BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: The Devil Rides Out / Blu-Ray Review

Hammer's eventual involvement in The Devil Rides Out was the outcome of two serendipitous attempts to gain the rights to Dennis Wheatley's original novel, written in 1934. Michael Stainer-Hutchins and Peter Daw, who had set up a company to develop optical and special effects, saw an opportunity to develop films from Wheatley's occult thrillers and had approached him directly for the rights, having already tussled unsuccessfully with his agents. They eventually secured the rights to The Devil Rides Out, The Satanist and To the Devil a Daughter in 1963.

Similarly, Hammer were pursuing new properties and Wheatley's novels were of interest to them despite their fears about the problems they could face with the BBFC and various religious representatives about the black magic subject matter. As Christopher Lee noted in his autobiography: 'After years of urging black-magic themes on Hammer, I had a breakthrough with The Devil Rides Out. Conservative, Hammer had always worried about the Church's reaction to the screening of the Black Mass. But we thought the charge of blasphemy would not stick if we did the thing with due attention to scholarship.' (1)

Lee also knew Wheatley, had first met him in the book department of Harrods in 1964 and was his neighbour. He also approached the 'Prince of Thriller Writers', as he had been described, to get his support. Lee then informed Hammer that Wheatley had given his permission for them to adapt The Devil Rides Out and recommended they negotiate with Stainer-Hutchins and Daw.

In 1964, having secured Wheatley's blessing, producer Anthony Hinds commissioned a script from John Hunter, an American writer based in the UK who had provided the script for one of Hammer's black and white thrillers, the hugely under rated Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960). Sadly, Hinds felt the resulting script was 'far too English', his view being an indication perhaps of Hammer's ongoing need to make films that would play well in the American market. In September 1964, he turned to another American writer, Richard Matheson.

'Let’s not be beastly to the Hun'
Matheson already had an established career as a highly regarded science fiction - horror writer, producing a number of short stories as well as his first novel Someone is Bleeding in the 1950s. By 1964, he had published several novels including the much lauded I am Legend, contributed a number of episodes to The Twilight Zone and had adapted his own novel The Shrinking Man as the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In the 1960s, he also wrote a number of the Roger Corman produced Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures.

Matheson came into Hammer's orbit after Anthony Hinds had bought the rights to I am Legend in 1957. Shortly after the flush of success with The Curse of Frankenstein, Matheson was invited to England to adapt the novel as the film Night Creatures. Terence Fisher was already being lined up to direct but the BBFC were displeased with Hammer's attempt to film the novel and threatened to ban it. Hammer sold the property on to Robert Lippert, one of their American funders and distributors, and eventually the film materialised in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price.

When Hinds commissioned Matheson for The Devil Rides Out, he had just completed the screenplay for their psychological thriller Fanatic (1965). He proceeded to streamline Wheatley's original novel and yet managed to remain very faithful to the story in the 95 minute running time he had at his disposal, even though the main reason for black magician Mocata's pursuit of Simon Aron, as a sacrifice to enable him to possess the Talisman of Set, is a vital element of character motivation that is missing.

He also curtailed much of the 'relentless parade of factoids' and 'esoteric lore about the astral plane, elemental spirits, the inner meaning of alchemy, familiars, grimoires, scrying, and the rest.' Major themes of the book, sympathetic to Wheatley's politics, were also jettisoned. The notions that Satanists were trying to start a new war, that the Nazis had misappropriated the swastika, that Rasputin had caused World War 1 were 'part of the book’s inner message, which is (to borrow a line from Noel Coward) "Let’s not be beastly to the Hun."' (2)

The Matheson script was duly submitted to the BBFC for their approval in 1965 and Hinds was provided with a response, including the vetoing of the film's original ending, from John Trevelyan that required from Hammer a script 'in a very much altered or modified form.' But there were other more pressing problems that Hinds had to contend with including the threat of a dwindling budget and the relationship with Michael Stainer-Hutchins and Peter Daw.

Hammer's negotiations with Stainer-Hutchins and Daw were drawn out between November 1963 and August 1967 and often rather fraught. James Carreras, in a letter from November 1965, outlined the problem: 'Stainer-Hutchins is willing to sell his interest in the picture [but] he is quite determined to do the special effects. We are told that this could be very costly to us and that he is not really capable of carrying out the high standards of special effects required for Hammer pictures... we want to get out of any commitment to Stainer-Hutchins, even if it costs us money!' (3)

Hinds was fretting about the money too. In May 1965, Carreras demanded Hinds keep the budget down to £180,000 and he responded with characteristic candour, to the implementation of such drastic reductions in cost, 'I doubt that the script will be recognisable!' (4) By the time the budget had risen to £285,000 the film was part of the Seven Arts - Fox - Warner/ABPC package that Hammer had set up in 1966. Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher was appointed as director and when shooting started at Elstree on 7 August 1967, Stainer-Hutchins and Daw retained their uncredited role as associate producers and the former oversaw the majority of the film's special effects.

