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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

‘The Devil Rides Out’: Christopher Lee and Richard Matheson Brought the Occult to Hammer’s House of Horror [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect The Devil Rides Out (1968).

The Context

The House of Hammer is one lovingly constructed upon a foundation of refreshed adaptations of Universal’s most recognizable monsters and frightening figures. For years the studio had been sustained by genre mainstays, leveraging recognizable terrors to propel their sometimes niche offerings into the realm of populist entertainment. Still, by the mid-1960s, it was becoming increasingly more obvious that the studio needed to embrace new material if they were to remain germane to the genre conversation.

Much had changed since the success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), with the following decade finding audiences and censors alike embracing more progressive attitudes in regards to what was considered acceptable onscreen entertainment. This liberalization was mirrored in the literary world as well, with the occult works of famed British author Dennis Wheatley, who had his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, finding relevance once again as interest in the Satanic black arts spiked in 1960’s public consciousness.

Hammer’s foray into the dark sorcery of Wheatley’s famous tomes came into being not by the accord of forward-thinking studio heads, but by the urging hand of their most famous fanged Count, Christopher Lee. Having forged a fast friendship with Wheatley during the production of Dracula (1958), Lee spent the next few years trying to convince the studio that Wheatley’s novels were a worthy investment of time, energy and artistic resources.

After much goading by Lee, Anthony Hinds went to rights holder and special effects artist Michael Stainer-Hitchens to acquire the rights to Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. Stainer-Hitchens agreed to the terms, with the addendum that he be brought on board to handle the visual effects. By 1963, Hammer studios submitted the proposition to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) for approval with the intent of starting production shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately for Hammer, blasphemy laws in cinema had yet to be relaxed enough to allow the film to come into existence at the time. However, within a year Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964) would hit screens and reveal a massive shift in the UK cinematic landscape. While any perceived anti-religious sentiment required filmmakers to move with caution, popular demand and evolving audience open-mindedness drove the box office and therefore what was occupying the screens.

Screenwriter John Hunter was tasked with writing the script, having penned the well received Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960) for Hammer several years prior. The result was something Anthony Hinds deemed “too British”, so an American was sought in his stead. Some years prior, Hammer had worked with Richard Matheson in an effort to adapt his own novel I Am Legend for the screen. Given the precedent, Matheson was again called to Hammer studios, bringing with him a terse and tight sensibility in relation to the narrative, the dialogue and the novel’s challenging themes.

Considering the starkly contrasting yet parallel motifs regarding good and evil, Hammer tapped director Terence Fisher to helm the project. A man who spent his Hammer career exploring the extremes of light and dark as two opposite sides shared by the same coin, Fisher seemed the ideal filmmaker to tackle the overtly religious material that so perfectly aligned with his own ideological perspective. With Christopher Lee assuming the lead role he had been pursuing since he first approached the studio with the material in the late 1950s, The Devil Rides Out had at last materialized.

Ultimately the film plays bigger in scope and visual style than much of what had come before it. Shot at Elstree Studios, the layout and locations feel distinctive and more physically oppressive than the work they had produced for so many years at their Bray Studios mainstay. Combining most of Hammer’s major players, with James Bernard providing the imposing and triumphant score and Bernard Robinson handling the staggeringly atmospheric set design, the film emerged as one of Hammer’s prestige pictures capable of standing alongside anything that was made in their “Golden Age” of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The film performed admirably in the UK with both audiences and critics alike, but failed to connect with moviegoers in the US. Released by 20th Century Fox as The Devil’s Bride, for fear that the original title made it sound too much like a western, the title did little to excite with its classic tale of good pitted against evil. Still, all creative parties involved, including Wheatley, were incredibly pleased with the finished film, most considering it one of Hammer’s best works.

It would be several years before The Devil Rides Out would be acknowledged as a Hammer classic, helped a great deal by its television syndication in the 1970s. While some films had certainly paved the way for its release, it’s clear that it served as a prelude to so many others. Films so brazen as to utilize absolute evil to suggest the existence of absolute good would go on to define Hollywood horror in the coming decade, as soon as that same year with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and culminating artistically and commercially with the release of The Exorcist (1973).

Within a few year’s time, Hammer would find that their intuitions had been correct and the genre was indeed shifting toward the overt and the occult. While they would continue to adapt and provide some of the best genre cinema of their time, they would find themselves increasingly out-of-step with an audience far more interested in the unpredictable and out-of-control than the cool, calculated work of a visionary like Terence Fisher.

The House of Hammer may have laid its foundation in a mixture of Universal’s stable of monstrous characters, but their continuing legacy was one of macabre evolution, seeking meaning in the dichotomy between the righteous and the damned right up until the studio shuttered its doors in the late 1970s. No film embodies this sentiment more than The Devil Rides Out, a work of unwavering conviction that was as classical as it was modern, proving that Hammer studios was as relevant as ever even if the years that followed might have suggested otherwise.

The Film

“I’d rather see you dead than meddling with Black Magic!”

James Bernard’s resounding score swells over a frame dotted by red-lit stars as six rings configure themselves in a pattern marked by alien symbols. The credits appear as the image fades to a demonic goat’s head, framed by the five points of a star housed in two concentric circles. In time, the circles disappear, leaving the goat, now a sickly green, the remainder of his body suddenly visible as a vile, naked, winged thing standing before two entwining snakes. The parade of odd, ritualistic images continues, all plucked from the sordid history of witchcraft and the Black Arts, and all in pursuit of a narrative which will undoubtedly unearth the power that these unsettling emblems might be capable of.

The Devil Rides Out wastes no time indoctrinating its audience to the realities of the occult, forgoing superstition in the face of what the film posits undiluted faith might be capable of. At the outset, such imagery might seem off-putting at its worst, but as the film treads forward, it’s clear that the discomfort they elicit might well come from the very real power they hold when wielded by one willing to exploit their dangerous potential.

Directed by Terence Fisher and adapted from the Dennis Wheatley novel by Richard Matheson, the film is a mixture of classical storytelling sensibility and more modern visual execution. Its tightly constructed plot is executed through dense waves of surprisingly compelling dialogue driven exposition just as much as it is eerie and brilliantly directed set pieces designed around the unimaginable prowess of evil incarnate. At its core lies the crisis of faith— the power of belief in one’s self and, most importantly, one’s convictions— that populates every single one of Terence Fisher’s most memorable efforts.

The film concerns Duc de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, played by Christopher Lee and Leon Green respectively, as they attempt to dissuade their much younger friend Simon, played by Patrick Mower, from joining a Black Arts worshipping cult. Green and Mower are quite good in their respective roles, denoting the appropriate fear and seriousness at all the necessary moments, but Christopher Lee is the standout turn of the trio.

Lee portrays the regal, aristocratic Duc with ease and unwavering conviction. He carries an icy authority that does not feel too far flung from the villains he’s played in the past, while still serving the noble influence his character requires. At once able to charm and repel, bewitch and offend, Nicholas exists as the ideal foil to the leader of the devilish collective, Charles Gray’s Mocata.

Charles Gray’s performance is infused with the same unflappable faith as his more virtuously resolute counterpart. With his understated smile, clear, blue eyes and dulcet tones, what’s most frightening about Mocata’s magic and glamour is that it comes from a place of alluring charisma. Evil, indeed, can be treacherously charming.

Although the scenes sometimes present as slow and methodical, often driven by Duc’s expository orations informing the characters onscreen as well as the viewer of the practical ins and outs of the practitioners of the Dark Arts, the plot itself moves quickly. What is a pleasant gathering of the wealthy and reserved in one scene, transforms into an unhinged ritual of crazed cultists several scenes later. Rather than fear, this method promotes an unsettling detachment from the natural order, brought to life here as the hive-minded occultists welcome the sabbath and the presence of Satan himself, “The Goat of Mendes”.

While Michael Stainer-Hitchens handled the effects in the film, the half-man half-goat was realized by a freelance Roy Ashton in an uncredited job that stands as one of the film’s more effective effects. Under the mask cast from an actual goat’s head, Eddie Powell, stunt-double for Christopher Lee in the Dracula films, plays the creature in a calm but deeply intimidating fashion. At its best slightly obscured in the peripheral, the creature receives a bit too much well lit screen time, but its brief presence benefits the film regardless, reaffirming the outrageous truths that both those who abide by the light and the dark subscribe.

Although he was assigned to the film, Terence Fisher directs the picture as though it were a deeply personal passion project. The camera always sits in the proper place, frames the moment in the correct angle and moves only when it is absolutely necessary to tell the story or invoke an incredibly specific feeling. Steering closer than most directors might have felt comfortable with to his beliefs regarding Christianity, God and the nature of the soul, the film inhabits a visual intimacy that allows the events onscreen to feel more authentic and, as a result, disturbing.

