1968 was a great year for demonic possession. In June, William Castle produced Rosemary’s Baby and put a hex on New York City real estate forever. A month later, in the UK, Hammer Film Productions pitted Christopher Lee against the fiendish Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out. Both films brought the devil out of Gothic castles and into modern apartments and smart country homes, portraying the sects as more realistic and, therefore, more threatening. It’s terrifying to think that the tacky busybody next door is a witch plotting to set you up on a blind date with Beelzebub or that your neighbor might be summoning the Goat of Mendes.
Films like these are fascinating because they show the dark underside that lurks beneath the peaceful façade of everyday life. In The Devil Rides Out, while his friends polish their boots for the next fox hunt, Christopher Lee makes plans to ward off Mephistopheles. Mia Farrow fights a different battle in Rosemary’s Baby. Desperate to protect her unborn child from a coven of witches, Rosemary tries to convince people that the sweet senior citizens in the next apartment are plotting to steal her baby. Later, in Blue Velvet (1986), Kyle MacLachlan discovers a human ear amid the white picket fences of suburbia. That find leads MacLachlan to a kidnapping, police corruption, and a twisted criminal with a weakness for Pabst Blue Ribbon. Despite the comparative safety of these comfortable settings, sinister forces seep in, threatening the lives of unsuspecting citizens.
As The Devil Rides Out begins, Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) crash a party at their friend Simon’s house in the British countryside. Simon (Patrick Mower) wants them to leave since they already have the perfect number for the orgy, I mean astronomical society meeting. Anyway, you can’t have a good, um, networking event unless there are exactly thirteen people – and a goat. Simon assures them this is not a cult or anything and that live chicken in the closet is just a friend. The Duc and Rex spirit Simon away from the evil Mocata (Charles Gray) anyway and together they try to deprogram him. Of course, Mocata will have none of that and uses his diabolical powers to lure Simon and his friend Tanith (Niké Arrighi) to his forest bacchanal and back into the Goat of Mendes fan club. The rest of the film shows the Duc and his allies fighting off supporters of the dark arts and redecorating the living room floor with a giant anti-Satan diagram.
Dennis Wheatley, known as the Prince of Thriller Writers, wrote adventures, spy stories, and histories, and influenced Ian Fleming, but is best known for his interest in the occult. Wheatley, who wrote the book The Devil Rides Out, knew about ancient religions, but consulted occult experts Aleister Crowley and Reverend Montague Summers about modern-day devil worship. More than thirty years later, Christopher Lee met Wheatley and convinced Hammer to make The Devil Rides Out into a movie. Both men admired the Duc character for his encyclopedic knowledge of satanic cults and dedication to fighting them.
The Devil Rides Out has a small cast made up of Hammer repertory company members and British character actors. Leon Greene is terrific as the love-struck Rex. Patrick Mower convinces as the wishy-washy Simon who thought nothing of joining a satanic cult. Niké Arrighi appears appropriately scared as Mocata’s muse. As Mocata, Charles Gray, looking like a guy with a closet full of purple capes and a desire to sacrifice children, intimidates with a smile. Christopher Lee, of course, is brilliant as the erudite nobleman with a vast knowledge of satanic rituals. He always knows exactly what to do and keeps calm when the forces of evil attack his pals.
The Devil Rides Out has a cool James Bond connection too. Ian Fleming, the creator of everyone’s favorite jet-setting spy, cited Dennis Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust espionage series as an influence. The film even boasts two Bond villains. Christopher Lee took a turn as Scaramanga, the mastermind with something extra in the nipple department, in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Charles Gray played Bond’s enemy in You Only Live Twice (1967) and returned in 1971 as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever. Sarah Lawson appeared in the British television series, The Persuaders! with Roger Moore. Patrick Mower was even considered as a possible replacement for Roger Moore in the 007 role.
A simple essay doesn’t do The Devil Rides Out justice. It’s a fun entry in the films-about-cults genre. The acting is first-rate, the story by Wheatley via screenwriter Richard Matheson moves along smartly and the dialogue zips. Terence Fisher, a veteran director of many of the most successful Hammer horrors, understands how to make a scene suspenseful. There are also some nifty special effects. Christopher Lee even gets to show off his extensive devil-repelling skills. Most importantly, where else can you see Charles Gray rock a purple satin cloak while summoning a goat-headed Lucifer?