Christopher Lee, having been instrumental in bringing The Devil Rides Out to the attention of Hammer, had been lobbying for the lead role in the film and Wheatley had supported him in his aim. Though he was tempted to play Mocata, the black magician, he was eventually cast as Mocata's nemesis the Duc de Richleau. The actor recalled, 'I told Hammer, "Look, enough of the villainy for the time being, let us try something different and let me be on the side of the angels for once."' (5) 

As a reflection of his own interest in the occult and the character's status as the mirror image of Mocata, Lee took the trouble to visit the British Museum to supplement Matheson's script with authentic conjurations for the film's climactic Sussamma ritual. There, he consulted an edition of the Grimoire of Armadel, a 17th Century book of ceremonial magic, and a specific spell to incarcerate the Devil in a bottle, to produce those legendary words 'Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta, Zati Zata Galatim Galata'. (6) 

Joining Lee was Charles Gray as Mocata, a role originally considered for Goldfinger's Gert Fröbe. Gray's portrayal as the silky voiced sophisticate was completely different from the bald-headed, pot-bellied Mocata depicted in the book and, allegedly, a manifestation of Aleister Crowley, the magician and occultist whom Wheatley knew socially and had taken to lunches at London's Hungaria Restaurant while researching for the book in the 1930s.

Opera singer Leon Greene, cast as Rex van Ryn, was previously Hammer's Little John in A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) and eventually dubbed here by Patrick Allen because, according to Allen, 'he sang his lines and they just felt it could be improved upon'. The rest of the cast featured Sarah Lawson (Marie Eaton), Patrick Mower (Simon Aron), Paul Eddington (Richard Eaton) and newcomer Nike Arrighi (Tanith Carlisle), who arrived from a stint in television on Out of the Unknown (1965-71), Theatre 625 (1964-48), The Saint (1962-69), The Prisoner (1967-68) and Man in a Suitcase (1967-68).
'a strong sense of something evil stealthily invading this ordered world'
Location shooting took place around Elstree and Borehamwood, with the car chases filmed on country roads that would be very familiar to television viewers as the 'Avengerland' featured in the filmed seasons of the television series The Avengers (1961-69). The conjuring of the Goat of Mendes, the accompanying 'orgy' and rescue of Tanith and Simon were filmed in the ubiquitous Black Park; Mocata's lair was at High Canons, a house at Buckettsland Lane, Well End and a couple of miles to the north of Borehamwood; Richard and Marie's house and green were provided by the environs of the Elstree Country Club, now the Corus Edgwarebury Hotel. 

The car chases and process plates for the later studio based inserts were manged by second unit director Christopher Neame and were beset by several problems, including a car crash and a camera being run over. Neame also oversaw the unit that filmed the entrance of the Angel of Death with a wheezy old horse whose wings fell off on the first attempt to film the sequence. (7)

Michael Stainer-Hutchins handled most of the visual effects save for the Angel of Death sequence which was supervised by Hammer's effects maestro Les Bowie, (the asthmatic horse was known as 'Les's horse' by the crew according to David Pirie) and Stainer-Hutchins' daughter remembered riding it at the studio. 

The Angel's skeletal face was a mask made by Roy Ashton, the make-up expert who had left Hammer after The Reptile (1966) but who returned briefly to help the film's make-up designer Eddie Knight. He also made the mask for the Goat of Mendes, worn by stunt man Eddie Powell on the night shoot at Black Park, and where the extras involved in the orgiastic rituals had their enthusiasm somewhat dampened by the muddy terrain. 

When Hinds finally saw a rough cut, he was concerned that all was not well with the film and composer James Bernard recalls that Hinds telephoned him and requested 'you have to do all you can because I'm not sure the film is working out as it should.' Bernard's score, certainly one of his best, combined with good editing and the re-dubbing of Leon Greene salved Hinds' worries. (8)

Uneven and incomplete visual effects aside, Hinds really had no cause to worry. The film benefited from extremely good performances from Lee and Gray, both playing characters that forcefully underpin 'the tension between England’s exterior pastoral elegance and class respectability, and its repressed bacchanalian urges'. (9) Lee, in particular, offers one of his best performances and initially casts the Duc de Richleau as a complex, imperious authority figure. However, if you look at the relationship between de Richleau and Simon, Lee cleverly drops the severe exterior of the character to reveal his genuine and tender concern for Simon when he discovers his meddling with black magic. 

