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Devil Rides Out, The
1968's The Devil Rides Out stacks up high on many a Hammer fan's list of favorites -- it's one of the most respected of latter-day Hammer Films. Fans love its big role for favorite Christopher Lee, whose leading character dominates the proceedings and (gasp) is unequivocally heroic. He called it his favorite Hammer role as well. The show is also the last major picture by the core production team that had broken through with Technicolor horror ten years before. Although the good times were on the wane, Hammer had enjoyed co-production deals with Columbia, Paramount, Universal-International, Warners and MGM -- practically every Hollywood studio.
The Americans re-titled the show The Devil's Bride), with the reason that U.S. fans might think 'Rides Out' indicated a western -- original author Dennis Wheatley wasn't well known here. The original title has a nice arcane feel, although by now I might confuse it with the civil war movie Ride with the Devil, and 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 fight between uppity posh Brits and a Satanist cult trying to induct two nice clean-cut young folk into its coven. French aristocrat the Duc de Richleau (Chris Lee in a dapper goatee) finds out 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), and blows a righteous fuse; the Duc has to 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 The Duc, throwing down the paternal gauntlet.
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, successfully repelling his hypnotic menace. But The Duc's knowledge and wisdom is put to the test when he, Van Ryn 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 was almost immediately superseded by Roman Polanski's 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. Had Ealing or Gainsborough (where Terence Fisher took his training) made it in the 1940s, it might not have been all that different.
It IS rather simplistic ... The Duc 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 we need you to stop everything and put you and your little daughter at risk from a pack of rampaging pagan perverts. You're evah so kind to indulge us.' At each 40-room country house we see only one servant, if that, instead of an entire retinue a la Downton Abbey. There's quite a bit of dashing about in colorful vintage motorcars in mint condition, that look 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.
I'm assuming that most older English movies about devil-worshippers were as restricted as Hollywood pictures 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 takes the role in stride, never overplaying The Duc nor upstaging anyone else in the cast. 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 only a minute or two.
The battle between mortals and The Devil is not as brutal as The Exorcist but just as codified. To me the downside of bringing so much iconography into play is that it tends to reduce Christian symbolism to just more superstitious folklore. Although he takes a break to check some facts at the library, the Duc is conveniently in the right place with the right knowledge to resist those pesky devil worshippers. Mocata has a nice racket going for him, but he isn't all that well organized -- he should have hired some security to prevent unwelcome Christian Soldiers from gate-crashing his fancy parties, the ones with horrors from Hell on his RSVP list.
No, Mocata should have waited until The Duc was off wine-tasting in France before planning any coven activities. I like to think that the enterprising, less theatrical Julian Karswell took control of the coven after Mocata, running it more like a protection racket with a Demon 'enforcer.' Mocata never seems as powerful or menacing as Karswell. He can't even slip his sneaky moves past Marie Eaton, when he shows up at her house like a door-to-door vacuum salesman. If only the real evil in the world could be defeated by an honest woman standing up and Speaking Truth to Power (although they're doing okay on that score around here lately).
Lee's aristocratic but fair-minded The Duc dominates, while Charles Gray's necromancer broadcasts menace with his intimidating hauteur and dead-eye stare, that exploits the actors striking blue eyes. Nike Arrighi is attractive (and has an unforgettable name) but her character Tanith is little more than a swooning female; the 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, 'why would Marie ever get involved with The Duc's dangerous games, with her innocent daughter in the house?' When Marie overcomes Mocata, it makes The Duc seem like a good shepherd, not a bully -- guiding his good friends and neighbors in a righteous defense of human values. I'm not sure how he does it, but The Duc even effects a 'time reverse' fix-all phenomenon for the finale. The only other hero to pull off that one 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 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 Bernard's Quatermass movies.
The older transfer, bearing the original title The Devil Rides Out is included as an extra. That release 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, and images of a spider and a mounted 'Angel of Death' are now 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 effects changes are improvements, but we applaud Hammer for not making them permanent. The original has been left as the official version, warts and all.
Older extras include a dreary 'World of Hammer' piece that should be retired, a trailer, a still gallery, a lively making-of show and a second video piece about Dennis Wheatley. It's nice to see Marcus Hearn involved in those. Christopher Lee is paired with Sarah Lawson (good for her!) for an older commentary, while experts Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr do the honors for a new, well researched and satisfying talk track. The two new video pieces allow both Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby to speak their mind on the film. To our surprise, Newman tells us that, although author Dennis Wheatley's supernatural books were revived in the 1960s, they aren't very good. And Rigby even recites Richard Matheson dialogue that improves on Wheatley's originals. 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.
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 (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson