Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

It strikes me that there are certain kinds of ‘supernatural’ occurrences or superstitions that most people take more seriously than others. Obviously, few adults are deeply troubled nowadays by movies that feature stock horror elements such as vampires, werewolves and the like. But mention demonic possession, or ouja boards, or satanic worship, and these same people will begin to harden their eyes and quiver their lips.

“Well, I’m not superstitious,” they’ll say, “but there are some things out there that are just not worth messing with, right? I mean, just in case.”

For some reason, these elements are in a vague way treated seriously, and even with some element of real fear, by otherwise skeptical persons. Moreso than other fantastic evils, they seem to belong in some arcane corner of our real world. We all know a spooky story about someone who messed with ouja, and we’ve all noticed those ‘satanic abuse’ scandals which occasionally pop up.

It seems almost like shooting credulous fish in a skeptical barrel to make a scary movie using these elements- The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, and today’s feature, The Devil Rides Out, are all excellent films that gain at least some of their power from the fascination the public has with their esoteric subject matter.

Many moons ago, as a child, I was prevented from watching a movie by my mother. No matter that I gorged myself on daily repeats of taped-off-the-telly VHS versions of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As scary and brutal as those movies are, they seemed to her to be definitely ‘fantasy’, and thus not deeply unsettling. But this old-fashioned, plodding supernatural chiller about uptight Englishmen messing about with pentagrams and goats’ blood, though containing little overt horror, was, for some reason, a no-no. Her reaction left a deep impression on me- that this kind of horror was somehow more serious, perhaps because it was something that actually happened in the real world.

Years later, I was able to track it down using the wonderful ‘I Need to Know’ board on IMDB. Turns out it was The Devil Rides Out, starring Christopher Lee, with a screenplay by Richard Matheson. Now that’s pedigree!

Christopher Lee plays the Duc de Richleau, an upper-class English gent who discovers that his close friend Simon has become involved with the Occult. Eventually, it becomes clear that the somewhat naive Simon, along with the beautiful Tanith, has come under the power of the black magic adept Mocata (played by one-time Blofeld Charles Gray). The Duke and his stalwart companion Rex Van Ryn track down Mocata’s satanic cult, crashing their midnight sabbat and having lots of car chases through the British countryside.

Richleau lives in a 1930’s Britain where the attitudes and class system of Victorian days has not yet entirely faded. He is an aristocratic gentleman of leisure, of the kind that would not survive the next War- his friends are all upper-class, and have servants and nannies for their children. Despite the budgetary constraints of the Hammer studio, the period feel is wonderfully evoked through the use of old country houses, fantastic sets and beautiful 1930’s cars. It’s a fun look at a dying world.

One of the strengths of the film is its restraint- the horror builds through a growing sense of unease rather than through frequent horrific imagery. Of course, in a movie about the occult, the film-makers are going to have to show something supernatural sooner or later. Aside from one early apparition, the film delays doing this for as long as possible- and with good reason, for the special effects are mostly disappointing. It’s really the only element at which the low budget really slaps the viewer in the face. It is strange to hear Lee constantly enthuse on the commentary that the film would have been much improved by the use of elaborate CGI boogies- seemingly missing much of what makes the film so effective.

Lee seems to have been a bit of a Dan Ackroyd for the 60’s, given his intense interest in the occult. He did much of his own research for the movie, making sure that all the Duke’s esoteric ramblings have a ‘genuine’ background in lore. Its something the movie shares with the source material- the 1931 novel by Denis Wheatley- and adds to making the subject seem credible.

All in all, The Devil Rides Out is an entertaining watch for those with in interest in Hammer films, British society in the early 20th century, and of course, those who enjoy performing the age old rite of the sacrifice of the white hen and the black cockrel when the planets are in alignment.

And for real Grand Masters of the Left Hand Path, here’s a link to a documentary about Hammer films.

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