The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Christopher Lee in a Hammer Horror highlight from a book by Dennis Wheatley. Optimum UK DVD, from the Ultimate Hammer boxset.

The Film

In the 1960s, Dennis Wheatley was a very well known writer - since the 1930s his horror, adventure and mystery stories had been selling in ever increasing numbers. In 1963 Hammer optioned the rights to film a variety of his horror titles, but felt that the censorship of the time was too strict to allow them to properly explore the potentials. By 1968, film censorship had relaxed further and in America, Roman Polanski kick-started the verité horror era with his modern day demon-worship chiller Rosmary's Baby (1968), while the British Tigon Studio inspired a million witch hunting films with Witchfinder General (1968) - Hammer felt that the time was right to film Wheatley's best known Black Magic novel, The Devil Rides Out:

1930s England - the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) meets his good friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) after a long time apart. Together they ponder the absence of their mutual friend Simon Aron. Travelling to Simon's house, they find him hosting a party, and soon discover that he is planning to become baptised into a devil-worshipping cult, lead by the highly dangerous Mocata (Charles Gray). Although they are able to rescue Simon, they soon find themselves fighting off dangerous attacks from Mocata that threaten their very souls...

Dennis Wheatley's book is a very effective and exciting horror although rather too complex to transfer straight to screen, thus writer Richard Matheson was brought in to adapt the screenplay. 
Most of the credit for the good story,goes to Wheatley himself - de Richleau and Rex have a really strong motive for stopping the satanists (more than the usual 'girl in peril' or 'Van Helsing' riff of most similar stories). Wheatley's lengthy research into the real life practices of devil-worshippers means that the film has a much more authentic feel than many of its rivals, while the Mocata character has a wonderfully subtle evil streak. Screenwriter Richard Matheson had previously, very sucessfully adapted a variety of Edgar Allan Poe stories for the screen as part of the AIP/Roger Corman Poe-cycle of the early 1960s, here again he sucessfully abbreviates and alters the story to fit the 90 minute run-time, while retaining the main focus and feel of the book - thus a lot of interesting, but ultimately unnecessary sequences are removed, while the plot and characters remain the same (a strong contrast to the much poorer adaptation of To the Devil a Daughter that Hammer filmed in 1976).

Unfortunately, the script is not perfect. The limited run-time means that many sequences in the story still seem rushed, despite Matheson's trimming, and while many of the scenes removed were missable, some good scenes from the book had to be removed as well, including detail of Rex and Tanith's blossoming romance. The climax here is far less effective than in the book, and although the smaller scale of the film's ending scenes is understandable considering the low budget, the changes to the explanation offered, give the screenplay a much more "convenient" ending than that used in the novel. Ultimately however, it is effective for most of the run-time, and builds some genuine scares and tension in several scenes.

Director Terence Fisher had partly retired by the late 1960s, and The Devil Rides Out was his last non-Frankenstein production - he demonstrates the same effective demonstration that had so boosted Hammer's early gothic horrors. In 1968, Hammer were in the middle of a co-production deal with American distributors Seven Arts which provided the largest budgets of any Hammer films. The budget can clearly be seen here with some great looking sets, large casts of extras, an impressive 1930s setting, and some effectively realised special effects (although still noticeably cheap in many of the scenes). Frequent Hammer composer James Bernard gives an instantly recognisable soundtrack that really helps to build the tension in many of the scenes.

Hammer favourite Christopher Lee takes the lead role of
de Richleau in a rare 'good-guy' leading performance - although hardly old enough to play the character (described by Wheatley as being in his 70s), Lee does manage to bring a real gravitas to the role making it easy, even for fans of the novel, to ignore the age difference. Charles Gray, best known for his roles in two James Bond films, gives a wonderful performance as Mocata, fitting Wheatley's description well. Leon Greene as Rex is rather confusingly dubbed by the very distinctively toned Patrick Allen (Captain Clegg (1962)) and gives a decent performance, as does future Yes Minister star, Paul Eddington.

Ultimately, The Devil Rides Out is an effective, often entertaining and occasionally scary film, boasting strong acting and good production with a decent, if rather rushed script that does manage to keep most of the best ideas from the book. With a 2 hour run-time this could have been a perfect film, as it is, it ranks among Hammer's best and comes highly recommended to all Hammer fans, and a great place to start for newcomers. For fans of the book, Hammer's film is not perfect, but sticks close to the story and characters, and is a million miles better than the abomination of To the Devil a Daughter (1976).

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Christopher Lee - Hammer's big name, star of the Dracula films, as well as a whole host of euro-cult cinema.
Charles Gray - best known for playing Blofeld in daft James Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever (1971)
Paul Eddington - soon to be known as Prime Minister Jim Hacker in the BBC's popular political comedy.
Directed by anyone interesting? Terence Fisher - Hammer's top director who shot most of their early gothic horror films.
Is it scary?A couple of scenes might prove scary.
Any violence/gore? A little blood.
Any sex? No.
Good soundtrack?A typical yet impressive James Bernard score.
Who is it for?
Highly recommended to all Hammer fans, and a great place to start.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.66:1. Anamorphically Enhanced. Colour
The print quality is strong with good detail and only print damage - there is some heavy grain in a few scenes.
Audio Original English mono - sounds very strong.
Subtitles None.
ExtrasThe disc includes:
  • Original British theatrical trailer.
AvailabilityAvailable in the Ultimate Hammer Collection and on a single disc release.
Region Region 2 - PAL
Other regions? A now OOP ABUS disc includes a very interesting audio commentary, but has a rather poor 5.1 audio remix, with no mono option.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. Print used is English language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 13th October 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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