This comes to the forefront when Duc and Rex take Simon and potential recruit Tanith (played with eerie disconnectedness by Niké Arrighi) to Nicholas’ niece Marie and her family’s house for refuge. Sarah Lawson plays Marie with matronly warmth, bringing a caring, thoughtful introspection to pivotal scenes. She adds an emotional weight to the latter half of the film that raises the stakes for both her character and her family as well as the greater good she’s meant to defend and represent— despite the sometimes disappointing lack of agency her character is afforded.

Shortly thereafter Mocata turns up at the door and sits down with Marie. The scene that follows is a masterclass in restraint and visual language, the camera moving almost imperceptibly closer to Marie as it intercuts with shots of Mocata. His eyes grow progressively larger as the frame slowly tightens. Intense, frightening and as spellbinding as the hypnotism being employed, the scene is some of the best work of Fisher’s career and a highlight of the film.

Ultimately, the narrative builds to a siege, as evil mounts its assault on good, confining the protagonists to a circle of protection in the Eaton’s home. Bombarded with gorgeously crafted visual atmosphere and manifestations spirited from Mocata’s own ungodly imagination, the group does all they can to navigate the terrors of mind and soul while Christopher Lee’s Duc shouts exorcising incantations that the actor himself pulled from his own research into the occult.

Admittedly, some of Stainer-Hitchens’ effects work during this sequence fails to impress so many years removed. Still, the gravity of the performances and the sincerity of the film’s emotional landscape, not to mention the exquisite filmmaking craft on display, lend weight to things like the giant, superimposed tarantula and the repeated frames of the black horse of the Angel of Death that might otherwise not have worked at all. There’s even a bit of blue screen behind the skulled face of the Angel of Death left in the film, unfinished during production, that is scarcely noticeable amidst the raw intensity of the scene on display.

The climax of the film finds Marie’s daughter Peggy, played by Rosalyn Landor, taken to be used as the ultimate sacrifice in a ritual overseen by Mocata, forcing the thinned ranks of the film’s heroes to traverse time and space to put a stop to the cult’s devilish aims. While Fisher’s savants are typically men, here it’s Marie, embracing her instincts and holding true to her faith, that codifies the actions of both the good and the evil by tapping into that same unknowable magic to carry out the whims of the divine against the unquenchable lust of the wicked.

The Devil Rides Out is an unapologetic diatribe about the capabilities of humankind. It regards evil as it does good, sacrifice as it does selfishness, two extremes that share an endlessly unwavering persuasion. Terence Fisher directs with subtlety and grace, while the narrative strikes with undisguised intention, making way for a plainly told tale of earthly morality and a hint at the extent of the otherworldly powers some might abuse to circumvent such ethical concerns.

In the end, when the smoke clears and the righteous emerge, James Bernard’s imposing score bellows once more. However, this time it’s changed. Untethered by the sinister symbology of evil’s sorcerous design, the same theme is triumphant, vibrant and a comforting anthem of empowering divinity. Like the film it serves to conclude, the score carries the message inherent in the duality of all people everywhere: one is what one believes and— as such— is capable of anything.

The Special Features

This release comes equipped with both a new 2K scan of the 20th Century Fox interpositive by Shout! and 2012 restored master with updated visual effects by StudioCanal. Shout!’s transfer is a noticeable improvement, providing vibrant colors and a rich tapestry of shadows that serves as an upgrade to the washed out and often faded look of the prior scan. While it is fascinating to see the digitally updated effects on the StudioCanal release, fans of the film will be pleased to know that Shout!’s version showcases the original, untouched effects work, providing something for the purist as well as those seeking modern updates.

The DTS-HD Master Mono track is clean and crisp, presenting James Bernard’s wonderful score in all of its striking glory and an easy to discern dialogue experience. As is often the case with Shout!’s Hammer releases, this is a superb package that deserves to be in any Hammer fan’s collection.

Audio Commentary, by Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr and Richard Christian Matheson

(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

Film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr are joined by Richard Christian Matheson, the son of Richard Matheson, to discuss the creative process, thematics and people involved in The Devil Rides Out in this engaging commentary track.

With several drafts of the original screenplay at the ready, the three discuss the story transformations that occurred in bringing the film to the screen. They dive into the machine that was Hammer Studios at the time and the impressive line-up of Hammer greats that took part in creating the film. They explore the deeply felt themes at play in the story that were so indicative of Terence Fisher’s work and how the cast, particularly Christopher Lee, was able to bring them all to life with such vigor. And, of course, a great deal of praise and thought is poured into Richard Matheson’s script and his incalculable contribution to one of Hammer’s great pictures.

