Sunday, October 28, 2012

Satan's School For Ghouls: The Devil Rides Out (1968)

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend (with a particular emphasis on devilish fiends). You can find our collected annals of evil here.

Since my last stint with Satanists left me quite disappointed with the actual Satanic content of the movie, I decided to dig into the piles of DVDs in my den and grab the most Satan-inclusive movie I could find. That turned out to be Hammer's The Devil Rides Out, which certainly doesn't say much for my luck or my taste.

Initially, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher "I'm not Dracula, damn you! And where is my money, you peasant?" Lee), and his old friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) only want to celebrate a reunion with their younger friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). But Simon has removed himself from his friends - which seems to be a natural step once one has met the two, to be honest. The Duc is wary of his young friend's near-disappearance, though, so off he and Van Ryn go to visit him in the gigantic mansion he just bought. There, a small party is going on, but the Duc quickly realizes (the number of guests - 13 -, a few astrological charts, a devil head mosaic and a white and a black chicken in a cupboard are his clues) that Simon has become a junior member of a Satanic cult led by a certain Mocata (Charles Gray).

De Richleau attempts to convince Simon that his new lifestyle is not proper, but apart from causing a lot of perspiration in the young man, he is not very successful at it. So he does the obvious thing, punches Simon out, kidnaps him, and hypnotizes him for a good night's sleep.

Mocata is more powerful than the Duc expected, though. He uses his awesome mental powers to get Simon to flee the lair of his kidnappers while the Duc tries to convince Van Ryn - who remains curiously sceptical for someone who just took part in several crimes - of the reality of the occult.

Getting Simon back before he can be fully inducted into the service of the goat-footed means a lot of work for our heroes: they have kidnap Tanith (Nike Arrighi), another junior member of the cult, to find out where Simon might be held, have to disturb the most polite Satanic orgy, and will even have to take on the lamest embodiment of Satan ever.

However, even once Simon and Tanith are both in our heroes' (such as they are) hands, Mocata still has a couple of tricks down his sleeves, like doing giant spider special effects like Bert I. Gordon and sending out the lamest angel of death ever.

As you may have surmised, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out is far from being a highpoint of the Hammer movie catalogue or its director's filmography. Being based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, bestseller author, communist eater, and self-declared expert in the occult, provides the movie with some rather well-researched bits and pieces of occult knowledge. Unfortunately, the film - as scripted by Richard Matheson who could do much, much better - does not seem what to actually do with the occultism trivia. It also inherits all of Wheatley's flaws, like the hilariously earnest believe in the dangers of all things occult that is as unconvincing as anything a true believer ever says, the writer's painfully humourless conservatism, and pacing that is actually too breathless for the story the film is trying to tell, leaving no room for minor things like characterisation or motivation for much of what happens on screen.

It doesn't help the film's case that its nominal heroes, the Duc and Van Ryn, are often grotesquely bad at their jobs, just jumping head over heels into every dangerous situation, never planning anything and wilfully putting other people in danger without making any believable attempts to keep those people safe. Especially great is the Duc's tendency to absent himself just shortly before the next dangerous situation happens, without ever putting any effort into protecting his partners, or - you know - just actually returning with anything worthwhile from his expeditions; if one were of a less pleasant nature than I, one might think he flees whenever he thinks things will get dangerous. In this respect, the Duc reminds me of Le Fanu's Martin Hesselius. Christopher Lee's performance makes the behaviour of his character even more funny, for this time around, he actually bothers to act, imbuing every word and gesture of the Duc with an intensity and seriousness bordering on hysteria. His grand gestures make for a lovely contrast to how ineffectual he is in anything he does. Note to scriptwriters: if ninety percent of the dangerous situations in your film occur because your heroes act like very dramatic fools, you might have a problem. And, you know, if the only way for them to conquer their enemies is to wait for an anti-climactic deus ex machina (though it is more a Jehovah ex machina here), you might try and look for better heroes.

Although it's not as if the film's Satanists were much better. Even though Charles Gray has some nice moments of hypnotic glowering of nearly the same intensity as Lee's performance, it's difficult to find his cult all that threatening (and really, I'm somewhat tempted to read the film as Christopher Lee and his cronies fighting against two young persons' rights to a free choice of religion). After all, their idea of an orgy does not even contain semi-nude dancing (it's in fact the most clothed Satanic ritual I can remember seeing in a movie), their goat-headed Satan is a passive gentleman easily repelled by a tiny cross, their biggest ritual can be easily disturbed by two idiots in a car, and when they send out the angel of death, it turns out to be an utter disappointment. It's really a bit embarrassing that our heroes need the hand of God to win the day.

Having said that, I also have to say that watching The Devil Rides Out is an enormous amount of fun. After all, it's a film that consists of countless scenes of Christopher Lee uttering pompous nonsense with the greatest intensity, the good guys and the bad attempting to outdo each other in being hilariously ineffectual only to be outdone by the film's "special" effects crew, and everybody involved looking enthusiastically ridiculous while seemingly being convinced of telling a story of great emotional and spiritual impact, which makes for a pretty irresistible movie, though probably not for reasons the filmmakers would have approved of.

No comments: