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 good films were on the television. British terrestrial television, however limited with four channels, 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. All in all it was pretty good for what it was.
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 vividly remember being sat down on the floor in the living room, next to the radiator at the window, in front of the 14 inch television (standard size then). With my parents sitting behind me, on the sofa, as The Devil Rides Out started. And the ominous music and vibrant visual opening credits that followed. With the pentagram and The Goat of Mendes illustration overlay, on top of the stars of the night sky, which dissolves into what looks like red smoke or flames fanning behind.
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. 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 they (Lee and Mower) revisit the house a short time later, and everyone has left, that’s when the first encounter with the supernatural occurs. Smoke rises from the ground, in the observatory, and the apparition of a demon transpires. In the form of a bare-chested black man, in red harem-type shorts, with feint yellow eyes. Which, in fairness, is not outright scary (even in 1968 I surmise), but the creepiness and 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. Which has 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.
It is a film that could be remade now, especially with the remake of Suspiria just coming out. I’m not a fan of remakes or reboots, but this is a story that younger audiences should see. If a remake does happen, 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.
They should use the creepiness and mystery of the first twenty minutes. Make sure the music is on par with James Bernard’s score. Explore the characters more in the middle section of the film. And give us a great finale as was duly demonstrated in this version, that was 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, re-watching it all these years later.