Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In Memoriam :: Christopher Lee Takes the Devil by the Tail and Sends Him Back to Hell in Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1968)


One of my most favorite characters the late, great Christopher Lee ever played was the famed adventure and occultist, The Duke de Richleau, in The Devil Rides Out / The Devil's Bride (1968). Mined from the same Doc Savage vein, De Richleau was the creation of author Dennis Wheatley, who had him appear in eleven novels starting in 1933 with the last coming nearly forty years later in 1970.


A prolific teller of thrillers, adventure yarns, and piercing the veil of the occult and Satanism, Wheatley rivaled the likes of Edgar Wallace when it came to popularity and sales, becoming one of the world's best selling novelists for a forty year period (1930-1970). (Also of note, Wheatley's novels featuring Gregory Sallust were one of the main inspirations for Ian Fleming's James Bond.) But unlike Wallace, Wheatley didn't really embrace the new medium of movies to adapt his stories for an even broader audience, which was too bad because with the rich characters, intricate plots, international intrigue, and a huge heaping helping of the macabre, they were nearly all tailor made for the motion pictures.


Wheatley's first novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933), starred de Richleau and his merry band of muckrakers, which the author dubbed the "Modern Musketeers": young upstart Simon Aron; American aviator and athlete, Rex Van Ryn; and publisher and professional skeptic, Richard Eaton, and his wife, Marie-Lou. And while their first case was more straight-up adventure and daring-do, for the second Wheatley wanted to up the stakes and set our heroes against the forces of paganism and Black Magic. (In fact, Wheatley would have all of his adventurers encounter some form of the supernatural at least once.) And while he was already familiar with ancient religions, Wheatley wanted something more contemporary, seeking out information and input from the likes of Aleister Crowley (thee noted occultist of the era), the Reverend Montague Summers (who believed in werewolves, vampires and witches), and Rollo Ahmed (an expert on demonology and native rituals from many cultures).


Thus, Wheatley got the band back together for The Devil Rides Out (1934), where de Richleau and Van Ryn discover their friend Aron has come under the thrall of Damien Mocata and his cult of devil-worshipers. Further investigation unravels that Aron is instrumental in Mocata's plan to ignite the hidden power of the Talisman of Set, which gives whoever possesses it the ability to summon and control the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.


With the fate of the world and their friend's soul on the line, then, an eldritch game of cat and mouse ensues as Aron is rescued, recaptured, and then rescued again after a daring night raid against the Devil himself breaks up a Black Mass, thwarting Mocata at least temporarily. Seeking refuge at the Eaton estate, the five reunited musketeers spend a night of terror, ensconced inside the apparent safety of a protective mystical circle de Richleau drew on the floor to repel Mocata's repeated attacks to lure them out and kill them.


Defeated on that front, Mocata switches targets and kidnaps the Eaton's daughter, replacing Aron as the ritual sacrifice needed to trigger the end of the world. And while the men are easily defeated by Mocata's own magic, Marie-Lou recalls the right incantation in the nick of time, invoking the Lord of Light, who possesses her daughter and pulls Mocata into the astral plane for the final battle royale, where his own demons are turned against Mocata and kill him.


From the very beginning, Hammer Films was interested in adapting the works of Wheatley. But even after their Gothic horror revival of blood and boobs hit big in the late 1950s (and kept on keeping on into the 1960s) the studio was stymied on two points: One, Wheatley's agents were asking for the moon and then some for the film rights; and two, founders William Hinds and James Carreras felt they would never get the gist of Wheatley's stories -- Satanism, orgies, and human sacrifices -- past the censors. And considering all the trouble they had with their aborted adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (another tale for another review), these concerns were totally justified.


But it was Christopher Lee who finally got the ball rolling, reaching out to the author, himself. Lee, who was keen on playing de Richleau, was also a neighbor of Wheatley's and, negotiating over several glasses of wine, got the author's personal permission to film The Devil Rides Out, untangling several legal and logistical knots; and so, Hammer put it and another Wheatley tale, The Uncharted Seas, filmed and released as The Lost Continent, on the slate for a 1968 release. And, irony of ironies, the eventually finished film breezed through the censors with nary a hiccup.


Hinds initially commissioned a script from John Hunter, who had written the excellent psychological thriller on the horrors of pedophilia, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), but it didn't pass muster. Hinds then turned it over to Matheson to see what he could do with it. Again, Matheson had had a working relationship with Hammer ever since the I Am Legend fiasco, and had since written Fanatic a/k/a Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) for them; a terrific hagsploitation classic starring Tallulah Bankhead and Stefanie Powers. Matheson stayed fairly true to the novel, keeping it set in England in the 1930s, but with one glaring exception: there is no mention of the Talisman of Set, leaving the reason for Mocata's obsession with Aron and the girl, Tanith, up in the air, making it very confusing for those unfamiliar with the source novel. This, I feel, was a huge tactical mistake.



