Screenplay: Richard Matheson
A Hammer highpoint, from its vivid opening credits ‘The Devil Rides Out’ hits the ground running and careens along with the pacing of a tense thriller. Richard Matheson – always a reliable voice – streamlines and improves on Dennis Wheatley’s original tale of the diabolical (he even sent Matheson a thank you note).
Christopher Lee as Duc de Richleau presides over all, such a mammoth presence that they have to send him off for research just to let the other characters do their thing. Lee’s air of superiority and arrogance remain, as with any of his villainous roles, but here every “You fool!” is offset with a little doubt and vulnerability too. There’s the aura of a repressed warmth. It’s there from the first scene where he smiles to himself when watching his friend fly in, or the simple fact that he does all this to save his friend. Whereas Peter Cushing’s earnestness is casually convincing and brings gravitas and credibility to the absurdities, Lee seems like he would slap it into you. He is hellbent that you take this seriously, even as some of the dialogue, out of context, could be unintentionally funny; even when a shocking reveal is chickens in a basket, or trying to stave off the apparition of a black man, and even when the effects are less than stellar. For every telling delivery of a line about how his friend should take any of his cars, there’s Lee barking when answering the phone.
To counterpoint, Charles Gray is great casting as Mocata, Richleau’s flipside who oozes privilege and arrogance and carves his place as Lee’s superior effortlessly, as sinister as Lee is brash.
The classism and patriarchy are deeply ingrained in everything. Every man speaks to the women with a certain condescension. The accent of the English gentry is good for that. This is about two men of a certain age and class playing out their games of Good and Evil on the younger generation (Youth: don’t meddle with adult things you can’t hope to understand). But it’s the innocence of childhood that thwarts the forces of darkness, however much the adults flounder about. However, Sarah Lawson does get a central celebrated scene, dealing with a visit from Mocata, and Nike Arrighi as Tanith has all the mystery as a seeming conduit for Morcata. It’s decidedly old-fashioned and as Patrick Mower says (in the Studio Canal release’s extras) they felt it was so at the time, but he now sees it as aging well. It’s become a cult classic.
It has several memorable set pieces: the rescue from the Black Mass; the car chase in antique vehicles; Mocata’s hypnotism attack on Marie Eaton in a plush lounge;, and, of course, a night spent in a protective circle enduring a supernatural assault. And of course, the reputation of ‘The Devil Rides Out’ is that the effects let it down, but the strength of the story and execution makes the imagination compensation for what’s lacking. For my money, The Goat of Mendes hits the mark: simple but eerie.
And it has an ending that kind of ignores all the bad that’s gone on so that things can be idyllic again, which certainly seems in keeping with religious denialism. It’s a bit of an anti-climax: Richleau really doesn’t do anything, and the devil worshippers just wait for the recital that’ll bring about their demise to finish. But it’s true that the Hammer Horror feel, which Terence Fisher established from the start with ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, is that the excellent production and art design by Bernard Robinson, James Bernard bombastic score, some old-fashioned Englishness and the pure insistence of moodiness overcomes any obvious weaknesses. (I like the observatory.) With a swift pace and consistently dispensing with memorable set pieces, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ is great occult entertainment.