Thursday, October 10, 2019

Christopher Lee Battles Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out

Christopher Lee as the hero.
Upon his return to London, Rex Van Ryn learns from the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) that their mutual friend Simon has been a mysterious recluse for the last three months. The duo motor over to a country estate recently purchased by Simon and interrupt what their friend claims is an astronomical society meeting. It's apparent that something else is going on and de Richleau confirms his suspicions when he finds satanic symbols on the observatory's floor and animals awaiting sacrifice.

It turns out that Simon and a young woman named Tanith are about to be baptized into a satanic cult led by a powerful black arts practitioner named Mocata (Charles Gray). Knowing that the following night is a sacred one for the satanists, de Richleau tries to devise a rescue plan while Rex struggles to understand what is happening.

Nike Arrighi as Tanith.
Set in the 1920s, The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil's Bride) ranks as one of Hammer Films' finest motion pictures. Richard Matheson--an acclaimed writer in his own right--adapted Dennis Wheatley's 1934 supernatural novel. The result is an intelligent script with Hitchcockian overtones.

Hammer's best director, Terence Fisher, ramps up the suspense with three thrilling scenes. The first is when de Richleau and Rex interrupt Mocata's bloody ritual to nab Simon and Tanith from his clutches. The following morning, a dapper-looking Mocata visits the house where Simon and Tanith are being guarded. In a scene straight from Hitchcock's playbook, Mocata exudes charm as he chats politely with the house's owner...and slowly bends her to his will. Charles Gray, who gives a masterful performance as Mocata, uses his penetrating eyes and smooth, controlling voice to great effect.
Charles Gray as Mocata, looking dapper and then in his ceremonial robes.

Fisher's final big flourish occurs in the climatic scene where Mocata uses all his tricks--and the Angel of Death--to lure de Richleau and his friends from a circle of protection. The scene is hampered slightly by merely passable special effects. A giant spider doesn't look all that big--the result of the film's modest budget, no doubt. However, as de Richleau, Christoper Lee's ominous warnings create a general air of unease.

It's no surprise that Christopher Lee considers The Devil Rides Out one of his best films. The sets are convincing and the English country houses--connected by narrow, empty roads--add to the feeling of isolation. Perhaps author Dennis Wheatley gets the credit here, but the decision to stage the satanic baptism ceremony in the woods at night was a brilliant one.

Christopher Lee and Charles Gray give commanding performances as powerful figures at opposing ends of the good-and-evil spectrum. The supporting cast is convincing in their roles, especially British TV veteran Sarah Lawson, who plays the woman who confronts Mocata in her home.

No review of The Devil Rides Out would be complete without mentioning one of the greatest shots in Hammer history. When Tanith is driving a car, Mocata appears to her--with only his eyes visible in the rearview mirror. It's an incredibly creepy image that lingers from one of the best horror films of the 1960s.

Charles Gray's eyes in the rearview mirror.

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