Retro Review: ‘The Devil Rides Out’
By the late 1960’s Hammer was far and away the head of the gothic horror table. Their series of films based on monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein were hits in their native Britain as well as the United States. Looking for another terrifying hit, producer Anthony Nelson Keys took notice of the growing trendiness of the occult within Britain at the time. One of the byproducts with this movement was a renewed popularity in the works of horror author Dennis Wheatley. Hammer purchased the rights to his book The Devil Rides Out and when the film adaptation hit in 1968 it easily stood as one of the best of the Hammer Horrors.
The dashing Duc de Richleau discovers that his old friend, Simon, is entangled in an occult conspiracy. In rescuing Simon from the forces of darkness, he unintentionally he and all those close to him become targets of Mocata, the leader of a cult hoping to summon the demonic “Goat of Mendes”. After de Richleau ruins Mocata’s ceremony to provide a “bride” to the demon, the warlock unleashes a series of horrors on the scholar and his compatriots throughout a night filled with fear. In order to protect themselves from this evil, Duc de Richleau uses a pentagram drawn on the floor to shield them. But will this be enough to protect them all in the face of true supernatural evil?
Producer Anthony Nelson Key did not care for the original screenplay of the Devil Rides Out citing it’s overall “Britishness”. To get a script more in line with his vision he turned to his friend the legendary horror/science fiction writer Richard Matheson. The man behind such towering works as I am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, and many iconic Twilight Zone episodes expertly took the classic gothic horror elements of the 1934 source material but modernized them. Matheson made it sleeker and with a faster paced and injected so many great lines into the film. At once he maintains the spirit of what made the book so great while at the same time making it fresh and contemporary. Bringing this brilliant screenplay to life onscreen fell to Hammer Horror vet Terence Fisher who had helmed so many of the studio’s classics like; The Horror of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, and Hound of the Baskerville. While the Devil Rides Out may not be the biggest title in his filmography, it is often regarded as one of his best works. This is hard to argue with, as there is a certain unnerving almost surreal terror in this film. From the strange cult scenes to the nightmare-fuel which is the reveal of the Goat of Mendes.
The centerpiece of the film is the famous pentagram scene which Fisher directs with the expert precision of a master at the top of his craft. While on paper it may seem simple to remain inside a pentagram in order to stay safe from evil. But Fisher knows exactly how to let the action unfold. It begins slow to let an eerie atmosphere settle in, introducing the character whose skepticism of the supernatural makes him the weak link. Then a little bit of strangeness finds its way in as the lights ever so subtly begin to dim around them. Then the monsters are introduced as are the illusions of loved ones outside of the pentagram being put into danger. All culminating with the Angel of Death on horseback to serve as a grand spectacle of evil. The dread and tension can be cut with a knife and the special fx used are some of the best the era has to offer.
The cast is led by Hammer Horror icon Christopher Lee as Nicholas, Duc de Richleau. With the charisma, regality and overall incredible screen presence he was famous for, Lee is captivating as the protagonist. He has a sharp mind and courage like steel and the audience is sold on it 125% as it is impossible to ignore his greatness. Had things gone according to plan, this would have been the perfect character to build a series of films around. Luckily for the audience he has an opponent who can match him in Charles Gray who is just as clever and magnetic but chooses to use his strengths for evil. The chemistry between these two is undeniable as they match wits with one another throughout the Devil Rides Out.
While the Devil Rides Out is now regarded as one of the very best of the Hammer Horrors it sadly was not the big box office hit the studio hoped it would be. In the United States where it was retitled The Devil’s Bride it did particularly poor business. This meant that a planned series of films based on the adventures of Duc de Richleau battling the supernatural sadly never came to fruition. Over the years this masterpiece of horror has finally become recognized for how good it truly is. Even Sir Christopher Lee who had been in countless feature films throughout his storied career regards this as one of his best pictures. The Devil Rides Out has only continued to grow in notoriety and today stands as a true horror masterpiece.