With the script set, Hammer regular Anthony Nelson Keys was tapped to produce, who basically used the same crew from the previous year's Quatermass and the Pit a/k/a Five Million Years to Earth (1967); and to direct, the studio brought out its big gun: Terence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf. Pictured above with Lee).


Lee, of course, anchors the film as our arcane protagonist but he is equally matched by Charles Gray as the villainous (and very dapper) Mocata. One of the film's few flaws is that these two never really have a direct confrontation. I also love Sarah Lawson and Paul Eddington as the fighting Eatons, and Nike Arrighi as Mocota's seemingly doomed dupe, Tanith. Leon Greene is fine as Rex  the square-jaw, but Patrick Mower's Aron is total wash.


The film also showcases a couple of outstanding set-pieces. The first was the Black Mass and summoning of the Goat of Mendes. The suit concocted by Roy Ashton and worn by stuntman Eddie Powell is effectively creepy and unsettling. The second was Mocata's attack on the Eaton Estate. The earlier scene where he mesmerizes Marie is top-notch and the later attack is set-up to be something truly special but, alas, it kinda fizzles. The superimposed tarantula that stalks around the magic circle works well enough. Honest. Where it truly falls apart is the appearance of the Angel of Death. And for a studio that produced those creepy-as-hell ghost horses and riders for Night Creatures (1962), well, we know they can do better than taping plastic bat-wings to a horse.



And that really is the film's main flaw, and it's nearly fatal, is that despite all of de Richleau's hand-wringing and bombastic doomsaying, Mocata, his minions, and his plan are short-circuited and thwarted a little too easily. (One has to wonder if the "Divine intervention" at the end was a bone thrown to the censors.) The fact that we're never really clued into his true motivation didn't help matters any. And to me, the final confrontation that turns on Marie's sudden possession by the spirit of Tanith doesn't make a whole lot of sense -- nor the tacked on time-warp happy ending.


When the film was finished, Hinds nearly passed out after watching a rough-cut, feeling it didn't work. At all. Luckily, with some fine-tuning and James Bernard's score to glue it all together the film proved a moderately successful hit on both sides of the pond. (By all accounts, Wheatley absolutely loved it.) When it was imported to the States, fearing the original title would bring in people looking for another spaghetti western, Fox changed the title to The Devil's Bride. Whichever title, it didn't help matters that it was released the same year as Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead, making it look even more quaint and outdated than it actually was.



Still, I like this movie a lot. Again, it's one of my favorite performances by Lee in a rare instance where he gets to be the good guy. And ever since I first saw it, I've always viewed de Richleau as an ersatz Dr. Strange -- the Master of Mystic Arts. And somewhere, out there, is an alternate universe where Hammer took a gamble in the 1970s and adapted a movie -- or better yet, a TV series, where Lee played Stephen Strange in The Defenders, which hewed more closely to Julian Wintle's The Avengers than Lee and Kirby's Avengers, where the Sorcerer Supreme teamed up with fellow agents Robert "The Bruce" Banner (Nigel Green), a/k/a The Hulk; Namor McKenzie (Doug McClure), a/k/a the Sub-Mariner; Barbara Norris (Ingrid Pitt), a/k/a the Valkyrie; Patricia Walker (Caroline Munro) a/k/a the Hellcat; and Norrin Radd (Donald Pleasance), a/k/a the Silver Surfer to take on otherworldly things that went bump in the night. How awesome would that've been? I've actually got several faux dossiers on these characters cobbled together that I might publish here someday. Until then, Boils and Ghouls, raise your glass and bow your heads, for a legend has passed.


Sir Christopher Lee
(1922-2015)

This post is part of The Celluloid Zeroes posthumous celebration of the awesome and then some career of Christopher Lee. The tribute continues at Cinemasochist Apocalypse, Checkpoint: Telstar, and The Terrible Claw Reviews.


The Devil Rides Out / The Devil's Bride (1968) Associated British-Pathé :: Hammer Film Productions :: Seven Arts Pictures :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Anthony Nelson Keys / D: Terence Fisher / W: Richard Matheson, Dennis Wheatley (novel) / C: Arthur Grant / E: Spencer Reeve / M: James Bernard / S: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Sarah Lawson, Paul Eddington, Rosalyn Landor

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