Hammer's 1968 film The Devil Rides Out based on Dennis Wheatley's hugely popular 1934 novel was the first of the studio's three Wheatley's adaptations, soon followed by The Lost Continent and some years later by To the Devil A Daughter. In 1963, three of Wheatley's novels, The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil A Daughter and The Satanist were publicly optioned and acting on the advice of Christopher Lee (who knew Wheatley personally, both sharing an interest in black magic and the occult), Hammer bought the rights to all three properties. In 1964 the studio set to work on The Devil Rides Out. Producer Tony Hinds commissioned John Hunter to write a screenplay (having previously written Hammer's 1960 child molestation drama Never Take Sweets From A Stranger) but Hunter's adaptation proved unsatisfactory, and Hammer next approached Richard Matheson, who delivered a faithful rendering of Wheatley's novel whilst sidestepping some of the more kinkier, censor-baiting aspects of the book. Terence Fisher was appointed directing duties and in the summer of 1967 The Devil Rides Out finally began shooting.
In the film Duc de Richleau and his friend Rex discover their friend Simon has become involved in a satanic cult, and he and a young woman are about to be baptized into the world of black magic. After rescuing both from the initiation ceremony, de Richleau and his friends come under attack from cult leader Mocata, a powerful and dangerous sorcerer determined to get back his young recruits... Worth admitting upfront that I find The Devil Rides Out one of Hammer's most disappointing films, and there was much trepidation on my part approaching this review, such is the high esteem Horror fans hold the film in. Even the usual Hammer naysayers are conspicuously absent when the film comes up for discussion. First, the good stuff - Fisher's stylish relaxed direction, those beautiful elliptical dolly shots around the protective circle, complimented by Arthur Grant’s atmospheric lighting; the striking set pieces (the spectral genie in the observatory, the appearance of the horned Satan); some memorable dialogue (at one point Mocata warns “I shall not be back... but something will. Tonight, something will come for Simon and the girl”), and of course a majestic and towering Christopher Lee in one of his best roles for Hammer.
The reputation of The Devil Rides Out may well be secure as one of the great Hammer classics, but the film is deeply flawed in many respects. Technically, the film has not aged well, there's some atrocious back projection during a car chase sequence, and the big special effects set piece where de Richleau and his band of defenders are menaced by a monstrous tarantula and the Angel of Death appearing on horseback, is poorly realized and badly edited. Matheson's screenplay has its problems too. It tips the balance of power too much in de Richleau’s favor and badly undercuts the dramatic tension, the question of good conquering evil never quite seems in doubt considering de Richleau can counteract black magic with a simple spell, and the devil can be banished with little more than a crucifix. Also, the support cast are too thinly sketched - Charles Gray’s Mocata feels underwritten and de Richleau’s right-hand man, Rex is a thankless role for actor Leon Greene, playing a character who seemingly botches any task assigned to him.
More frustrating though is the film's lack of daring in its presentation of Satanism and witchcraft. These were of course delicate subjects for Hammer to be toying with, but the film does feel unnecessarily chaste - even the studio's 1966 film The Witches hinted at something more perverse during the climactic orgy, and tellingly the BBFC signed off on the film without so much as a cut, head censor John Trevelyan even citing the film as one of the studio's best pictures. Worse still The Devil Rides Out feels decidedly quaint when compared to the powerful and disturbing Rosemary's Baby released in close succession, and one might argue that the writing was on the wall for Hammer Horror at this point with the arrival of Polanski's film and 1968's other major Horror, Night of the Living Dead.
Optimum's DVD of The Devil Rides Out features a very impressive 1.66 anamorphic transfer, taken from a excellent quality print, exhibiting only a little grain during some special effects shots. The mono audio sounds robust and dialogue is sharp. For extras only the theatrical trailer is included, a shame Christopher Lee's commentary track from the US Anchor Bay edition could not be included. The Anchor Bay disc also featured a World of Hammer episode (simply entitled "Hammer") but sadly this and the later edition which included Rasputin the Mad Monk are now well out print.