It’s a thoughtful, insightful and informative listen and one that die-hard fans and newcomers to the film will both benefit from.

Audio Commentary, by Christopher Lee, Sarah Lawson and Marcus Hearn

(2000, produced by Anchor Bay)

Ported over from the Anchor Bay DVD, this commentary features Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson reminiscing on their time making The Devil Rides Out while Marcus Hearn moderates.

Much of the commentary revolves around Christopher Lee’s impressions and anecdotal recollections of how he championed the novel and worked to get the film made for over nearly a decade. Sarah Lawson too provides pleasant, kindhearted impressions and remembrances of the film and those they worked with while making it, calling about a sense of time and place that only those on set have the ability to manifest. Also of interest here is Christopher Lee’s thoughts for the potential remake that never came to fruition, a project he was clearly passionate about bringing to life.

Overall, the track is an enjoyable listen that further expands the history of the film and deepens one’s appreciation for all that went into making it.

Satanic Shocks — Kim Newman Recalls The Devil Rides Out (29:59)

(New: 2019, produced by Shout! Factory)

Film critic Kim Newman runs through the history of The Devil Rides Out, beginning with Richard Matheson’s relationship with Hammer and carrying through to the studio’s attempt to connect to the churning themes of the occult that the horror genre became so affixed on in the late 1960’s.

Newman talks about Wheatley’s novels and the influence of real-life occultist Aleister Crowley, mentioning that the eventual film stands out for taking the devil seriously in a way that most previous films about devil worship hadn’t. He contextualizes the film in Hammer’s library, as well as with other films at the time that shared similar themes, like Burn Witch Burn (1962) and Night of the Demon (1957). The segment runs a little long and is a little dry, but incredibly informative nonetheless.

Folk Horror Goes Haywire — Jonathan Rigby on The Devil Rides Out (24:08)

(New: 2019, produced by Shout! Factory)

Film critic Jonathan Rigby provides his perspective on The Devil Rides Out, this time through the lens of the cultural happenings of the time in which it was made as well as how the picture fits into the timeline of Terence Fisher’s storied career.

Made during the “summer of love”, Rigby notes that the 1929 setting probably seemed outdated to youthful audiences, but was still undeniably one of Hammer’s most impressive achievements. He discusses Fisher’s tumultuous career at that point, having had several accidents running into vehicles after leaving pubs late at night, even costing him the director’s chair for Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968). The segment is entertaining and informative and Rigby does a good job keeping the discussion lively.

Black Magic — The Making of The Devil Rides Out (34:59)

(2012, produced by Studio Canal)

This relatively brief making-of feature offers a summation of the events leading up to the making of The Devil Rides Out as well as a thoughtful examination of all that went into its production, featuring insights from Richard Matheson, Patrick Mower, the children of Michael Stainer-Hitchens and a handful of Hammer historians.

Although this feature treads much of the same ground covered in the various commentaries and interviews found on the disc, it’s enlightening to hear Matheson’s perspective as well as some of the historian’s more in depth analysis. Of particular interest is David Huckvale’s breakdown of James Bernard’s ritualistic score and the spirit that resides in the music itself.

Dennis Wheatley at Hammer (13:14)

(2012, produced by Studio Canal)

Dennis Wheatley biographer Phil Baker provides a brief history of author Dennis Wheatley’s nearly 80 book career in this feature ported over from the UK Studio Canal Blu-ray. Baker describes how Wheatley is disproportionately remembered for the small percentage of his books that are based around the occult as Wheatley is responsible for inventing the modern, seductive and luxurious image of Satanism. He covers the whole of Wheatley’s generally contentious relationship with Hammer studios, including his displeasure with The Lost Continent (1968) and his utter loathing of To the Devil a Daughter (1976).

The feature is a fascinating examination of one of horror fiction’s most influential voices and paints a picture that informs both The Devil Rides Out and Hammer’s occult output in their latter years.

World of Hammer — Hammer (25:53)

(1990, produced by Hammer Film Productions)

Clips from some of the studio’s most famous efforts pepper this episode which seeks to showcase the impressive legacy of Hammer horror. Oliver Reed’s opening narration reminds that Hammer produced more than 260 films spanning every genre, ultimately achieving fame by focusing on the ultimate battles that rage between good and evil.

Clips from The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Qautermass series, Cloudburst (1951), One Million Years BC (1966), Twins of Evil (1971) and more make this a fun, albeit truncated tour through some of Hammer’s more memorable moments.

