Christopher Lee battles the Angel of Death and other supernatural adversaries in Hammer’s essential The Devil Rides Out
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the August 4, 2023 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
Hammer Films and director Terence Fisher made names for themselves with 1958’s Horror of Dracula. This spawned a run of horror successes that spanned two decades and made instant genre icons out of stars Christopher Lee (as the immortal vampire Dracula) and Peter Cushing (as his mercurial adversary, Doctor Van Helsing). From there, the pair appeared in eight more motion pictures together, including a handful of Dracula sequels, superb Frankenstein and Mummy remakes, horror-comedies, and full-on creature-features.
But the first Hammer production I saw only included the first half of that dynamic Lee-Cushing combo: 1968’s smashing supernatural occult thriller The Devil Rides Out. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley and with a magnificent screenplay by Richard Matheson, this unsettling tale of possession, satanic rights, and hypnotic manipulations made an indelible impression on me as a wide-eyed youngster. To this day, there are scenes that send giddy chills hurtling up and down my spine every time I think about them.
Lee, in one of his few heroic turns, is Nicholas, Duc de Richleau. It is 1929, and the erudite academic is supposed to be reuniting with two of his companions from the Great War, the agreeably gruff Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) and his young protégé, the son of a late friend, Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). But when Simon is a no-show, Nicholas and Rex decide to pay him an announced visit and inadvertently discover he’s become involved in pagan rituals led by the captivatingly powerful Mocata (Charles Gray).
Things get increasingly sinister from there, and it’s easy to see how Fisher’s film — sadly one of his last — has influenced everything from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to even Satanic Panic over the past half-century. Heck, Lee considered The Devil Rides Out to be the best of his Hammer efforts, and I’m not about to disagree with him. That we never got a whole series of Duc de Richleau mysteries starring the actor (for context, he appeared as Dracula ten times over an 18-year period, seven of those for Hammer) is a gosh darn shame.
What makes this shocker timeless is how straightforward and minimalistic Fisher presents things, even the more sensationalistic sequences. It’s as if he’s treating the material more like a ticking-clock procedural than a grotesque descent into terror. This gives Mocata’s relaxed villainy an extra dose of oomph. He’s so calm and so persuasively resolute in his beliefs that it’s easy to grasp how Simon could so easily slip under the madman’s spell, and Gray portrays him with a forthright elegance that’s bloodcurdling in its easygoing subtlety.
The core of the film revolves around a battle of wills between Nicholas and Mocata, and even though the two barely share the screen, it’s clear this conflict between good and evil lies entirely upon their dueling shoulders. The latter wants to get his hands on Simon, of course, but he’s even more interested in a young woman who catches Rex’s eye, a beguiling psychic named Tanith (Niké Arrighi). Nicholas puts his formidable intellect and steadfast faith to the test to protect them all from Mocata’s devilish powers of destruction.
My mom was — still is — a big Lee fan. It’s safe to say that The Lord of the Rings is her favorite book of all time, and I think she was more excited that the actor portrayed Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy than anything else.
So imagine my eight-year-old shock when I brought home The Devil Rides Out from the library to discover she’d never seen it? Talk about glorious.
But even better was watching it with her. I remember sitting on the couch, and as much as I was squirming during scenes where Mocata calls upon a variety of evil entities to attack Nicholas and his companions — including a menacing giant tarantula and even the Angel of Death — I think I took more joy in seeing her do the exact same. We got to share all of this together, and considering how loopily nonsensical the ending was, that mom was so willing to sit there with me as I tried to unpack it and did her best to explain the time-bending madness is a wondrous moment I’ll never forget.
She was so happy that Lee played the good guy. Like everyone else, my mother was used to the actor being typecast as the bad guy. She was actually angry that she’d never even heard of the film, certain that it would have instantly become one of her favorites had she had the opportunity to see it during its original release. Mom said Nicholas reminded her of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, only instead of solving murders, Lee’s Duc de Richleau was a detective of the occult, and that’s about the best description of the character I can think of.
It’s memories like this that make The Devil Rides Out essential. Yes, even with its unfinished special effects (the studio notoriously ran out of money near the end of the shoot), Fisher’s film is undeniably scary and overflows in striking images of terror. But it’s thinking back to my adolescent self, sitting in the living room with my mother encountering all of its twists and turns together, that fills my heart with joy. As shared cinematic experiences go, this is one of the best I’ve ever had, and if that’s not the definition of an “unforgettable,” I don’t know what else would fit the bill.
Celebrating its 55th anniversary, The Devil Rides Out is available to purchase digitally on several platforms and is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.