Hammer are synomonus with classic takes on movie monsters with films such as Dracula: Prince of Darkness and The Curse of Frankenstein picking up the Universal Monsters baton and adding a bit of spice to proceedings making rather more gaudy but often no less effective experiences. However, just as the Universal crew took in many monsters, as did Hammer with a wide variety of horror genre fare of which I personally have little experience. It was a pleasure then to take in Satanist drama The Devil Rides Out, a film I’d been meaning to see for years but had finally been given the push by a recent episode of FirstShowing.net’s excellent podcast The Golden Briefcase.
Satanists in the movies are a difficult bunch to get right. With their “heightened” sense of fashion, chanting which can mean gibberish and a general air of batshit insanity, often times they can be made to seem quite silly. With The Devil Rides Out, Richard Matheson’s screenplay wisely sticks to the fundamentals of satanists, circles written in chalk, chickens picked to be killed and a terrible sacrifice that very much shows these people are not of God. It also makes a wise decision in not casting Christopher Lee in the antagonist role, he’s already iconically portrayed one lord of evil so it would be a touch odd to see him with goat horns or standing at the head of an altar singing sacrificial rites so instead we have Charles Gray striking a nice balance between underplaying when in polite company before going quietly crazy when work is to be done. One key scene where he hypnotises a woman feels like it’s about to explode at one point such is his general air of being capable of letting things fly but never quite doing so, it’s a fun performance matched by Christopher Lee’s hero, a man who in the space of 5 seconds goes from being suspicious to immediately knowing everything there is to know about the power of Satan and every single defense against him, a complaint which could demolish many films but the general effectiveness of its story wins through.
This being the greatest success of the picture, its ability to really get under your skin. While much of it is hammy and there’s a romantic sub-plot which doesn’t so much catch fire as get hosed down but when the film ramps up the atmospherics, it does so superbly. There are lulls of sorts in the tension but the film very well maintains a steady stream of set-pieces through its 95 or so minutes with the reveal of the Satanic rituals working coming early on and then cropping up again and again before culminating in a sequence involving people being tempted out of a chalk circle by threats both physical and psychological. It’s the type of horror that isn’t all that visceral what shocking scenes there are in this are not really all that wince inducing in this day and age, but it leaves its mark and has you thinking what you would do, and is all the better for it.
The Devil Rides Out is a film which doesn’t feel all that well-known but is well-regarded by those who know about these kinds of things, and it’s easy to see why. Fun, scary and incredibly watchable, it’s a high standard for the Hammer films I’ve seen so far and will be a tough one to beat.