Hammer’s key Satanic Mass epic comes to Blu-ray in a terrific improved transfer. Christopher Lee’s pitched battle with Charles Gray’s necromancer Mocata has long been a favorite of fans of symbolist rituals with candles, magic circles, Christian icons, etc. We’re happy to report that after all the monstrous demons and human sacrifices, good prevails through the agency of an ordinary (well, filthy rich) housewife, who can sling a Latin incantation faster than you can say ‘The Goat of Mendes.’ This is yet another big-deal Hammer disc for 2019 — we also get a look at the earlier Blu-ray with its revised special effects.
The Devil Rides Out
1968 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 95 min. / The Devil’s Bride / Street Date October 29, 2019 / Available from Scream Factory / 27.99
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Sarah Lawson, Paul Eddington, Rosalyn Landor.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editors: James Needs, Spencer Reeve
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Makeup: Roy Ashton
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Richard Matheson from a novel by Dennis Wheatley
Produced by Anthony Nelson-Keys
Directed by Terence Fisher
Older movies about Devil worshippers, historically speaking, dodged the issue — ‘nice’ people weren’t even supposed to know about such things, and it certainly wasn’t fit subject matter for children. That’s why Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat stayed vague about its Satanic Mass, scrambling symbols and suggesting weirdness with odd designs. Other movies with made their Satanic cults almost irrelevant, like the ‘tea and crackers club’ of Devil Worshippers in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. More typically, Satanic qualities were ascribed to ‘weird’ non- Judeo-Christian faiths, like the adventure classic Gunga Din. Getting up close & technical with demonology 20th-century style meant approaching some truly unsavory content, such as the notorious charlatan Aleister Crowley. Pulp novelist Dennis Wheatley interviewed Crowley for information for his 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out.
One of the most respected of latter-day Hammer Films, The Devil Rides Out stacks up high on many Hammer a fan’s list of favorites. Fans love its big role for favorite Christopher Lee, whose leading character dominates the proceedings and (gasp) is unequivocally heroic. Lee is quoted as calling it his favorite Hammer role as well. The show may be the last major feature by the core production team that had gotten the Hammer horror parade going ten years before. Although the good times were finally beginning to wane, Hammer had enjoyed co-production deals with Columbia, Paramount, Universal-International, Warners and MGM — practically every Hollywood studio.
Author Dennis Wheatley wasn’t well known in America, so the show was re-titled The Devil’s Bride, with the reasoning that U.S. fans might think ‘Rides Out’ indicated a western. The original title has a nice arcane feel, although by now I might confuse it with the excellent civil war movie Ride with the Devil, or maybe the noir The Devil Thumbs a Ride.
Wheatley’s story, adapted and polished by American horror screenwriting ace Richard Matheson, is an old-fashioned struggle of some posh Brits to prevent a Satanist cult from inducting two nice clean-cut young folk into its coven. The French aristocrat The Duc de Richleau (Chris Lee in a dapper goatee) blows a righteous fuse upon learning that the slimy-but-intimidating cult leader Mocata (Charles Gray, future Bond Blofeld) is on the verge of blood-baptizing young Simon and Tanith (Patrick Mower & Nike Arrighi). The Duc must persuade his pals Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) and Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington) that Satanism and the Devil are real, dangerous forces that must be resisted. “I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic” shouts de Richleau, throwing down the paternal gauntlet. Since The Duc knows just how incredibly evil and dangerous are the forces that Mocata represents, what isn’t clear is why de Richleau isn’t already mobilizing Parliament to fight the Satanists in the open. The bleeding bounders certainly aren’t hiding their activities.
But that’s the nature of escapist pulp fantasies. Set in 1929, the bulk of the story is a series of encounters and stand-offs between the Good Guys and the Sinister Cult. Duc and his associates kidnap Simon to spoil Mocata’s plans. They also break into a mansion and invade an open-air midnight black mass not all that different from the Klan rally in O Brother, Where Art Thou? At one point Eaton’s wife Marie (Sarah Lawson, of the MIA TV version of The Trollenberg Terror) receives Mocata as a guest in her home, and successfully repels his hypnotic menace. The Duc’s knowledge and wisdom are put to the test when he, young Simon and the Eatons take refuge in a ‘magic circle’ to resist more demonic assaults from the underworld beyond.
