Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Horror by the Decade: The Devil Rides Out

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the fifth post in this series, featuring a movie from the Sixties).

Prior to the late Sixties, films which touched upon the subject of Satanism were few and far between. In the classic Universal horror movie The Black Cat, Boris Karloff played a rather blatant diabolist. The Val Lewton film The Seventh Victim also dealt with devil worshippers, although they were called Palladists, a term used for an alleged Masonic diabolic order in the 19th Century. All of this began to change in the late Sixties with the release of such films as Rosemary's Baby and Witchfinder General. Hammer's entry into the genre of Satanic horror would be The Devil Rides Out, released in 1968.

The Devil Rides Out was a change of pace for Hammer Films. The studio entered the field of Gothic horror in 1957 with the movie The Curse of Frankenstein. Its success was followed in 1958 by Hammer's adaptation of Dracula. The success of these two films led Hammer Films to make yet more Gothic horror movies from the late Fifties into the Sixties, to the point that Gothic horror became the genre most identified with the studio. The success of the Hammer horror movies also sparked a new cycle towards Gothic horror which lasted well into the Sixties. The Devil Rides Out differed from the vast majority of Hammer films in that it was an occult horror movie rather than a Gothic horror movie. Indeed, alongside such films as Rosemary's Baby, Witchfinder General, and Curse of the Crimson Altar, all released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out showed that the cycle towards Gothic horror was coming to an end and a new cycle towards occult horror was beginning.

The Devil Rides Out was based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley. Both the novel and the film were set in the 1930s and  featured the hero of several of  Wheatley's novels, Duc de Richleau, a French aristocrat who with an extensive knowledge of the occult (played in the film by Christopher Lee). In both the novel and the film de Richleau does battle with a Satanic cult in the south of England, led by the warlock Mocata (played in the movie by Charles Gray, best known as the Criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Dennis Wheatley was first published in 1933 with the novel The Forbidden Territory, which introduced the world to Duc de Richleau. It proved to a rather huge success, and was adapted as a feature film the following year. Wheatley followed The Forbidden Territory with yet more thrillers, each of which  sold exceedingly well. After paperback editions of Wheatley's novels had first appeared in the Sixties, his sales skyrocketed into the millions. It would not be the sales of Wheatley's books that would lead to Hammer Films adapting The Devil Rides Out, but one of the studio's biggest stars instead. In the mid-Fifties Christopher Lee had met Dennis Wheatley at one of the author's lectures and was a huge fan of his work. It was Lee who urged Hammer Films to adapt the author's work. It was then in the autumn of 1963 that Hammer Films optioned the rights to The Devil Rides Out and some of Wheatley's other occult novels. Hammer would not adapt The Devil Rides Out right away, however, as they felt that it would not receive a certificate from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).

Fortunately, on both sides of the Atlantic, strictures regarding feature films would become liberal, so that eventually Hammer Films felt secure enough in adapting the novel The Devil Rides Out as a feature film. John Hunter, who co-wrote the Hammer adventure film Pirates of Blood River, wrote the original script for the film. Unhappy with Hunter's screenplay, the studio then hired legendary science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer Richard Matehson to write a new script. Still concerned over possible censorship, Hammer Films submitted their shooting script to the BBFC. The BBFC made it clear that they did not want to see "...any misuses of Christian emblems or any parodies of Christian prayers." As a result, Hammer was very careful in what it showed on the screen in The Devil Rides Out.

While the film changed writers, from the very beginning it was intended that Christopher Lee should play the lead character, Duc de Richleau. Hammer had originally wanted Gert Fröbe (best known for playing Goldfinger in the movie of the same name) to play the role of the villain Mocata, the leader of the Satanic cult in the film. The role of Mocata ultimately went to Charles Gray, who would later play the Bond villain in Diamonds Are Forever and would become most famous as the Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Australian opera singer and actor Leon Greene played de Richleau's oversized and impulsive sidekick Rex Van Ryn.

