Even in The Wicker Man, where Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle persists in propagating the rural town’s pagan beliefs against a forfeit crop, the moment of judgment—as Sergeant Howie condemns him for the inevitable day when the islanders offer Summerisle instead as sacrifice—makes Summerisle as sympathetic as Howie. Lee’s was a career of monsters, and like all great monster men, he is an actor profound for asking our empathy at all times. But the flip side is that Lee was, perhaps, more naturally the first-class stalwart the better angels of his evil natures only suggested. He was too infrequently cast as the good guy, when the grand Holmes of Billy Wilder’s lovely Private Life or the regal Duc de Richleau of Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out suggest how really admirable so few protagonists are.
The Hammer films in general, of which The Devil Rides Out is one, have aged terribly; the on-the-fly atmosphere looks cheaper than cheap today, embarrassingly eclipsed by the handheld independents that made horror movies anyone’s game (Night of the Living Dead was released the same year as The Devil Rides Out, 1968). Why watch Terence Fisher’s Dracula when you can watch Browning’s, Murnau’s, Herzog’s, Madden’s, or even Coppola’s instead? For Lee, of course. But after Lee, what then?
But The Devil Rides Out is an exception, on a very modest scale, with a sense of fear almost palpable in a resolutely stripped-down approach to nightmares. Lee plays the Duc, who vows, with a few friends, to recover the out-of-touch son of an old comrade. They find the kid, named Simon, on the verge of immersion into a Satanic cul—the Left Hand Path—led by the commanding, ingratiating Mocata (Charles Gray). The date is nearly May Day, half a year from Halloween, but the feel of fog on country roads and candles in old British manors is nothing if not late October.
The Duc spends days in the libraries of London, speaks of “esoteric doctrines” in his rolling timbre, and summons God’s might (with God’s own voice) in his climactic incantations. He is a blue-blooded sartorialist, like his friends, who promote with their demeanor the temperate pluck of honest, titled British landowners that the far-wandering crazies who populate the equally rich Left Hand Path demean, invert, and offend. The Duc’s friends enjoy brandy—“we can certainly make use of these,” smiles the Duc to his guests of a haunted evening—and their best clue comes about by one of them recognizing a young protégé of Mocata’s from the baccarat tables in Biarritz.
Like Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon or Mark Robson’s The 7th Victim, The Devil Rides Out clothes its Satanists to the nines. But The Devil Rides Out is more properly kin to Night of the Demon, though all three are occupied with the psychology of persuasion over lonely men’s souls. The 7th Victim is as true to human sadness as any movie, but is not, at its heart, supernatural; its Satanic cult summons no demons, no wraiths. The men and women are powerless but for the cheap degradation they realize on still weaker souls than they. In The Devil Rides Out, like Night of the Demon, hell is physically manifest in monsters in place of metaphor. In fact, neither film can accommodate the special effects needed to procure a larger-than-life ghoul of necessary terror. But they try. An “infernal spirit” in The Devil Rides Out recalls nothing so much as the lidless Carrefour from Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie, but that is as near as the beasts get to frightening.
Far more successful is the deeply elemental nature of The Devil Rides Out’s agenda of dark magic: fear of somnambulists, of bodily possession, of the sudden drop in temperature of a warm room or the inexplicably failing intensity of a candle’s once-bright flame. Eyes are everywhere prominent in dewy, piercing close-ups. Simon tries to choke himself in a bout of demonic epilepsy, Mocata communicates through mirrors and dreams. There are séances, circles drawn on hardwood floors in chalk—where the Duc pours water into a small dish and salts the flame to communicate with the dead—and even a basket of chickens kept in the closet in an observatory at the top floor of an ancient estate.
At one point, Mocata returns to the manor of the Duc’s allies to intimidate them. Mocata is alone; after leaving his card with the butler, he hypnotizes his hostess, and leaves only when the fortuitous intervention of a young girl interrupts his exercise. Deterred but nonplussed, Mocata departs by the front door. The hostess, through a window, watches him leave, and there is something, as Mocata saunters off with his hat on his head and a cane on his wrist, that is simply, fundamentally unnerving in its ordinariness. The Devil Rides Out, but for Lee, is just that—ordinary—and that is where its strangeness steals through. –Nathan Kosub