One of the prime movie adventures with a Satanist theme, The Devil Rides Out didn’t have the impact that Hammer might have hoped. Its thunder was almost immediately superseded by Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby a literary adaptation that’s more subtle and psychologically powerful. But Wheatley’s tale works fine as a thriller from an older era; it’s certainly better than the Harry Alan Towers / Jess Franco updates of the Fu Manchucanon, set in the same period. Had Ealing or Gainsborough (where Terence Fisher took his training) made The Devil Rides Out in the 1940s, it might not have been all that different.
But the show IS rather schematic … de Richleau and his dapper pals skip from spotless country mansion to spotless country mansion like neighborhood boys stopping off at a friend’s house in the middle of their war games. They even drop in at the Eatons, saying basically,
‘How do, and it would be just capital if you stopped everything you’re doing and put you and your little daughter at risk from a pack of rampaging pagan perverts. You’re ever so kind to indulge us.’
Each 40-room country house we see is attended by only one servant, if that, instead of the extended retinue seen in pix like Downton Abbey. There’s quite a bit of dashing about in colorful vintage motorcars. They’re all in mint condition, like escapees from an auto museum. We realize that the movie is not trying for naturalism, but the tense theatrics play against a highly artificial background. The sketchy period reconstruction has none of the charm of, say, Judex, which makes impish fun of its breakneck auto chase, circa 1912: the cars only go about 15 mph, tops.
I’m assuming that most older English movies about devil-worshippers were as restricted as our Hollywood efforts under the Production Code. The Devil Rides Out reaches for an almost clinical authenticity, that has Chris Lee barking out technical explanations faster than Dr. Forrester deciphered never-before-seen alien weaponry: “Don’t look at the eyes!” … “It is the Goat of Mendes … the Devil Himself!” Lee gives the role heft and substance, never overplaying de Richleau nor upstaging his fellow players. It is a fine performance, especially after so many Hammer films where he gets high billing but plays secondary parts — or his good Dracula movies, where’s he’s often on screen for only a minute or two, with minimal dialogue.
The battle between mortals and The Devil is not the obscene free-for-all of The Exorcist but instead a codified duel run by the Marquis of De Sade’sQueensbury’s Rules. To me the downside of bringing so much iconography into play is that it tends to reduce Christian symbolism to just more superstitious folklore, complete with ‘open sesame’ magic words.
Lee’s aristocratic but fair-minded de Richleau dominates the show. Although he does take a break to check some facts at the library, The Duc is all too conveniently the right guy in the right place, with the right knowledge to resist those pesky devil worshippers. Charles Gray’s necromancer broadcasts menace with his intimidating hauteur and dead-eye stare, that exploits the actor’s striking blue eyes. Mocata has a nice racket going for him, but his organization is sorely lacking — he should have hired some security to prevent unwelcome Christian Soldiers from gate-crashing his fancy parties, the ones that have horror-royalty from Hell on his RSVP list.
No, Mocata might have thought to wait until de Richleau was off wine-tasting in France before planning his coven activities. I like to think that the enterprising, less theatrical Julian Karswell took over where Mocata left off, using demon ‘enforcers’ to run the coven more like a protection racket. Mocata oozes evil charm to spare, but he never seems as powerful or menacing as Karswell.
Nike Arrighi has an unforgettable name, we must admit. Her Tanith is attractive but little more than a conventional swooning female, who can be hypnotized into threatening Mocata’s enemies with a knife. The film’s assortment of younger males are clueless pushovers as well. On the other hand, Sarah Lawson’s Marie Eaton is worth the price of admission. Her reactions, screams and fortitude really play well, covering up questions like, ‘with her innocent daughter in the house, why would Marie ever get involved with de Richleau’s dangerous games?’ Mocata can’t slip his sneaky moves past the courageous Marie, even when he shows up at her house in person, like a door-to-door vacuum salesman. If only the real evils in the world could be defeated by an honest woman standing up and Speaking Truth to Power! (Actually, they’re doing okay on that score around here lately).