Director Terence Fisher was also at the height of his powers at Hammer and his meticulous efforts, coupled with Bernard Robinson's lush period production design and cinematographer Arthur Grant's use of Technicolour, perfectly encapsulated Wheatley's novel of the English demimonde and their taste for occultism. The Devil Rides Out is a summation of Fisher's own themes and styles set within a disciplined yet dream-like film. 

The more intense moments of the film are surrounded by adventure genre tropes, car chases and rescues, that culminate in the Grand Sabbat, the orgiastic ritual to mark Simon and Tanith’s intended baptism into the left hand path, where de Richleau and Rex ride directly at the Goat of Mendes and hurl a crucifix at it. 

As Peter Hutchings notes, Fisher stages the adventure as an ideological struggle between the good father - de Richleau - and the bad father - Mocata - for the possession of two conflicted children, Simon and Tanith. James Bernard's score also exquisitely underlines the film's themes of the transfiguration of evil by good. 

Not only is it the quintessence of Fisher's use of spiritual allegory, where the depiction of evil as attractive and deadly can only be destroyed by a faith in innocence and Christian enlightenment (often symbolised by the crosses and holy water in the film) but it is also extends the power of female agency over authoritarian, patriarchal male figures. In the climax of the film it is the combined power of Marie, her daughter Peggy and the supernatural presence of Tanith that disintegrates Mocata's evil and overcomes de Richleau's fear of using the Sussamma ritual. 

Many of the set-pieces in the film remain extraordinarily powerful. Mocata's attempt to influence Marie Eaton, as she clutches her daughter's doll (another symbol of innocence and the parent-child relationships in the film), is a beautifully controlled use of camera movement, performance and editing where 'the balance and order of Fisher's approach helps to stress the surface mundaneness of the sequence... while the slow (to the point of being nearly imperceptible) camera movements give a strong sense of something evil stealthily invading this ordered world.' (10)

When Mocata sends various agents to attack the characters that represent spiritual good within the pentacle, we again get a sense of Fisher's control of the camera as it tracks back and forth along the edge of the circle. 'The final full-scale collision of good and evil in Fisher's work' operates as a trial by combat, unsettling the faith of the good through deception (the imitation of Rex demanding to be allowed into the house), weakness and scepticism (the doubts of the Richard Eaton character played so wonderfully by Paul Eddington), through the corruption of innocence (the spider attack on Peggy) and the terror at approaching death and the inevitability of mortality. (11)

It was also, very briefly, in tune with the 'Aquarian Age' obsessions of late 1960s culture. With Aleister Crowley staring out from the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the revival in occultism went hand in hand with counter-cultural movements and anti-establishment thinking, the sloughing off of repression and deference. Roman Polanski would, however, take up this mantle with Rosemary's Baby (1968) and tap into contemporary fears of conspiracy, religious doubt and the permissive society. The Devil Rides Out, when released in the US as The Devil's Bride, would trail unfavourably in its wake and this perhaps accounts for its failure to have an impact on the US box office.

Despite the film not fulfilling its potential, The Devil Rides Out is something of a last hurrah for the the mid 1960s period of Hammer as the studio attempted to move forward, find new subject matter and adapt the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises as the next decade approached. It is certainly one of the best, if not the best, of the films Terence Fisher made at Hammer and an example of Christopher Lee's abilities as an actor beyond the, by then, thankless role of Dracula that the studio insisted he continued to play. 

(1) Christopher Lee, Tall, Dark and Gruesome
(2) Phil Baker, The Devil Rides Out: How Dennis Wheatley sold black magic to Britain, Fortean Times, January 2010
(3) David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror
(4) Ibid
(5) Nick Louras and Lawrence French, Replay: The Devil Rides Out, Quarterly Review, Vol 6, No 2, Summer 2012
(6) Ibid
(7) Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films - The Elstree Studios Years
(8) Ibid 
(9) Andrew Leavold, Senses of Cinema
(10) Peter Hutchings, British Film Makers: Terence Fisher
(11) David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror

About the transfer
CGI enhancements aside (and I'll get to those in a minute) this is a beautifully restored high definition transfer at 1.66:1. The colours are especially lush and vibrant, spectacularly so in costumes such as Mocata's purple robes, Marie Eaton's dresses and Richard Eaton's bright red dressing gown. The detail is also impressive, again in the costumes, particularly the men's suits, but also the vintage cars, the landscapes, the stunning set decor from Bernard Robinson that really stands out in the Eaton's drawing room (check out the red and white sofa), the Duc de Richleau's yellow themed apartment and the interiors of Simon's house.

