The Devil Rides Out (1967), directed by Terence Fisher from a screenplay by Richard Matheson, was a pet project of the legendary Christopher Lee. Lee was tired of the pop-up scares of his Dracula movies. He wanted to depict real evil and Satanism in a serious way. He wanted to show that the occult was dangerous, and treat it with intelligence.
Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel, the film stars Lee as Nicolas, the Duc de Richleau, a character who appeared in eleven novels by Wheatley. In the books the character is a monarchist, conservative, and anti-liberal, an ardent supporter of imperialism, foe of the Freemasons, lapsed Catholic, and student of the esoteric. Nicolas and Rex Van Ryn learn that a young friend, Simon, is being drawn into Satanism by a charismatic Aleister Crowley type played by Charles Gray. (Both Gray and Lee later played Bond villains.)
The film is notable for its accuracy and sober depiction of occult practices and their dangers. Even more notable is its strong Christian message. Over and over, either God or Jesus is used to thwart evil. The final triumph (it’s not like I’m spoiling things here) is accomplished by the overwhelming power of the cross. Even when the good guys use an incantation, it hearkens back to Solomon. (In esoteric tradition, Solomon was able to control and cast out demons.)
A lot of horror has a winking quality: the audience understands this is a lark. The Devil Rides Out plays it straight down the line, and it’s stronger for it.
Watching the DVD with the commentary track, you’re struck by just how knowledgeable Lee was about the occult, and how much the film meant to him. In his autobiography, he describes the project:
After the years of urging black-magic themes on Hammer, I had a breakthroughwith The Devil Rides Out. Conservative, Hammer had always worried about the Church’s reaction to the screening of the Black Mass. But we thought the charge of blasphemy would not stick if we did the thing with due attention to scholarship. I appointed myself black technical advisor, as well as playing a goody, and spent many hours in the British Museum guddling for Satanic trout, and came up with a useful catch, notably the genuine prayer of exorcism we used at the end….
It did well then, and it had a strong reprise in a cult revival. The terrible vibrations of Evil were clearly felt. It was right to scare people, to put them off the sinister dangers implicit in dabbling with black magic
Lee clearly believe in the devil and the power of God to thwart him, and was adamant about the dangers of trifling with the occult, as he shows in this clip.
Lee himself was Anglo-Catholic. A descendent of Charlemagne*, he had a pope somewhere in his family tree. He was the one of the last great men of a dying generation. He saw evil up close in the war, and knew the devil’s power.
*All European royalty traces their lineage to Charlemagne, and he has millions of claimed descendants, including me. (He’s my 41st great-grandfather.)
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