Posts Tagged ‘The Devil Rides Out’

For some people, H.P. Lovecraft’s major contribution to the horror genre (other than a massive expansion of its vocabulary) would probably be the vast pantheon-come-menagerie of Things That Should Not Be, gnawing away at the edges of reality and threatening to unravel the edifice of logic sanity is built upon. Or something.

However, it’s always seemed to me that Lovecraft’s best stories express a struggle to assimilate the various revelations of astronomy, geology and biology towards the end of the 19th century (numerous stories revolve around a character making the horrific discovery that his ancestors were apes or fish and going insane as a result). Lovecraft’s universe is vast and cold and empty and the best words to describe his work are existential and fundamentally rational.

Post-Lovecraft, horror stories have really fallen into two broad groups: ones where the story involves a disruption of the natural moral and physical order, and ones where there really is no deeper reality than the unforgiving laws of physics and no absolute morality to speak of. As an agnostic about religion and a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural myself, I find the latter group rather more effective – I’ve always said that I think you have to be a Catholic, or at least a practicing Christian, to find The Exorcist really scary, for example (though, that said, I am on record as a fan of The Omen – perhaps more because I find the story interesting than because it’s actually frightening).

One film falling fairly and squarely into the old-school supernatural horror category is The Devil Rides Out, a 1968 Hammer movie directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Charles Gray. Based on the – according to the credits – ‘classic’ novel by Dennis Wheatley, this is a movie I’ve wanted to write about for a couple of months now and, er, here goes.

The film takes place a little out of Hammer’s comfort zone, in that it’s set in 1930s England rather than some fabricated 19th-century mittel-European fairyland. It’s a bit difficult to tell who the main character’s meant to be, but certainly central to the plot is the Duc de Richelieu, portrayed – but of course – by Christopher Lee himself, in a beard and moustache that make this movie prime material for fan-artists wanting source material for pictures of Count Dooku in happier days. The Duc (or possibly the Dooku) has a problem in that his young friend Simon (Patrick Mower) has dropped all his old circle and started moving with a new, racier set. (I don’t entirely blame Simon for this, as most of the Duc’s friends are either tedious or actively irritating.)

Pausing only to recruit his tedious chum Rex (Leon Greene), the Duc tracks Simon down to an ‘astronomy club’ meeting, but very rapidly discovers (well, this movie is only 95 minutes long) that the astronomers are actually a Satanic cult commanded by black magician Mocata (Charles Gray)! The stage is set: can the Duc and his dull, but loyal, band of friends save Simon from a fate which, if not actually worse than death, is certainly just as bad?

I didn’t really set out to be glib or flippant about a movie I have a sneaking fondness for, but The Devil Rides Out takes itself incredibly seriously without, it seems to me, very much justification. A lot of the script is absolutely ludicrous – heavily reliant on coincidence, improbable behaviour, and with a sort-of cop-out God-rewrites-time ending. The characters are eye-opening too: ‘I’ve never told any of my friends this, but I’ve carried out a very deep study of black magic,’ announces Lee, quite early on. Hmm, okay. If you’re an inexplicably French aristo living in 1930s England with nothing else to do, why wouldn’t you? He spends the rest of the movie displaying unexpected Devil-battling skills and chanting gibberish, and isn’t above a little benign necromancy at one point. If it were anyone else it would seem completely absurd – I think perhaps even Peter Cushing couldn’t have played this part quite as well. Cushing would no doubt have played it with a little twinkle in his eye and thus fatally undercut what tension the film generates.

Hands up if you fancy playing a hero for once in your career.

Of course, if you have Christopher Lee playing your good guy, who on earth can you cast as the villain? The film’s other real masterstroke is in employing Gray. He’s best known for his fruity, campy, slightly arch performances in things like Diamonds Are Forever and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there are faint elements of that here, but for the most part he plays it just as straight as Lee does. There’s a sequence where he turns up at Lee’s niece’s house and hypnotises her into telling him where Mower and Nike Arrighi’s characters are, and he commands the screen entirely. It’s an astonishingly powerful moment, the stuff of real supervillainy, and when his plan is foiled he gets a killer exit line too: ‘I’m leaving. I shall not be back – but something will…’ Very regrettably, Richard Matheson’s script takes a tag-team approach to Lee and Gray’s characters: one of them is usually on screen, but hardly ever both, and they don’t get the big face-off you’re always hoping to see.

When I wrote about the rather similar Night of the Demon not long ago, I said the main difference between the two films was that Night is restrained and low-key and Devil isn’t. Well, more than that, it’s practically lurid – though there’s no nudity and very little blood (I’m actually slightly surprised it’s earned a 15 rating) – with various unlikely spiritual manifestations and other goings-on throughout. (Top tip: should you find yourself having to repel an actual physical manifestation of the Devil himself, full-beam headlights will apparently be a good place to start).

But the two films are very similar in that they both make it clear that being a Devil-worshipper is, in and of itself, wrong and unforgivable. Rather like Karswell in the other movie, Mocata doesn’t appear to have any wider ambitions beyond running his coven and sacrificing the odd farmyard animal. If Lee and his friends had never met him there’s no evidence anyone would have been any worse off materially. Certainly, viewed dispassionately, there’s not much real evidence that the polite brand of Satanism Mocata and his associates practice is very different from some of the more energetic forms of Christianity (except for the animal-cruelty angle and the fact that the object of your worship is more likely to show up in person). The movie presupposes the viewer shares a moral framework that seems hopelessly quaint and archaic these days.

Hmm, well. When my soul eventually ends up frazzling in one of the innermost circles of Hell for saying some of the above, I will at least be able to take my mind off my tribulations by reflecting on the excellent production values and direction of this movie. To be perfectly honest, the rest of the cast beyond Lee and Gray are rather forgettable, though you get the impression Paul Eddington could have made an impression had he been given a better part.

Is this, then, the first-rate Hammer production it’s so often held up to be? I don’t know – it’s certainly not fantastically representative of the studio’s output. Nearly every aspect of this film is so well-mannered and polite and upper-class: one never gets the sense of dark passions slipping out of control or a wider world going on beyond the limits of the screen, which are both there in the best of the Hammer horror output. And, deep down, you can’t help thinking that on some level this film is trying to impart a serious message, but doing it via rather silly means. It never even suggests you might like to laugh along with it, which only leaves you the options of taking it deadly seriously or relentlessly taking the piss. The commitment and sheer charisma the two leads bring to the movie mean I can just about manage the former, but only for short bursts. I would love to hear what an actual believer made of this film – but, despite the fact it treats the existence of God as a fact, climaxes with the triumph of the cross, and is thus on some level an essentially Christian film, I suspect most such people would refuse to watch The Devil Rides Out on principle: a rare example, perhaps, of the choir refusing to be preached to.

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