Faces are incredibly fine and full of depth and layers. A healthy grain is present, there are good contrast levels and the image is bright. Quality does drop on a number of occasions, with grain and colour variations due, as one would expect, to the use of process shots that show characters driving in cars or where other optical effects have been used to create the various apparitions that plague our heroes.

Special features
Hammer historian Marcus Hearn moderates a commentary with Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson. The commentary, I am reliably informed, was recorded in December 1997 and was originally featured on the laser disc of The Devil Rides Out released by Elite Entertainment. This was ported to the Anchor Bay DVD release of the film in 2000. Hearn adds in background to the film's production, the development of the script and Hammer's fears of the BBFC's and religious opinions of the film. Lee expounds on the Wheatley characters featured in the film and makes some interesting comparisons with Wheatley's book, highlights the black magic themes and symbols while Lawson adds notes on the actors and the performances. Hearn reveals that Gert Fröbe was the original choice for the potbellied Mocata of the novel, that Leon Greene may well have been cast for his build and the dubbing of Greene may well have been a demand from distributor Fox.

Lee also points out Bernard Robinson's superb contribution to the film with the elegantly designed sets. There are some lovely memories of Terence Fisher as a very generous director, as 'a great arranger' as Lee offers. Hearn also notes that by the standards of the day the visual effects were of quite high quality but Lee does takes pains to note which effects were deemed unsuccessful at the time. This is an informative conversation with Lee dominating and proving to be very erudite on the black magic subject matter of the film.

Black Magic: The Making of The Devil Rides Out (33:34)
The house style for these documentaries is now very slick and consistent and again Marcus Hearn puts together an informative half hour about Hammer's foray into the black magic novels of Dennis Wheatley. This includes interviews with Hearn, Denis Meikle, Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss, Patrick Mower and, a real treat, writer Richard Matheson. Meikle traces the 'age of Aquarius' vibe of the late 1960s and the rise in popularity of Wheatley's books and Hammer's interest in them as potential properties and the development of the script which ultimately led Hammer back to Matheson.

Rigby and Meikle examine the Corman/Poe legacy and matters of religion on screen. We also get context from Phil Baker, the author of The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley who notes how Wheatley's publishing career was 'saved' by the 1960s occult revival. Hearn covers the involvement of Michael Stainer-Hutchins, who bought the rights to Wheatley's occult novels, and how he worked with the Hammer team on the visual effects. His son and daughter, Dan and Kiffy, recall how their father knew Wheatley and wanted to develop the books into films.

Matheson discusses adapting the book and his relief that Hammer decided to stick with the period setting and not update it for the screen. Rigby and Baker suggest that Matheson actually streamlines Wheatley's book by losing the Satanism/Nazism subtext and adding grace to the dialogue. Gatiss and Rigby reflect on Christopher Lee's and Charles Gray's much loved performances. Mower relates an amusing story about how short he was in comparison with Lee and Leon Greene, who played Rex. He recalls discovering Greene, at six foot six, stuffing newspaper into his shoes in a game of one-upmanship with Lee over their respective heights.

Although Matheson initially disliked most films he had worked on he admits that he has found much to admire in Terence Fisher's direction on the film. Rigby also praises Fisher's work on the film, Phil Baker offers that Fisher was perfectly in tune with Wheatley and Mower remembers him as a director who wanted ideas from his performers. From Dan and Kiffy Stainer Hitchins we learn of the asthmatic old horse that 'only had one lung' and featured in the film's famous Angel of Death sequence and the poor tarantula that expired under the studio lights.

This concludes with a discussion of the visual effects which, even at the time, Hammer struggled with because of the low budget, and an appreciation of James Bernard's masterful music. Dan and Kiffy knew their father was upset that 'a number of aspects of the film never quite got made to the standard that he would have hoped' but was also 'very proud of the film'. Our old friend David Huckvale, with his usual passion, examines Bernard's powerful score which was seen as a crucial element to the success of the film.

Once again, Hearn and production partner Rorie Sherwood have produced an absolute treat of a documentary.

The Power of Light: Restoring The Devil Rides Out (11:30)
Here we get to the contentious issue of what is 'restoration' of the film and what is 'embellishment' to the original film. Dan and Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins make it clear that their father was not happy about the effects and that with time and money he would have preferred to finesse a number of sequences. Many reviewers have singled out the poor effects as an element that diminishes the film. These views seem to have inspired Hammer to ask Cineimage, the post production company who restored The Devil Rides Out from the original negative, to tidy up some of the effects sequences and add new effects.

