Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Devil, You Say!

Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1968) is kind of a capstone to his career at Hammer. He would go on to make a couple of other films for the studio, culminating in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, but it's this film that pretty much sums up everything that Fisher accomplished at Hammer. For that matter, it's kind of a summary of the studio's values in a year when the horror genre itself was turning those values upside down. It's no wonder the movie was a failure at the time. It's painfully un-hip. Downright square, even. But that's not necessarily a detriment to the movie itself.

The Devil Rides Out was made at Christopher Lee's behest, and it gives him one of his strongest roles. Lee was a fan of writer Dennis Wheatley, and he convinced Hammer to make an A-list version of his book of the same name. The book is the third in a sequence, a fact glossed over in the exposition in this movie. The main character, Duc de Richlieu, is a sinister figure of ironclad moral rectitude and deep knowledge of black and white magic. He's the ultimate savant, and he's as close as Lee ever came to playing Van Helsing. The story finds de Richlieu and his loyal Dr. Watson stand-in, Rex Van Rijn (Leon Greene), stumbling on to a cult of Satanists intent on baptising de Richlieu's nephew, Simon, into their ranks. The head of the cult is one Mr. Mocata (Charles Gray), who rules his underlings with fear, terror, and the mental domination of his will. In the first part of the film, de Richlieu and Van Rijn stumble upon a gathering of "astronomy" enthusiasts and immediately sense something awry. Retiring to Simon's observatory, our heroes find the preparations for a black mass. They put paid to that and take Simon away for his own good. Unfortunately, Simon is lured back. De Richlieu deduces that Simon will undergo a black baptism on the true sabbath, which is that very day, and tracks the cult through another of the young initiates, a miss Tanith, who is also on the verge of her own baptism. Our heroes interrupt the ceremony, at which the Devil himself has appeared as the Goat of Mendes. Mocata, for his part, needs Tanith as his medium, and lays a kind of siege to du Richlieu and his allies, culminating in a long night's defense against the forces of Darkness, in which de Richlieu protects his charges in a magical circle. This is where the movie pulls out all the stops. This being a Hammer film, good triumphs over evil.

This is an attractive movie, in which Fisher and his production designer, Bernard Robinson dress Hammer's familiar sets with care. The film takes it's camera well outside of Hammer's usual outdoor locales, though, and provides a pleasant jaunt through the countryside during a car chase in the early going. This gives the film a distinctive character compared to Hammer's usual, studio-bound look. The movie has a pretty creative screenplay, too, authored by the great Richard Matheson, which distills its heroes down to their bare essentials. But it's Christopher Lee who dominates the screen. Fisher films Lee the same way he filmed him as Dracula, which adds a sinister gravitas to his character (the little goatee Lee wears in the film augments this). He commands every scene he's in, though there are way too many scenes in which Lee has left the stage for some errand or other. This is par for the course for late Hammer; the Boys at Bray were cheapskates when it came to paying their legitimate stars. Still, Fischer doesn't give anyone a chance to seize the spotlight from Lee. It's no wonder that this is Lee's own favorite of his Hammer films.

Hammer's essential conservatism is summarized in the scene near the beginning of the movie where de Richlieu confronts Simon about his new "friends." "I'd rather see you dead than messing around with (black magic)," he tells him, and cows him with a kind of patriarchal authority. There's a strong strain of submission to the word of god in this movie, too, and when the forces of evil are defeated in the end, de Richlieu is at pains to give credit where credit is due when Simon says, "Thank god," and his uncle emphasizes: "Yes, Simon, HE is the one we must thank." There is no agency among the characters. Everything that gets resolved at the end of the movie results from divine intervention.

And yet in spite of the film's moralizing intent--which is common enough in Hammer movies--its flights of fancy don't have the odious hypocrisy one often finds in Hammer's product. There's not a whiff of exploitation anywhere evident in the movie, nor the usual sexual punishments for wayward women. Patriarchal authority here is a bit more benign than it is in, say, Dracula, in which sexual deviance gets a stake through the heart. This makes the movie easier to put up with than, say, any of the studio's late vampire movies. Well, that and watching Christopher Lee play a hero for a change. That alone makes the movie worth watching. I suspect that the movie's relative lack of gore and nudity contributed to its box-office failure, but, as I said at the top, Hammer was already out of touch with the changing face of horror at the time. Alas.

Current tally: 28 films

First time viewings: 25

I'm actually done with the challenge right now. I finished last night with a four film blow-out. I'll get to those films over the next couple of days. They're an interesting bunch. I still have two days to go, so I expect my tally to get near my own personal bests, though maybe not. Last year was about as good as I've ever done. I'm just glad to have finished this year.

Around the Web:

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter takes on Jean Rollin and The Living Dead Girl.

The Vicar of VHS spends some time with The Bat People.

Tim over at The Other Side gets stranded Alone in the Dark.

Mr. Gable's Reality encompasses Herschel Gordon Lewis today, with the Godfather of Gore's The Wizard of Gore.

Rod at Ferdy on Film heads to the beach with a look at the mother of all summer blockbusters, Jaws.

Dr. AC is well past the century mark for this year's challenge. Today's diary touches on something old and something new, with looks at two versions of The Thing, among other goodies.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

1 comment:

Laura said...

This movie is deliciously square, and oh so watchable. Aside from Lee's massively heroic and commanding presence, Charles Gray was a genuinely menacing villain. Those ice-cold eyes. Damn. And as goofy as the special effects might be compared to big-budget fare of today, the spider scene still gave me the creeps. Then again, I get the creeps very easily.

Oh, goat-headed Devil. What are you all about?