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A recent issue of the weekly trade publication Variety gave its full cover to news of how "two of the most evocative names in British cinema, are being brought back to life by entrepreneurial new owners." (Variety, July 21). Of course, the two studios in question are Hammer Films and Ealing Studios. How fitting that the former, beloved for its gothic horror output that made stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, should now have the stake removed from its heart to pursue new blood. With this in mind, it seems the perfect time to revisit The Devil Rides Out (1968), featuring an excellent performance by Christopher Lee in what many consider to be director Terence Fisher's best film for Hammer Studios. The film was re-titled as The Devil's Bride in the U.S. to avoid being confused with a Western, but the original title is definitely appropriate given one of the key dramatic scenes in the film.
The Devil's Bride is an occult thriller set in 1920's England and based on a classic horror novel by Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977). Wheatley was a controversial figure, not just for his interest in the occult, but also for views that were anti-Semitic and pro-British imperialist. Still, he was responsible for over 50 bestsellers and in Hammer Films, An Exhaustive Filmography it is noted that he "took Black Magic quite seriously and warned his readers against even casual involvement." The book was also inspired by what Video Watchdog's Kim Newman observes to be "one of the most hashed-over non-events in occult history...Aleister Crowley's project to bring the Devil's offspring to Earth, which he channeled into fiction in Moonchild (1929)." While Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) usually gets credit for creating both a popular interest and dread in all things occult, The Devil's Bride was actually in production before Rosemary's Baby, and Hammer originally planned on filming it as early as 1964.
Christopher Lee stars as Duc de Richleau, a French duke trying to save the soul of his friend, Simon (played by Patrick Mower). It turns out that Simon has fallen prey to the charismatic charms of Mocata, the leader of a devil cult. The role of Mocata belongs to Charles Gray, whose cult following would grow sizably seven years later with his turn as the criminologist and narrator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). But with The Devil's Bride he still has a chance to orchestrate plenty of racy mayhem, including one woodland orgy scene that seems to fuse the sensibilities of Federico Fellini and Gustave Dore. Between the black masses, the growing list of potential victims, and the various invocated horrors, this film has a pace that moves fluidly along from one set piece to the next. In reference to Terence Fisher's style, The Overlook Film Encyclopedia notes that "Fisher builds his atmosphere with uncannily precise editing, a marvelously controlled camera style and, above all, through an astonishingly sophisticated use of colour schemes summarized in the image of the dazed (Nike) Arrighi standing motionless in the swirl of a Sabbath, dressed in a white robe splattered with intensely red blood." The Encyclopedia of European Cinema makes a similar observation; "Fisher's technique is, as Robert Murphy describes it 'almost pedantically disciplined.' The camera follows the action with a realistic restraint which gives a cool objectivity to the sexual fantasies, body horrors and Oedipal nightmares which are being enacted." Of course, viewers who could care less about seamless editing can indulge in other pleasures, such as the great scenery and the wonderful atmosphere surrounding our heroes as they speed around in their vintage cars through the lush English countryside going from one adventure to the next.
The real Achilles heel for The Devil Rides Out is pointed out by the film's scriptwriter, novelist Richard Matheson (who began his own auspicious film career with both the novel and script for The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957). As detailed in Hammer Films, An Exhaustive Filmography, "The film has only one major flaw - the ordinary special effects. Richard Matheson (May 1992) "told the authors that during an earlier published interview he 'spoke out of turn about the direction. There was nothing wrong with Fisher's directing. I found a few of the actors subpar, Lee and Charles Gray certainly not among them. Some of the effects were a little chintzy, but all in all, it was quite well done.' Most of Hammer's best films did not rely on special effects, but this one did, and the movie is badly let down." This shortcoming certainly did little to dampen Hammer's influence on future filmmakers, such as Nick Allder, the f/x artist behind Alien (1979) and Guillermo del Toro's upcoming Hellboy (2004). Allder still strongly believes in the power of low-tech horror (witness his Alien creature itself, a good old-fashioned rubber monster made slimy with KY Jelly) and was recently quoted in weekly Variety (July 28); "I was brought up on Hammer horror movies, and they were very low-budget...they were all great."
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Dennis Wheatley (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editing: James Needs, Spencer Reeve
Art Direction: Bernard Robinson
Music: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee (Duc de Richleau), Charles Gray (Mocata), Nike Arrighi (Tanith), Leon Greene (Rex), Patrick Mower (Simon), Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (Countess), Sarah Lawson (Marie).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Pablo Kjolseth