Let me state from the outset, I don't have a problem with tidying up the poor matte work on the film but some of the work here goes beyond tidying up and embellishes scenes with contemporary effects that are arguably often out of context in a film of this age. There's a different version of The Devil Rides Out presented on this DVD, a 'what if' version that addresses the Stainer-Hutchins' concerns about the opticals and 'completes' effects about which we have no evidence for how they were meant to be finished or if they were supposed to look a certain way. We don't know what Fisher or Stainer-Hutchins actually intended and some of the new effects are therefore an artistic decision made from a contemporary perspective of the film. I presume this is also in part Hammer's own response to the market that has opened up because of the success of The Woman in Black.

Adam Hawkes, Ed Schroeder and Steve Boag of Cineimage examine some of the sequences that have been addressed. They take us from the matte effects that depict Simon Aron's house and observatory, to the appearance of the genie in the observatory, the Angel of Death's arrival and reveal of its face, the spider effects and the fiery climax of the film. Originally achieved through a mix of blue screen, matte and model effects, the effects were limited by budget and time. Mattes display instability and telltale fringing in the compositing of the elements and some effects were never completed properly. The changes made to the film for this release are rationalised by Cineimage as, 'these days people aren't so forgiving over the images'.

Admittedly some of the effects are rough and needed a bit of tidying up. I admire the efforts of Cineimage as they claim to have made about one and half million fixes to the film. I'm sure that a vast majority were warranted to restore the film in its original incarnation. I respect that Cineimage have attempted to be 'sympathetic to the original material' and I quite like some of the effects - the lightning strike at the altar is good and the water effects added to the death of the spider are fine - but with others I really didn't see why they made the effort. The CGI clouds rolling above Simon Aron's house look exactly what they are - digital clouds - and the Angel of Death can never be a completely successful sequence with its very obvious and rather comical rewinding of the footage of horse's hooves to suggest its near trampling of Simon. Adding CGI light sources to its arrival does nothing to dispell the already risible aspects of this scene. 

Putting the ethics of whether you should go back and revise or enhance films to one side, I believe not including the original, restored version without the enhanced effects on this release is an error of judgement. Both versions should have been on the disc to satisfy fans, old and new, and to quote Marcus Hearn, fulfill 'the efforts that have been made to present [these films] as most British audience-members would have originally seen them.' Clearly they never saw the film with CGI clouds, smoke and water and I'm sure many of us would like the choice to see the restored film as such.

Dennis Wheatley at Hammer (12:42)
Phil Baker provides background on 'Britain's occult uncle' Dennis Wheatley and Christopher Lee's connections to Wheatley and Hammer. Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearn enlighten us about the other Wheatley works that Hammer completed or attempted, including The Lost Continent (1968), an adaptation of Wheatley's 1938 novel Uncharted Seas, 1976's To the Devil a Daughter and the abandoned scripts for The Satanist and The Haunting of Toby Jugg. Baker compares the original book of To the Devil a Daughter with the 'loose inspiration' of the modernist Hammer version that Wheatley hated. As a result, he apparently banned Hammer from making more films of his books. 
World of Hammer episode: 'Hammer' (24:50)
Oliver Reed rumbles through another episode of the clips show and yet again, we've got that Dolby Digital 2.0 sound problem that plagued the episode featured on the Quatermass and the Pit disc. Reed narrates from the left hand channel as everything else is pushed through the right hand channel.
Stills Gallery (5:00)
Lovely selection of posters, ads, colour and black and white lobby cards and film stills set to a suite of James Bernard's terrific music.

The Devil Rides Out
A Hammer Film Production
Seven Arts - Fox - ABPC 1968
StudioCanal Blu-Ray and DVD Double Play / OPTBD0697 / Cert: 15 / Released 22 October 2012
BD: Region B 1080p AVC / PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / 96 minutes / English / LPCM Mono 2.0 Audio
DVD: Region 2 / 92 minutes / PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / English / Mono 2.0 Audio

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5 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: The Devil Rides Out / Blu-Ray Review”
  1. Mike Sutton says:

    Absolutely brilliant review Frank. And I completely agree about the CGI.

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    The original should be on the same disc. That way, everyone would be happy.

  3. hooch says:

    Absolutely first class review

  4. Unknown says:

    I am glad they can restore some of Sir Christopher lee's films they are such hard to get. i am hoping to get more of his films so far i have 56 out of 300 he made.

  5. Unknown says:

    I hope they do Peter Cushing films as well because him and Christopher lee are the best macabre actors of the world.

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