Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Devil Rides Out

Some time ago I wrote about my intense love for films dealing with collusion – covens, cults, sects and the devious like. I love this stuff because it plays on one of my core fears – the idea that everyone really is out to get me (although what they’d do with me once they had me is perhaps a bigger mystery). One of the films I briefly mentioned in that piece was The Devil Rides Out, a late ‘60s Hammer production starring Christopher Lee and the late Charles Gray (known to most as the Criminologist [a.k.a. “No-Neck”] from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Spinning the DVD with the fam after not having watched it in a few years reminded me of exactly how much fun this piece is and how it’s ideal fare for this time of the year. Don’t get me wrong – this is no Wicker Man by any stretch…but if you’ve already seen The Wicker Man a half a dozen times, you should give this a shot.

Lee plays Duc de Richleau, and it must be one of only a handful of times in his long career he’s playing a good guy – this fact alone demands a viewing. De Richleau and his friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) are supposed to have a reunion with their other friend, Simon (Patrick Mower) – only Simon has shirked the festivities in favor of attending a meeting with an “astronomical” society. They trace him to a rich-looking estate where they intrude upon the small gathering. It doesn’t take long for De Richleau to figure out they’re a group of occultists and Simon – along with a young girl named Tanith (Nike Arrighi) - are to be their next initiates. At the head of the pack is Mocata (Charles Gray), who considers his occult practices a science and has a direct pipeline to the Devil.

Charles was such a Grayt one-note actor; whoever writes the book “The Stunning Versatility of Charles Gray” won’t get past the first chapter or so without hitting a serious wall of writer’s block. He played his characters with the same cadence and more or less the same look – I don’t know if the guy ever even aged. Regardless, he was always a noticeable movie presence, and the sinister Mocata must surely have been one of his most impressive roles.

The movie is more or less a series of bizarre, hallucinatory set-ups and payoffs, as De Richleau and Rex attempt to save Simon and Tanith from Mocata’s wicked plans. One of the most memorable occurs about halfway through the film, at one of those wacky clothed-orgy type of affairs (which borderline reminds me of Hanks & Aykroyd crashing a similar party in Dragnet) wherein Mocata summons the Devil himself in the form of the Goat of Mendes – an evil, almost serene looking goat-headed creature sitting cross-legged atop a mount overlooking the revelers. He's summoned by Mocata by means of - what else? - sacrificing a goat. (Hardcore fans of The Prisoner should keep an eye out for Peter Swanwick in an uncredited, silent role as one of the occultists.)

Another sequence - with some vaguely racist undertones - involves the appearance of an unnamed deity, played by a, ahem, "gentleman of color". It's a weirdly sinister bit of madness that holds up today only if you put aside the fact the guy's supposed to be devilish mostly because he's black. (In all fairness, the actor's given some creepy-looking contact lenses that add to the chills.)

The third act is where things go either ludicrously loopy or intimately intense depending on your interest in this sort of fare. Drawn into De Richleau’s circle of strength are his niece Marie (Sarah Lawson), her husband, the token disbeliever Richard (Paul Eddington, another Prisoner alumni; he played Cobb in "Arrival"), and their pre-teen daughter Peggy (Rosalyn Landor). If the movie sounds overcrowded, it’s not, and that’s one of its strengths – everyone has a logical part to play and none of the characters ever seem shoehorned into the goings-on. The finale will either have you throwing your hands up in the air or quietly contemplating everything you’ve viewed as time is literally rewound in the final minutes. Pretty much the entire third act is erased from the storyline - but oddly not from the characters' memories. Whether or not one views this as a cheat will depend entirely on your willingness to surrender yourself to the material.

I keep mentioning The Prisoner, and The Devil Rides Out has a very similar color palette to that show (they're both stamped with 1967 release dates), or perhaps even more so a Diana Rigg-era color Avengers episode. It moves along briskly with a 95-minute running time. Director Terence Fisher was one of the staple Hammer directors, and this was one of his last films, although you wouldn’t know he was nearing the end of a long career by watching the piece - there's a tight, fresh feel to the proceedings. Richard Matheson adapted the screenplay from the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name. Apparently it was Lee’s enthusiasm that led to the film being made in the first place, as he was a fan of Wheatley’s novels. He’d hoped that it would lead to a series of films based on Wheatley’s other De Richleau tales, but alas this was to be the sole adaptation of the character’s antics.

Which is a shame, as De Richleau’s motivations and knowledge of the dark arts are ambiguously presented; there’s a section of the film where he takes leave from everyone else (at a very crucial moment, too) and where he goes or what he does is anyone’s guess. It’s never explained why he knows all that he does or how he’s able to combat Mocata so effectively. The character may have been one of Lee’s few good guys, but how good he was remains debatable (at least based on what's presented in the film). I know very little about Wheatley’s novels, but I have to wonder what it might be like to see Lee return to the character at this stage in his life and career (which given the time periods the many novels cover, wouldn’t necessarily be out of the question) – and if not Lee, maybe somebody else? There are a wealth of stories to pull from here and it’d be interesting to see a new series of films created based on this material. I’d love to see Johnny Depp, for instance, have a go at this character.

I've got the gorgeous standalone DVD (pictured) of the film which sports a spotless, colorful transfer, but is now unfortunately out of print. The existing available DVD version is a Hammer double-feature disc and also features Christopher Lee in Rasputin: The Mad Monk, a movie I've shamefully never seen. I assume the transfer is similar in quality. This is an ideal party movie, and if you're looking to get a few friends together this Halloween and want a cool mixture of laughs and frights, you'll be hard-pressed to find fare as effective as The Devil Rides Out. Now go forth and worship, my Morgue-tastic brethren...