Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s most famous occult potboiler also marks the high point of the company’s indulgence of director Terrence Fisher’s dualistic vision of the battle between the forces of good and evil, cast as a struggle between spiritual innocence & purity set against worldly corruption & decadence. Possibly his best film, “The Devil Rides Out” presents Fisher’s most refined and paired down iteration of the various tropes which came together to make up that defining theme, arranged in their most linear and direct form and based on what is essentially the same model used by Bram Stoker in his novel, ‘Dracula’ -- which Richard Matheson’s screenplay follows, ironically, more closely than that of Hammer’s own 1959 version of the Stoker story, mainly because he stuck pretty rigidly to Wheatley’s original, which itself is a Boys’ Own adventure re-telling of the Dracula tale, only with more of an emphasis on the control of the mechanics of ‘magic’ than on its shadowy gothic adumbrations. Once again, the whole idea of adapting Wheatley’s work originated with Hammer’s leading man, Christopher Lee -- who had by then come to know the author extremely well. Although remembered today for his occult themed tales, only eleven of Wheatley’s fifty or so publications actually dealt with the supernatural or black magic, the vast majority being now-utterly-forgotten historical novels. As is so often the case with popular storytellers (such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him), it was always Wheatley’s ‘serious’ novels that came to be the works in which he took the most pride and for which he wished to be remembered; and, as with Conan Doyle in regard to his Sherlock Holmes tales, none of these ‘serious’ works remain in print, while the purely occult novels have gone on to define the author’s reputation and have become vintage classics of their genre.
Hammer had first planned the film version in 1963 and commissioned the American writer John Hunter (who had written the Hammer cult classic “Never Take Sweets from a Stranger”) to come up with a treatment, but producer Tony Hinds was dissatisfied with the results (too ‘English’, apparently) and Matheson, the author of the novel ‘I Am Legend’, who had also written several of the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle of adaptations, was called in to take another pass at it after successfully completing the psychological thriller “Fanatic” for the company. Several factors came together that perhaps account for the artistic (if not commercial) success of Hammer’s film version of the book: for one thing, although deeply old-fashioned and reactionary in their politics, Wheatley’s black magic novels were undergoing a resurgence in popularity come the second half of the sixties, as the cultural and lifestyle experimentation of the hippy movement extended to an interest in all aspects of the occult and the supernatural. Although Wheatley always warned against ‘dabbling’ in such matters, the fact that his works took the subject seriously enough to recommend avoiding partaking in it ironically made the books more attractive to the alternative youth culture of the late-sixties/early-seventies, despite the conservatism of the Bourgeois milieu Wheatley set his novels around. Secondly, Hammer’s recent move from its Bray Studio home base to Elstree allowed the company’s accomplished production designer Bernard Robinson the extra space he’d never had before to create some vast sets which, in turn, give director Terrence Fisher the opportunity to realise a compositional scheme that would have been simply unavailable to him on the tiny soundstages at Bray. The narrative simplicity and directness distilled by Matheson from Wheatley’s source novel allows Fisher to concentrate his visual style on conveying the film’s faux 1920s never-never world of opulence and Bourgeois sophistication in a series of spectacular tableaux which emerge from Robinson’s evocative designs for the various lavish homes in which the majority of the film’s set piece clashes between good and evil are seen to occur. Hammer does the same here for Wheatley’s ‘between the wars’ time frame as it did regularly for its 19th century Gothics – creating a fictional, anachronistic, dream-like fairy-tale version of the time period in question, in this case one enhanced with exteriors that seem consciously to conjure the ‘Avengerland’ image of England that was then in vogue -- full of vintage cars roaring down hedgerow-lined country lanes, etc. By 1967, this must have been a very recognisable and marketable image in America, where “The Avengers” was at the time a big success, although it doesn’t seem to have helped the film’s box office particularly.
