203) The Devil Rides Out (1968) Dir: Terence Fisher Date Released: July 1968 Date Seen: June 30th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
Among the Hammer Horror titles that champion Christian ideals by fetishizing both religious and impious signs and rituals, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out stands out. It's a frenzy of portents and made-up arcane rules that protests that the only way to fight perverted zealotry is with some seriously unkosher wizardry of their own. It's also a bit of a mess. Despite a strong opening sequence provided by Richard Matheson's adapted script, the film runs mostly on fumes.
Neither Matheson's script, based on Dennis Wheatley's novel, nor Fisher's clumsy direction provide any sense of dread to the silly and overtaxed scenes of malevolent conjuring. There are some fun isolated images, like the summoning of an oddly transfixing goat-man version of Satan, but absolutely no consistency or signs of polished execution to the project. You know you're in trouble when a leering, half-naked black guy materializes out of a pentacle accompanied by a cloud of smoke for reasons that are never explained.
What carries the film through its bare collection of encounters is its comically strident attitude towards the perversion of Christianity as the one true faith of conservative families. The film's plot revolves around the awakening of a bachelor, a bachelorette and a nuclear family to the, to quote Christopher Lee's character, "very real and very deadly" threat of Devil worshippers. Unlike most Hammer films, Lee here plays the Van Helsing-type Peter Cushing normally plays. He's a paternalistic theological authority that knows more than he should about how black magic works abut only because he needs to fight it.
The biggest tool in Lee's arsenal is however not his knowledge of the many and varied diabolical ceremonies but rather his conviction. Leon Greene, who serves as Lee's initially skeptical protege and our cipher as a clueless layman, is at first only told by Lee that he needs to wait for proof of his suspicions. He's not told what to expect, just that he needs to trust Lee and have faith that eventually he too will understand the necessity of Lee's work.
Lee's kind of conjuring is preventative, more modest and hence has no visual manifestation while the kind his opponents use relies on flashy avatars. Lee's character is essentially fighting fire with fire, pitting one kind of largely invisible fanaticism against a kind that begs to be seen to be believed. That difference in methodology makes you want to root for the bad guy because at least with them, what you see is what you get. If only Matheson and Fisher worked a little harder to build better baddies.