Although not a big commercial success on its release, The Devil Rides Out is one of the best horror films produced by the Hammer studio. This is despite it being in many ways the antithesis of everything that Hammer was supposed to represent, in that there were no gloomy castles or other Gothic trappings, no vampires or other such monsters, and Christopher Lee was playing the good guy. The reactionary undertones of the source material remain intact, something quite fascinating to consider, given the year in which the film was released.
In 1920s England, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) is concerned that Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), the son of a late friend has been brainwashed by a satanic cult. The leader of the cult, Mocata, (Charles Gray) wants to induct Simon and his friend Tanith Carlisle into a satanic baptism - and he has some powerful allies, including the Angel of Death and the Devil himself
The punchy well-structured script by Richard Matheson sticks to the plot of the original Dennis Wheatley novel. We are plunged straight into the action from the beginning, and there is barely a wasted line or scene as the action drives relentlessly forward, through manor houses, countryside car chases, and frenzied Black Magic rituals. The 1920s setting also means that in many respects it does not look dated – although the effects do
Unsurprisingly, the main star of the film is Lee, who manages to be an almost mirror image of the villains he is perhaps more well known for. His Richleau is every inch the aristocratic charmer that his Dracula is, but this is now mixed with elements of Van Helsing, particularly the arcane knowledge, which he can handily explain to the audience, and the traditional Christian moral view. When Richleau is admonishing Simon at the beginning, he sounds like a concerned parent horrified at what their children are getting into. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a real life parent in 1968 similarly horrified at their offspring and their long hair and interest in the occult, something that would be crystallised in the mainstream with the release the following year of the hit single Age of Aquarius.
There is often a reactionary or Puritan streak underpinning the horror genre, such as in the sight of sexually active teens being knifed by masked killers. This is often paired with situations that show or imply a pro-Christian message, such as the crucifix dispatching the vampire, or the Roman Catholic exorcism rituals succeeding where medicine and science fails.
On the surface, The Devil Rides Out is no exception, with the crosses, the depiction of Satanists as evil, (with no real discussion as to why), and the subtext of the Christian (and in this case, sexually and emotionally repressed) way of life is good, while the Satanic (and, again, as represented in the film, uninhibited) life is bad. There is a small hint of irony in this, given that a film could not have been made without the rise of more permissive attitudes in cinema goers, and perhaps this is the key as to why there is no heavy handed lecturing in the film, which would have turned audiences off. Instead, the two sides are presented as no more than opposing forces for dramatic purposes for us to cheer or boo as appropriate.