Beast Must Die (1974) and Richard Marquand’s decidedly patchy The Legacy (1978) his undoubted genre potential went largely unused, and that he never really had a script as good as this again for the remainder of his career, except on occasions when called upon to re-voice the dying Jack Hawkins.
Which neatly brings us to the one mystery surrounding the production – Leon Greene in the role of Rex Van Ryn. Ostensibly handsome (if a little short) and outwardly suitable for the part, this expatriate Aussie actor had already appeared in several high profile TV roles since arriving in the UK including episodes of The Saint and The Avengers, and was obviously considered good enough by whoever cast the movie. Yet, for some bizarre reason, producer Anthony Nelson Keys chose to overdub him with the instantly recognisable voice of Patrick Allen – thus creating the only sight chink in the film’s armour. Not that there is anything amiss in any way with Allen’s voice – one of the true greats of British film and television, his warm yet somewhat foreboding tones (most famous of course to generations of terrified Brits as the voice of the Protect And Survive public information film, and thus also the spoken intro of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s nuclear-war obsessed hit Two Tribes) actually suit the character of Rex perfectly and add a familiarity for the viewer which many romantic leads of the day lacked, yet one can’t help but wonder what was so wrong with Greene’s own voice that it required substitution. Maybe he was just too colonial to play such a quintessentially English gentleman? Of course, I haven’t seen the DVD commentary (if such a thing exists) so I may be missing some vital information here, but one can imagine hordes of genre fans sat round tables debating it- particularly as leading lady Nike Arrighi is allowed to portray Tanith (not French in the book, although there are references to her having been in Paris with the sinister Countess, here portrayed by the ever-effective Gwen Ffrancon Davies) with her real accent. It’s a puzzler, although Allen being married to Sarah Lawson, who portrays Marie Eaton here, may have had something to do with it…..
As far as leading ladies go, Arrighi is not by any stretch of the imagination the best looking or the most charismatic (my personal choice would have been Olga Georges-Picot, although she may have been too young) but somehow she just seems to work- her romantic scenes with Greene (which contain no nudity, only leaving one to ponder what the producers would have insisted on two years hence) are understated, tender without being mawkishly sentimental, and most of all believable- a tribute to the film’s subtle beauty. In fact, there’s not a single member of the supporting cast who doesn’t put in a stellar performance, but special mention must go to a pre-Good Life Paul Eddington, here cast in the role of the cynical, rational and therefore highly suggestible Richard, who spends large sections of time stuck inside a chalk circle, and abides and endures throughout some of the film’s most genuinely horror-filled moments, including that appearance from the Angel Of Death himself, who, as we all know, “once summoned cannot return empty handed”. That the character seems both terrified and sanguine at the same time is surely testament to the late great actor’s skills, but also to the sheer plausibility of Matheson’s script (and thus, Wheatley’s original material) OK, so there may have not been an actual giant spider or apocalyptic horseman present when the scenes were filmed- but try telling that to someone seeing the film for the first time. Actually, I’ve probably seen it over 50 times, and I still think it works, even in spite of its obvious imperfections.
Many films tend to lose their way as they race toward their concluding frames, getting caught in a blur of either terrible faux-heroic dialogue, jumbled action or hurried resolutions. Not so here, where the ending takes the constituent elements that have already been presented to the audience at various intervals and simply makes sense of them. As a callow youth I may have occasionally hinted at the sheer ostentatiousness and what I perceived at the time to be over-erudition of the dialogue in these final scenes, but as an experienced adult one can see that anything less would have been redundant and almost an anti-climax. For once, the general public, the author and I seem to be in agreement on this one – the film was highly acclaimed, a box-office success, and deservedly so. It also appears to have entered the lexicons of an entire generation born between 1965 and 1980 who grew up loving horror (and probably heavy metal: the two were synonymous for a long time) Not to the point where it becomes as quotable as say, Python or Withnail And I, but show me a horror buff of that age who didn’t at some point declaim “The Goat Of Mendes!! THE DEVIL HIMSELF!!” at full volume in front of their contemporaries, and I’ll show you either a liar or someone with no mates. The very fact that several seemingly unconnected bands have sampled dialogue from The Devil Rides Out onto their recordings is proof of its continued resonance.
There are very few genre pictures that can be described as practically perfect from start to finish, with which it is nigh on impossible to find fault. This film fits into that elite group. In terms of atmosphere, suspense, cinematography, dialogue, settings (OK, the roads around Elstree and Black Park again, but why change a winning formula, especially when it looks this good?) acting and horror, but also as a complete whole, it is near to unsurpassable – at least in British terms. Hell (and yes, it was inevitable that I would have to mention that word at some point given the subject matter), even James Bernard’s usually obtrusive score seems positively relaxed this time, to the point where I could almost bring myself to listen to it- possibly due to ‘supervision’ from Phillip Martell, but I would prefer to believe that for once it was just a matter of the gods being in conjunction.
Normally one would be tempted to conclude a review with some cleverly-referencing witticism or other, but I can’t bring myself to do it, and in all honesty I don’t think it befitting of the film in question. So, I shall conclude in the only appropriate way, with the final two lines of dialogue uttered, possibly the finest ever spoken at the ending of any horror film. Mr Mower and Mr Lee, the floor is yours.
“Thank God“. “Yes Simon. It is indeed Him whom we should thank.”