At the very heart of Robertson’s majestic schema, beautifully illuminated as always by cinematographer Arthur Grant on sets resplendent with marble-floored observatories situated in lavish London town houses and striking oak-panelled libraries in Jacobean English country manors, etc. Fisher stages a series of classic stand-offs between the forces of light and darkness, which take on their form from the battle of wills being conducted between two powerful patriarchal personalities (played by Christopher Lee and Charles Gray) -- focusing on their struggle for the souls of their younger, susceptible charges. Both actors are electric here -- and Fisher’s simple, elegant, always controlled style, emphasising Lee’s physical dominance of the frame with his judicious use of long and medium shots and Gray’s peculiar combination of hypnotic charm and malevolence in close-ups that home-in on the actor’s piercing blue eyes, was never more effective in allowing his leads the sympathy and freedom to fine-tune their performances for maximum effect while providing for them a sumptuous backdrop made up of Hammer’s most convincing arrangement of cut-price visual splendour.
Lee very rarely got the chance to play ‘the good guy’ for Hammer and he grabs this opportunity with both hands in what remains one of his most striking performances, as the sophisticated European aristocrat Duke de Richleau. We’re presented with little back story in the film to establish Lee’s character (who is described in the novel as an art connoisseur and ‘dilettante’) or the nature of his relationships with his young friends: for Richleau and the two other principle characters in “The Devil Rides Out” had already by this time appeared in several non-supernatural adventure novels by Wheatley and would appear again in other non-occult books of his; yet Lee is able to convey this sense of the history his lead shares with the other participants in the story, and of Richleau’s worldly knowledge of the occult (this comes across despite Lee being little older in real terms than the other actors in the film!) by dint of his inveterate aristocratic bearing and authoritative manner, establishing Richleau’s position as head of what in effect becomes a surrogate family of ‘crusaders’ against evil.
The story quickly kicks into gear with the Duke de Richleau and his hot-headed American friend Rex Van Ryn (opera singer Leone Greene, re-voiced with the instantly recognisable mid-Atlantic tones of Patrick Allen) attempting to rescue their friend, the callow, impressionable son of one of Richleau’s best friends, a young man called Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), from the clutches of a group of Satanists he’s fallen in with, led by the gentlemanly but deadly Crowley-esque adept, Mocata (Gray). During the course of their efforts to thwart Simon’s imminent initiation they call upon the help of Richleau’s niece, the country estate-dwelling Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson) and her husband Richard (Paul Eddington); and Rex falls for the strange beauty of a conflicted, fawn-eyed acolyte of Mocata’s called Tanith (Niké Arrighi). Screen time is divided equally between Lee and Charles Gray as they vie for control of these supporting characters’ allegiance: whenever Richleau has to conveniently (for the plot) leave his associates to go off and conduct some esoteric research or other at the British Museum, Mocata’s influence over Simon and Tanith (who are the two most impressionable members of the group) reasserts itself. But despite the clear distinction that’s made, differentiating between Richleau’s goodness and Mocata’s inherent evil, it’s striking how similar both men actually are in their methods: while Richleau chastises Simon for messing with dangerous forces, each instance in which Mocata exercises hypnotic control over his would-be followers, or demonstrates occult powers, is paralleled by Richleau also being seen to use hypnotism to try and counter the cult leader’s nefarious influence over Simon or, in the film’s key set-piece, protecting his friends from the arrival of the Angel of Death inside a carefully marked out pentacle. Indeed, Richleau’s use of white magic is, if anything, far more successful than Mocata’s black variety, as he eventually even manages to re-write time itself to wipe away all the unpleasant occurrences which have accumulated under Mocata’s evil patronage. The relationship between the two parallels that of Van Helsing and Dracula in Stoker’s novel, while the ill-fated Tanith is Lucy Westernra and Marie Eaton doubles as Mina Harker.
