Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Satanic Panic: The Devil Rides Out

An old school British conservative like Dennis Wheatley understood the nature of evil, so he fought the Infernal One tooth-and-nail with his occult horror novels. Someone could do a jolly entertaining mini-retrospective of the seven films and one TV anthology episode based on his books, but this would definitely be the centerpiece. It happens to be the only Hammer film scripted by Richard Matheson and the great Sir Christopher Lee also often identified it as one of his favorites. Lee plays Wheatley’s intrepid Nicholas, Duc De Richleau in Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (a.k.a. The Devil’s Bride, trailer here), which screens as part of the Arena CineLounge’s Satanic Panic film series.

Despite the devilish goatee, De Richleau is an upstanding Christian gentleman, who has studied the occult in depth, and therefore understands the profound danger it represents. Both he and Rex Van Ryn have taken a fatherly interest in Simon Aron, the son of their late military colleague. Rather mysteriously, Aron has gone off the grid (circa 1929), so the two old friends have decided to pay him a call. Much to De Richleau’s alarm, they walk in on the pre-game for a black mass to be conducted by the villainous Mocata.

De Richleau manages to scuttle the ceremony and then returns later to whisk off Aron, whether he wants to be saved or not. At first, Van Ryn has a hard time believing De Richleau’s warnings, but he soon sees enough to make him a believer. He also starts to fall for Tanith Carlisle, another young recruit due to be initiated into Mocata’s circle.

Devil Rides Out is notably heavy on the occult imagery, particularly for 1968. There is definitely some serious Satanic panic going on in these tony British drawing rooms and on the Salisbury Plain. Somewhat surprisingly, some of the visuals seem to parallel those seen in A Dark Song (which like DRO, was also influenced by the Aleister Crowley mystique).

Regardless, Lee is terrific as De Richleau, clearly enjoying a rare turn as the hero. His De Richleau is rather a bit brusque and mysterious, not unlike his longtime friend Peter Cushing’s portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. He also has some rather engaging British upper-class bro chemistry with Leon Greene’s Van Ryn (dubbed by Patrick Allen, which seems odd, since Greene was an opera singer, as well as an actor).

Beyond the nifty Hammer-style demonic horror, DRO represents a unique assembly of talent. In addition to Lee and Matheson adapting Wheatley, it features future fine artist Niké Arrighi as Carlisle, Paul Eddington (best known as the easily befuddled James Hacker in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister) as De Richleau even more skeptical friend Richard Eaton, Charles Gray (Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever) as Mocata, and Nigerian playwright Yemi Ajibade as an African cultist.

The direction of veteran Hammer hand Fisher is tight and taut all the way through. Matheson’s adaptation keeps raising the stakes and incorporating ever more sinister occult lore. Plus, dig those vintage cars. Altogether, it is a highpoint in the Hammer filmography, even though it was not a hit in its day. Highly recommended for fans of vintage horror, The Devil Rides Out screens Thursday night (10/4) as part of Satanic Panic at the Arena CineLounge.