Hammer-Rama: The Devil Rides Out, by Alexander Miller
It might sound strange to say that one of the best movies from Hammer deviates from their den of monsters, doesn’t take place in the gothic era, nor relies on any classic horror story, tall-tale, or mythic creature.
Implacably stirring and thoroughly modern, The Devil Rides Out stands out in the long line of Hammer Horror; a breakneck-paced, fully realized, cannily directed and perfectly cast contemporary thriller complete with menacing, black magic, and the devil himself.
This brilliant adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name was made by none other than Richard Matheson, whose horror credentials by 1968 were secured after screenplay credits for Corman’s House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Last Man on Earth. The Devil Rides Out is a collective highpoint for just about everyone involved. Christopher Lee (who insisted the studio base the film on Wheatley’s novel) has claimed this as his favorite Hammer outing, and rightfully so. Without fangs and red contact lenses, Lee owns the screen as Duc de Richleau. He bellows out a bevy of (necessary) exposition and wields a great deal of power as a heroic and resourceful human protagonist.
In Lee’s Hammer canon, you can see he’s interested in playing anything other than the dastardly Count Dracula. Like the many love/hate relationships that grow with actors’ career-defining roles (Connery: Bond; Pattinson: Twilight), Lee is trying to break away from the undead and his rousing performance in The Devil Rides Out indicates that very point. Lee’s never been shy about his growing disdain for the Count, and that’s one of the principal factors for the sliding scale of quality in the Dracula thread. However, it’s energy well spent because the mid to late-sixties era feature some of his most notable work with Rasputin the Mad Monk, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull (despite the two later credited to Hammer’s rival Amicus) and of course The Devil Rides Out.
And of course, at this time, it’s impossible to discuss the studio without lauding their headline director Terence Fisher, who’s at the height of his game in a relative departure from the gothic fare that had made the studio so famous.
What Hammer and Terence Fisher excel in is their mutual emphasis of seduction in their sexualized brand of horror. Evil is made slick and attractive, not ghoulish. The Devil Rides Out returns to the more classic form of good vs. evil, and we find ourselves rooting for Lee’s Duc de Richelieu thwarting the cult of Satanists and the story moving so quickly, with Matheson’s brainy quips, rapid-fire dialogue, car chases and brilliantly staged scenes and rituals. In many ways, this is the apex of Hammer Horror as it so deftly explores the dynamism of contrasting forces of good and evil, and it does so with such enforced sense of style and wit there’s a good case for the film being one of Hammer and Fisher’s best.
At the risk of sounding like an over congratulatory fanboy, Hammer was operating at a time when horror was progressive just as much as it was locked in a stalemate, relegated to drive-ins and bottom bill double features. Hammer arrived with hard sci-fi with their Quatermass series when atomic age movies showcased giant insects and space monsters. In a market capitalized by the likes of Corman and Castle, Hammer producers Anthony Hinds and Michael Carreras spun science fiction and horror with a mature angle but, whether by accident or design shaped their films into internationally marketable horror. Through the fifties and sixties the genre was contending with television, and aforementioned director-producers are credited with some classics while implementing gimmicks and gags to sell tickets; the pictures are fun, and there’s a rich aesthetic in Corman’s Poe films the American horror movies from this time don’t deliver a large scare factor. Time too has taken some edge off of Hammer’s earlier fare, and in a genre where the ante is always being upped Fisher’s moody expression exhibits an auteur of the craft of genre filmmaking if at times a bit mannered to be quantifiably scary. The Devil Rides Out has the best of both worlds of sixties horror in pushing Matheson’s screenwriting into Terence Fisher’s stately direction. This standalone entry from Hammer might not have the prestige of their more famous gothic titles but it’s one of their best.