Screenwriter Richard Matheson has stated in previous interviews that he wasn’t impressed at the time with the cast assembled by Hammer, aside from leads Christopher Lee and Charles Gray; but actually the supporting actors here (which include mainly performers not otherwise associated with Hammer) acquit themselves admirably, and each bring a quality to the film which is quite in keeping with Wheatley’s broadly sketched characterisations, while avoiding the more dubious stereotyping he tended to go in for. In the film, as in the novel, this band of crusaders against evil is made up of a uniformly pretty well-off bunch: Patrick Mower’s character appears to live alone in a huge town house with a state-of-the-art observatory in its rafters despite apparently having no visible means of income, while the Duke de Richleau dwells in an equally large and elegant abode (when Rex asks to borrow his car, Lee has Richleau nonchalantly grant him permission with the throwaway phrase ‘take any of them’!); while his niece and her husband live with their young daughter Peggy (Rosalyn Landor) on a large country estate with access to a huge library in the bowels of their 17th century mansion. In Wheatley’s world it seems, Bourgeois sophistication equals moral rectitude; but one must always beware of imposters such as Mocata, attempting to infiltrate and subvert the class system (in the novel, Mocata is more transparently a stereotype of a typical ‘evil’ foreigner).
In Terrence Fisher’s version of the equation, the luxurious homes and stately furnishings are still indicative of the moral rightness of the Establishment, but the film also powerfully conveys a sense of innocence being confronted by the attractions of decadence and malice, with the latter seen corrupting the purity of the young in the shape of the unfortunate Tanith: the young woman who is chaperoned by an evil mother figure in the form of Madam D’Urfe (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) at the beginning of the film and who is already by this stage too deeply under the mesmeric influence of Mocata to be saved. Model Nike Arrighi may have been cast for looks but she is actually pretty effective as the doomed beauty, her empty expression when she is splattered in goats’ blood during the Grand Sabbat on Salisbury Plain at which Mocata and his robed followers plan to raise the Goat of Mendes – the Devil himself! – is acutely unsettling. In contrast, we also see how innocence and purity are both vulnerable to influence but also ultimately stronger than they appear, the stand-out example being when Mocata attempts to hypnotise Marie into revealing the whereabouts of Tanith and Simon when he calls at the Eatons’ Buckinghamshire home while Richleau is away. Fisher’s expert handling of the scene is notable for the way in which he draws into a tight close-up of Gray’s face as Mocata’s mask of gentlemanly urbanity begins to slip and he starts to exert more and more control over Marie’s mind; but the telling detail, which adds that extra jolt of thematic relevance to the scene, is that Marie is clutching one of her daughter’s toy dolls throughout Mocata’s psychic assault upon her! Indeed, it is nine-year-old Peggy who thwarts Mocata’s plans when she unexpectedly comes downstairs to retrieve the doll, and thus causes a disturbance which allows her mother to free herself of his influence. This constitutes a superbly executed summation of Fisher’s entire outlook on the relationship between good and evil right there: never have Fisher’s perennial themes been so poetically dealt with and, it has to be said, James Bernard’s score is instrumental in the film’s effectiveness here. The transformation of his strident main theme into an uplifting hymn of hope come the end titles is another testament to the power of the transfiguring nature of spiritual purity as a force for good in the confrontation with evil.
The special effects for the film were largely the work of Michael Stainer-Hutchins, who also owned the rights to Wheatley’s novel and so could demand his participation in the making of the picture. Unfortunately, Stainer-Hutchins’ work soon found itself at the mercy of Hammer’s stringent budget cuts and not all of the resulting effects he came up with actually stood up to scrutiny at the time, let alone today. Many sequences retain a certain odd charm: the one set on Salisbury Plain, when the Goat of Mendes is raised by Mocata, is actually quite effective for all its shortcomings. Eddie Knight was credited as main make-up artist on the film, but it was actually former Hammer mainstay (now working freelance) Roy Ashton who was responsible for the striking transformation which turned the film’s stunt supervisor Eddie Powel into the weirdly simian-goat hybrid creature that Richleau and Rex attack with the help of a roadster’s headlights and a crucifix. Yet the numerous matte shots remain pretty ropy-looking, and the Angel of Death sequence, aside from reputedly relying on the services of an asthmatic horse with cardboard wings, wasn’t even properly finished -- one close-up in particular still clearly featured the model’s blue screen backdrop because the money ran out before the matte effects could be added in to the background.
