Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Devil Rides Out

The Devil Rides Out deals in some of the usual Hammer Films tropes, but adds a spin with its roaring 20s setting and by making an actor who is usually the villain into the hero. Also known as The Devil's Bride, the film was based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley.

Christopher Lee usually played a bad guy--hell, the baddest of guys--but he was equally as effective as a hero. He gives the comforting feeling that, whatever evil is coming your way, Christopher Lee knows it well and will shut it down. Oddly, this is kind of accurate: During World War II, Lee was a member of the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare--also known as the Special Operations Executive, an actual unit, dedicated to taking out Nazis by means that were... well, sometimes rather ungentlemanly. He was also six-foot-five and a direct descendant of Charlemagne.

But things kick right off with a set of opening credits that could easily be a heavy metal video if you just swapped out the soundtrack (perhaps one of Lee's own, as he had a late-in-life career as a heavy metal vocalist and was apparently a big Black Sabbath fan). Another twist to The Devil  Rides Out is that it's set in roaring 20s Britain and Satanism is just another lark for upper-class Bright Young Things.

The Duc de Richleau, aka Christopher Lee shows up to visit a friend who is hosting a "meeting" or his "astronomical society." Yeah, you ain't fooling the Duc, who has been around all the blocks, many times. Of course the meeting is actually a congregation of devil worshippers, led by none other than Charles Gray, whom you know from Diamonds Are Forever and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Here he is Mocata, the utterly unctuous leader of the local Satanic coven.

"Chickens in a basket, diagrams on a floor. Do these mean something to you?"

Rather like those in The Black Cat, it's one classy, well-dressed group of Satanists--the manor house is gorgeous, the patter is literary and the wine exquisite, and the crowd is strictly black tie and pearls, with the occasional dashiki or sari. But Christopher Lee feels nothing but disdain, as those who are "meddling with black magic" rank about as high in his esteem as Nickelback fans.

Christopher Lee waves off the devil worshippers and carries off his wanabe Satanist pal, but he's going to have to rout this bunch of vermin from the neighborhood. Any gentleman would. Really, it is interesting that The Devil Rides Out chooses as its main combatant against evil, not some radiant creature of pure goodness, but a guy who seems to know exactly what he's up against because he's been there and rolls his eyes at your puerile edgelord nonsense. You think you're a powerful mage summoning Baphomet to do your most vile and stygian bidding, to Christopher Lee you're just a spotty teen playing Marilyn Manson loud until mom makes you a Hot Pocket.

Yet another of the main differences between The Devil Rides Out and your typical Satanist horror flick is that it almost entirely dodges the conventional Judeo-Christian angle for a more ego-centered version. When he goes off on the power of his will, it's not hard to hear the distaff Alestier Crowley` philosophy. It's a choice more suitable to the film's 1920s setting as well as the post-hippie/summer of Manson period in which it was released. (I bet Jimmy Page loves this movie.)

According to the Duc de Christopher Lee, "the power of darkness is more than superstition. it is a living force that can be tapped at any given moment of the night." Something like William S. Burroughs' "ugly spirit," that malevolent force that touches some more than others, and which one must struggle to control, regardless of whether one is suppressing or focusing its darkness.

So, anyhow, the deal is that Duc de Christopher Lee's buddy is in love with this girl who's already engaged to the devil--ergo the movie's stateside title, The Devil's Bride--and Charles Gray has to make sure that nothing interferes with getting her to the church--or coven--on time. One of the ways Charles Gray tries to keep his Satanic wedding planner mojo going is by causing a rather groovy car chase with old timey cars: His eyes appear in your review mirror and next thing you know you're driving a perfectly lovely Buick Roadster off the road and getting your cloche all askew.

So Christopher Lee has to disrupt the Satanic baptism--Baptism before wedding because, hey, we're Satanists!--which he seems to be intent upon disrupting not just because it involves sacrificing souls to evil incarnate, but because it's so damned tacky. I swear that as he drives his Hispano Suzia into the center of a group of frolicking devil worshippers, he's not only chanting prayers, but muttering something about "cheap Woodstock knockoff" and "ill-fitting hospital gowns" and various maledictions against those who would drink Captain Morgan's.

"As part of one's initiation, one has to choose the name of some past great practitioner of the occult."
Oooh! Can I be Jayne Mansfield?

"The goat of Mendes! The devil himself!"

Some friends come by to visit for not other apparent reason than to supply the plot with a child to be sacrificed to Satan later--meetings, baptisms, weddings, sacrifices... I can see why one has to be upper-class to belong to this coven. One would have to be independently wealthy to have enough free time--not to mention all of the appropriate outfits--for the many mandatory activities.

Charles Gray stops by to be all shady and mind-control-y. "In magic there is neither good nor evil, there is merely a science. The science of causing change to happen merely through one's will." When his cover his blown, he flounces out, proclaiming, "I shall not be back. But something will." Could be a campy British closet case or an Avon lady, could be a bomb cyclone or a giant spider, who knows...

The climax is when Duc Lee Richleau and his cronies do some kind of magic circle thing in the library to ward of an attack by Macaca that involves wind, lightning, bats and giant spiders. And you know what's worse than giant spiders? The Angel of Death! Okay, maybe nothing is worse than giant spiders, but it's still all kinds of bad stuff...

"Don't look at the eyes!" Lee does a lot of telling people not to look at shit, or not to leave someone alone or not to turn off the light or not to remove the crucifix and they always do. Why? I have no idea: If Christopher Lee tells you to do shit, you fucking do it. Fortunately Christopher Lee can pretty much always shut evil down, since he's a 12th level magic user, as well as a 7th level fighter--and his character in The Devil Rides Out clearly has a number of mystical powers as well...

I'd rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!

This is really the big scene of the film. Sure, everyone rushes over to disrupt the human sacrifice of some woman's daughter and flip off Charles Gray but that's basically a bunch of deus ex machina and an improbable happy ending. Because even more ridiculous than "it was all a dream" is "We time-traveled back to right before all of this happened."

The Devil Rides Out is a relatively short, fast-moving horror film and one wishes it had spent a little more time developing its unorthodox Crowley-esque vision of Satanism and the humanist magic Lee uses to defeat--or at least thwart--it.

And, well, they had Charles Gray and Christopher Lee to put this over. I would sit and watch those two recite the phone book or the dialogue from an Adam Sandler movie--much less act imperious and make dismissive gestures while reciting the names of Egyptian gods and random bits of Latin.

Overall, The Devil Rides Out is a solid horror flick--it may be light on the scares, but it makes up for it with atmosphere, characterization and a unique take on an old topic. Also, it's got Christopher Lee. And, even with 280 entries on the man's IMDB page, there's never enough of that.