When Marie overcomes Mocata, it makes The Duc de Richleau seem more like a good shepherd and less of a bully — guiding his good friends and neighbors in a righteous defense of human values. I’m not sure how The Duc does it, but he even effects a ‘time reverse’ fix-all phenomenon for the finale. The only other hero to pull off that slick trick is Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Hey kids, not only did we defeat the Away Team, but all of our errors and injuries have been wiped from the scoreboard!
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out is a beautiful new 2K scan of the 20th-Fox version The Devil’s Bride, which is said to be identical save for the title card. Fans have already concurred that this encoding is sharper and more colorful than an earlier (2010 or 2012) Studio Canal Blu-ray. The blacks are rich and the focus crisp.
The show is blessed with a very good James Bernard music score, which generates the needed demonic tension without becoming too intrusive. A sequence with a demon (Baphomet?) appearing as a 12-foot African is scored with piercing strings, much like the cues in Bernard’s Quatermass movies.
That other older transfer, bearing the original title The Devil Rides Out is included as an extra. Its preparers took the controversial step of cleaning up and enhancing a number of optical effects that had serious technical flaws in the original — sloppy matte shots, mostly. The blue screen traveling mattes in the car scenes never looked good. Actually, one perfectly acceptable moving car interior uses a silent-movie painted scenery background, the kind that rolls by on a roller device, giving a Hanna-Barbera effect. It looks fine!
Revised images of a spider and a mounted ‘Angel of Death’ are much better-integrated into their backgrounds, erasing matte lines and adding extra detail like smoke and a beam of light. One close-up of a demon was not even finished, leaving it a skull-face in front of a blue field. The revisions can only do so much… shots of the spider don’t integrate well because the depth of focus is so shallow. They were filmed on a miniature set with no effort made to compensate. That, and the animated reverse printing of the horse’s hooves of The Angel of Death make the legs rock back and forth like they’re doing The Lambeth Walk. That effect isn’t going to look good no matter what’s done to it.
Other effects revisions are more subtle. Some are technical improvements, such as the terrible matte addition of a cupola to the roof of Simon’s house. Just the same, Hammer and Studio Canal have done right by not making the ‘fixes’ permanent. The original has been left as the official version, warts and all. The opening credits looked terribly familiar, until I thought of the big Hammer production just previous, Quatermass and the Pit: the odd reddish optical background looks similar to some of the effects inside the Martian spacecraft, and the cluster of circles resembles the Martian/Satanic symbols as well. Mocata’s gospel has been around for, I’d say, more or less five million years.
The older standard extras include a dreary ‘World of Hammer’ piece that should be retired, a trailer, and a still gallery. Christopher Lee is paired with Sarah Lawson (good for her!) for an older commentary. Also from a few years back might be a lively making-of mini-docu, and a second video piece about Dennis Wheatley. It’s nice to see Marcus Hearn involved in those.
The new extras keep up the positive energy. Experts Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr do the honors for a new, well researched and satisfying talk track. They’re both authoritative and genial; we never feel as if they’re making it up as they go. Richard Matheson’s son Richard Christian is on the track as well. Two new video pieces allow Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby to speak their mind on the film. To our surprise, Newman tells us that Dennis Wheatley’s supernatural books which were revived in the 1960s, aren’t very good. In his separate video piece, Rigby recites Richard Matheson dialogue that improves on Wheatley’s original. We are told that when writing The Devil Rides Out Wheatley reused the basic plot and characters of his first novel The Forbidden Territory, a story in which The Duc de Richleau’s mission was freeing captives of Communist Russia. The author’s work was adapted for two more Hammer efforts, the eccentric The Lost Continent and the (last official) Hammer theatrical release, 1975’s To The Devil… a Daughter. Most Hammer experts say that Christopher Lee’s interest in Wheatley’s books had a big part in this; before Hammer took over, he reportedly optioned To the Devil… a Daughter for his Charlemagne Productions.
With assistance from Gary Teetzel.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Devil Rides Out (The Devil’s Bride)
Supplements: Audio commentary with Steve Haberman & Constantine Nasr, with Richard Christian Matheson; audio commentary with Christopher Lee & Sarah Lawson; interview pieces with Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby; featurettes The Making Of The Devil Rides Out and Dennis Wheatley At Hammer; ‘World Of Hammer’ Episode, trailers, still gallery; alternate version with revised special effects.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson