“The Devil Rides Out” begins with one friend acting strangely, having fallen in with a cult and its charismatic leader. The others must use black magic to fight the cult leader, who will face divine retribution for summoning the angel of death. It is a rollicking good adventure, almost a cautionary tale – film censorship issues over the occult were an obstruction to the film’s production for some time – and is told in a very adult and straightforward manner, with themes of brainwashing and possible child murder, by one of the demons summoned, coming into the mix. No wonder the characters literally thank God when all is over.
Christopher Lee is having the time of his life in one of his favourite roles, possibly because he was playing the hero, and not the monster, although I am not clear on why he knows so much magic himself. This time, evil is entirely human, through Charles Gray as Mocata, leading a ritual on Salisbury Plain, then infiltrating a family home – “I shall not be back... but something will.”
Hammer films have a very particular look, and for one set in the 1920s, its gothic trademark is all over the production, adding in a goat-headed devil and a giant tarantula. Aside from Christopher Lee, many actors in this film will be seen later: Paul Eddington, later seen in TV sitcoms “The Good Life” and “Yes, Minister,” plays the sceptic Richard Eaton, on whom the Duc de Richleau stakes their friendship in requesting Richard to stay within a chalk circle to bring a demon forward; Charles Gray, pre-Blofeld here, will also be found in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Shock Treatment”; and Patrick Mower, playing Simon Aron, the friend that gets pulled into the cult, has appeared in the soap opera “Emmerdale” since 2000.
“The Devil Rides Out” has a reputation as one of the great Hammer horror films, and is a cult favourite, but the definitive book of the company, “The Hammer Vault,” said it flopped upon release? How could it? It had the stars, the horror, and certainly the writing – the script is by Richard Matheson, of “I Am Legend,” “Duel,” and a number of short stories and “Twilight Zone” episodes. However, what was a co-production with an American company, Seven Arts (owners of Warner Bros. at the time) did not translate to success in the US: Paramount had its own occult hit film in the same year, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Christopher Lee’s big film in 1968 turned out to be, well, “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.”