Trailers (5:02)

The first trailer opens with a question mark hovering amidst a red frame. Faces flash by the screen as the word “Why” snakes by, immediately proceeded by Christopher Lee’s commanding voice, asking if you believe in evil, in “the power of darkness”. Scenes from the movie show a disagreement about superstition and a man in a purple robe performing a ritual. People thrust and rage as a goat-man, the devil himself as the trailer claims, watches. The actors are introduced, including Charles Gray as Mocata, “the Devil’s chief disciple”, and the viewer is told they will hear, feel and see his evil in the final confrontation. A black horse descends and the screen is bathed in red: The Devil Rides Out.

The second trailer is the same as the first, but with the American release title of The Devil’s Bride at the end.

Image Gallery (4:37)

An assortment of head shots, production photos, candid on set photography, posters, lobby cards and international artwork comprise this collection of images which paint an entertaining portrait of the film’s advertising campaign as well as its players at the time of its release.

Final Thoughts

The name Hammer conjures up many alternate images of the Universal slate of the scary and the strange: Baron Victor von Frankenstein conducting his dark experiments, the cloaked Count Dracula descending on his willing prey whilst under the creature’s hypnotic spell and the lumbering mummy, crashing into an office to strangle the life from some petrified archeologist. Indeed, it’s undeniable that Hammer remains eternally enmeshed with these characters, making it all the more impressive that the studio was able to construct a new story atop the house that Frankenstein and Dracula built in the sunsetting years of Hammer’s run.

After a great deal of Christopher Lee’s convincing, Hammer committed to The Devil Rides Out, a property that tumultuously traversed the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, transitioning from an unreleasable abomination in the eyes of the British Board of Film Classification to a guaranteed moneymaker sitting beside a growing subgenre of like-minded films. With Richard Matheson’s streamlined script crafted with wit, intensity and drive and Terence Fisher’s creative eye and propensity for tales of grandiose morality, the film was set to stand as one of Hammer’s best executed creations.

The Devil Rides Out is an example of what the top notch talent collaborating and coalescing at Hammer studios in its prime was capable of: a tense and involving film with a simple plot that still has the ability to grip the viewer tight with its fascinating intricacies. A new direction for Hammer and actor Christopher Lee, having rarely played the protagonist, the film was a proactive pivot at a time of great genre change and revealed a prescience that refused to align with the out-of-touch reputation Hammer had been unjustly assigned.

Scream Factory brings the film to disc with the reverence one might expect of such a milestone film, providing excellent picture and audio quality along with the previous HD transfer with enhanced digital effects, leaving no fan without their preferred version. The features, both old and new, are comprehensive and enlightening, providing context and analysis that further serve to flesh out an understanding and appreciation of one of Hammer’s most enduring releases.

The film performed well enough in the UK, but was not nearly the behemoth box office hit the studio had believed it would be, due in large part to underperforming in the US. Perhaps it was too dated, too stuffy or maybe the US title The Devil’s Bride led to audience confusion and disinterest as Terence Fisher and Christopher Lee always believed. Regardless, despite its sterling reputation and immaculate creative team, The Devil Rides Out would mark one of the many steps toward the end of American financing and distribution and, subsequently, the studio’s viability as a whole.

As is the case with many of Hammer’s misunderstood classics, time has been kind to The Devil Rides Out, emerging as one of the studio’s most lauded titles. Synonymous with the Hammer moniker, the film has ascended to the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula without the added benefit of preexisting zeitgeist reputation, earning its way to the studio’s top tier movie ranks on its merits alone. While it was not the only occult film ushering in a new wave of broader horror storytelling, it was one of the best conceived and finest accomplished at the time, undeniably influencing cinematic battles between the divine and the damned for decades to come.

The House of Hammer is a many-storied structure, its foundation inlaid with the monsters of the past and its many towering floors built to house their own horrors which would go on to haunt a new generation of macabre enthusiasts, just as Universal’s own spooky slate did generations before. Hammer never stopped working to shape their genre domicile to the needs of its purveyors, for better or for worse, shifting step and amending direction toward what they thought might be next.

The result is a legacy of horror pictures that deal in universality, distilling good and evil into digestible narratives that exist out of time, crafting an eternal relevance that makes them forever pertinent to the genre conversation. The Devil Rides Out is a prime example of this, earning its place alongside the best of Hammer’s works and proving that the occult, which Hammer would spend the remainder of their time in operation exploring, was not anything new, rather an extension of their preexisting ideologies— another component of the foundation that supports this house of horror which will stand as long as there are people to cower in its shadow.


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