Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

Hammer Horror films are mostly known for their lush Technicolor remakes of the classic Universal monster movies in the 50s and early 60s. They existed for some time after those fell out of fashion, though – they knew how to follow the trends of their day, and when the horror scene turned to the occult in the late 60s, Hammer followed. The most well-known of this turnout is the Dennis Wheatley adaptation, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.

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Now, I’m a sucker for anything that was made in the 60s or 70s and involves the devil. There’s something about the atmosphere and storylines of those films that satisfies like no other. So, this film is a dream come true for me. Featuring Christopher Lee (as a good guy!!) and famed Rocky Horror criminologist Charles Gray, the story follows two aristocrats as they hurry to stop their young friend from pledging his soul to devil worshippers. But when they disrupt an important ritual, their group is hunted by a series of demonic spirits who will do anything to get their members back.

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Directed by Hammer maestro Terence Fisher, this film is shameless in its Satanic themes. There is no trope left out – we have Bacchanal robed worshippers, yellow-eyed demons, candlelit chants, and even a goat-like appearance of the Devil himself. Yet, the film manages to cohere into a simple but strongly-paced plot, and at times I found it to be pretty unsettling (in particular a scene involving a giant spider and a young girl). The whole thing harkens back to the best stories of M.R. James, in which smart people come up against an ancient, occult evil, and use their wits to escape with their lives.

For atmosphere, no one can top Hammer. The opulent production design and mist-filled set pieces, populated by all manner of ghoulish beings, is glorious to watch. Matched with the fabulousness of Christopher Lee (and a surprisingly solid cast of supporting actors), these elements are an absolute Godsend – or a gift from the Devil – for a horror fan. It’s a blast, pure and simple.

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“The Devil Rides Out” belongs to a series of Devil flicks exported by Hammer in the wake of “Rosemary’s Baby” – others being “To the Devil a Daughter,” and “The Witches.” What is remarkable about this trend, and all the others that Hammer portrays, is the ease with which we can track the changing horror market through this company alone. What began as a series of science fiction films (“Quartermass,” etc.) turned, alongside the Gothic monster movies, into a collection of low-budget psychological thrillers in the vein of “Psycho,” eventually becoming the occult films and sexual Euro-trash flicks as the industry adopted the rating system. It’s fascinating to watch how much the horror genre changes, always spurned on by a specific film that becomes the blueprint for all others.

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But, business tactics aside, Hammer produced some of the purest, most entertaining horror films of the 60s and 70s. “The Devil Rides Out” represents the best of them. It’s perfect for the approaching Halloween season, when the demons are watching just over our shoulders.

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