The director on The Devil Rides Out was Terence Fisher, the man who directed Hammer's first forays into Gothic horror (The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula), as well as many of the studio's classic films. While The Devil Rides Out was set in the Twenties and it was an occult horror film, it looked very much like the Hammer horror films from 1957 to 1963. Like those films (many of which were directed by Fisher), The Devil Rides Out is characterised by balanced composition in its scenes and balanced editing. While Hammer was able to get the writer, lead actor, and director of their choice, they were not so lucky when it came to the movie's special effects. Michael Staivers-Hutchins co-owned the rights to the novel and demanded that he do the special effects in return for his rights to the book. Hammer Films was understandably displeased with this deal, and the end some of the bigger effects would be accomplished by an uncredited Les Bowie, the man who had provided special effects on such Hammer classics as The Quatermass Xperiment and Dracula. The Devil Rides Out had a respectively big budget for a Hammer production, at £285,000. This allowed a very convincing recreation of the Thirties, from its wardrobe to classic Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.

The Devil Rides Out would not fare particularly well after shooting on the film ended in the summer of 1967. It was producer Anthony Nelson Keys who decided that Leon Greene's voice would have to be redubbed. It is unclear what Keys' reasoning was in this, although it is possible that Leon Greene sounded a bit too Australian for Rex Van Ryn, who was supposed to be English. Greene was revoiced by Patrick Allen, who also provided the voiceover for the British trailer for The Devil Rides Out. In the United States the film's American distributor, 20th Century Fox, cut several seconds of some of the film's more controversial footage. As it was thought that the title The Devil Rides Out sounded too much like a Western, its title in the United States was changed to The Devil's Bride.

Released July 7, 1968 in the United Kingdom and December 18, 1968 in the United States, The Devil Rides Out did not do well on either side of the Atlantic. It is difficult to say why The Devil Rides Out did so poorly at the box office, but it seems likely it was a case of bad timing. In the United States, the similarly themed Rosemary's Baby was released on June 19, 1968. Witchfinder General, Trigon British Film Productions' period horror film, was released in May 1968 in the United Kingdom and in August 14, 1968. Even though it had been conceived in 1963 and filmed approximately the same time as Rosemary's Baby (the summer of 1967), The Devil Rides Out was not released in the United Kingdom until July 20, 1968 and until December 18, 1968 in the United States. With two films dealing with Satanism having beat it to cinemas, there was probably little audience left over for The Devil Rides Out.

Regardless, The Devil Rides Out would go onto become a cult film and a favourite of many Hammer Film fans. The reason is that it is quite simply a very well crafted film. Much of this is due to the script by Richard Matheson. Matheson remained loyal to the basic plot of the book while still improving upon it. It was in part Matheson's skill in weaving fantastic events into a realistic milieu which makes The Devil Rides Out such an effective film.

Complimenting Richard Matheson's script are the performances of the leads. Duc de Richlieu is one of the very few heroes Christopher Lee ever played. He not only endowed de Richlieu with an aristocratic air, while also giving him a cool and dignified presence. It is arguably one of the best performances of Lee's career. Charles Gray also did a great job as the villain Mocata. Loosely based on Aleister Crowley, Charles Gray's Mocata is at once charming and threatening, with such confidence that it seems he would be impossible to defeat. Perhaps no better actor played opposite Christopher Lee short of Peter Cushing and Edward Woodward. Terence Fisher's direction must also be given much of the credit for The Devil Rides Out. With Matheson's script as a guide, Fisher created some of the most memorable set pieces of any Hammer film. An experienced horror director, Fisher endowed the film with a sense of horror without resorting to gore or graphic violence.

The year 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the cycle towards Gothic horror and the start of a new cycle towards occult horror. It would only be within a few years that the horror genre would be dominated by such movies with Satanic themes as The Exorcist and The Omen. The Devil Rides Out would be one of the first movies in the new occult horror cycle. Conceived in 1963, plans for the film actually pre-dated both Rosemary Baby and Witchfinder General. The Devil Rides Out is then a very historic film. That it is also a very good film is why it is remembered today.


Jim Marquis said...

Have you ever seen "Night of the Demon" with Dana Andrews? Very strong film from the late 50's, extremely atmospheric.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I've seen Night of the Demon. I always liked the film. As you say, it is extremely atmospheric!