The film’s inadequate special effects have been at the root of a controversy surrounding this new HD restoration of this film for its Blu-ray debut. Generally, this is another remarkable restoration which leaves the film looking truly magnificent in the high definition format, with deep vivid colour and exquisite detail visible in the fabrics and furnishings of Bernard Robertson’s fantastic sets. So good in fact is the image, that the poorly done special effects work would’ve looked even worse than normal and probably quite distracting had it been presented in its original unaltered form. Cineimage, the post production company placed in charge of overseeing the restoration, thus took the decision to ‘correct’ and tidy up some of these messier effects; but their efforts seem to have crossed a line in the eyes of many fans. While some of their work has indeed stayed true to the spirit of the original film and has merely involved the removal of unsightly matte lines or the tidying up of optical effects etc., other alterations have involved actual additions to the film -- such as the adding in of CGI clouds, for instance, outside Simon’s town house apartments -- which stick out like a sore thumb and clearly constitute modern enhancements rather than merely a slight tidying up; the same goes for the CGI flames added to the background of the unfinished Angel of Death sequence. There are other additions which merge more seamlessly in with the original aesthetic of the movie, such as the droplets of water seen when a glass is thrown at the tarantula which menaces the protagonists inside the pentacle and a lightning bolt shown during Mocata’s demise at the sacrificial altar -- both of these are very effective. It seems the intention behind these additions was always honourable, but any controversy which has arisen as a result of them could have so easily been averted simply by including the original un-enhanced version of the film on the disc alongside Cineimage’s new ‘fixed’ restoration. Despite the kerfuffle over this issue, I’d still have no hesitation in recommending this disc to the Hammer fan, despite the poor judgement in not also including the original version.
The disc includes quite a treasure trove of extras, headed up by an authoritative audio commentary with Hammer historian Marcus Hearn providing all the background on the production of the movie you could wish for, while Christopher Lee holds court on his friendship with Dennis Wheatley and on the sources for all the incantations, arcane symbols and ritual details included in the film ( a subject on which Lee proves himself to be especially knowledgeable) with actress Sarah Lawson providing her memories of her co-stars. “Black Magic: The Making of the Devil Rides Out” is another excellent documentary offering background on the development of the script and the progress of the filming of the production from the likes of the doc’s producer Marcus Hearn and Hammer expert Denis Meikle, while actor Patrick Mower is on hand with some amusing anecdotes and writer Richard Matheson talks about his script and his impressions of the finished film. Jonathan Rigby and Mark Gatiss are always a pleasure to listen to as they furnish us with their opinions and impressions while Wheatley’s biographer Phil Baker examines the relationship between Matheson’s script and the original novel. Dan and Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins, the son and daughter of special effects man Michael Stainer-Hutchins, also talk candidly about their father’s frustrations over the special effects work on the film.
With that in mind, we are then given a twelve minute featurette, “The Power of Light: Restoring the Devil Rides Out”, in which Cineimage restorers Adam Hawkes, Ed Schroeder and Steve Boag talk about the reasons for deciding to enhance the film with modern effects, and they talk us through the work they actually did. “Dennis Wheatley at Hammer” is a thirteen minute documentary in which Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearn proceed to talk us through the other Wheatley novels which made it onto cinema screens courtesy of Hammer Productions, while Phil Baker expounds on how Hammer’s treatment of Wheatley’s occult novel “To the Devil a Daughter” lost them the author’s good faith, as he hated its ugly modern 70s setting and the alterations which Christopher Wicking’s screenplay made to his original story. Finally an excellent slide show of production stills, lobby cards and poster images accompanied by James Bernard’s music rounds off this impressive treatment of one of Hammer’s finest -- probably their last unassailably classic. Despite the reservations concerning the tampering with the original material, this is still an essential addition to the collections of Hammer Films aficionados.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!