The Devil Rides Out (1968)
By TONY FRAME
I saw this film for the first time in the late 1980s. It was a Friday or Saturday night at my parents house. In those days you would look at the TV guide in the newspaper on the Thursday as it had the extended TV guide for the weekend. And you would plan your Friday and Saturday evening around whatever films were scheduled that took your fancy. British terrestrial television, which was limited to four channels back then, was pretty good in fairness. There was a good selection of Art-house and World Cinema films on channel 4 and the BBC would have more quality than quantity. ITV, or STV (for us in Scotland), would generally have the mainstream films. So overall there was a good balance of choice
I always loved Hammer Horror films ever since seeing Horror of Dracula (1958) when I was way too young. Horror films always fascinated me. And there was always a good selection of Hammer Horror films on British terrestrial television throughout the 80s and 90s. Probably because the rights were not too expensive to purchase i’d imagine.
I vividly remember the beginning of The Devil Rides Out as I was sat watching it with my parents in the living room, in front of the 14 inch TV. The dramatic and ominous music begins along with the vibrant colours of the opening credits. The stars of the starry night sky are tainted in a red hue and they fade out as smoke billows over the screen. A yellow pentagram slowly fades in with an illustration of The Goat of Mendes—that abomination of a man’s body with a ram’s head stares back at me. More drawings of the occult dissolve in and out in conjunction with the music that it’s almost as if you’re being hypnotised. Impressionable and yet terrifying for any horror-obsessed teenager back then.
The first twenty minutes were memorable and on my re-watch I feel this is still one of the strongest portions of the entire film. I always remember the creepiness of the house that Christopher Lee and Patrick Mower visit, to see their old friend Rex (Leon Green) who has been evading them. The night-time exterior shots of the house establish the observatory which adds to the mystique of it all. And the strange array of guests that Rex is hosting is reminiscent of the end scene in Rosemary’s Baby. The pace of this first twenty minutes is excellent as Lee and Mower kidnap Rex when it becomes apparent he is involved in Devil worship, led by the enigmatic Charles Gray.
When Lee and Mower revisit the house a short time later—when everyone has left—that’s when the first encounter with the supernatural occurs. The observatory sets the stage for this climax, amidst the pentagram on the floor and the sacrifical hen and black rooster clucking away. Smoke rises from the floor and the apparition of a demon transpires—in the form of a bare-chested black man in red harem-type shorts and yellow eyes. This is not outright scary for horror-viewing veterans, but the terrifying horror is amplified with the use of the music and Lee’s acting as he commands Rex not to look at the Demon’s eyes, which he unwittingly does.
The middle of the film is where it loses the pace slightly. And it’s only in the last thirty minutes that the film recovers with an excellent and grand finale. There are some good effects that hold up well, even now, and a good twist involving space and time that I probably didn’t understand fully when I was younger. It’s great to see Lee in a role that was different to his other Hammer Horror outings. And Charles Gray really does make for a formidable and powerful nemesis.
I’m not a fan of remakes or reboots but this is a story that could be updated for modern horror audiences. If such an endeavour is undertaken then the film-makers should take note of what works in this film and build upon the weaker elements to make them stronger in the new version. The sinister menacing overtone and unravelling mystery of the first twenty minutes is gold to be kept in any modern screenplay. The music would have to be on par with James Bernard’s terrifying score. The failings of the middle section of the film are there to be exploited; explore the characters and their unique friendship with some backstory regardless if it is in the source material. Finish with a finale that was duly demonstrated in this version, directed by Terence Fisher – a Hammer Horror veteran. Most importantly though, cast two actors worthy of Lee and Gray’s stature. Without them, The Devil Rides Out wouldn’t have held up as strongly as it did, all these years later.