Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hammer Rides Out


"The Goat of Mendes! The Devil Himself!" Eddie Powell dons the monster suit for Hammer's  THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.

TERENCE Fisher's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is based on Dennis Wheatley's pot-boiling 1934 novel, and benefits from a Richard Matheson script which surgically cuts the fat from the author's most famous - but sprawling - work. It is also the most sumptuous-looking Hammer film produced by the studio after their move from Bray to Elstree. Set in 1920s London, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) decide to pay a visit to Simon (Patrick Mower), the son of a late comrade. The duo find him hosting a gathering of The Left Hand Path, and under the influence of satanic priest Mocata (Charles Gray), Simon escapes. Consequently, our heroes must seek out the mysterious Tanith (Nike Arrighi) - the daughter of a French countess - who is destined to join their friend at a satanic ritual. When de Richleau and Van Ryn rescue the seemingly doomed pair, Mocata sends his supernatural forces to obtain those promised to him.

Aleister Crowley served as technical adviser to Wheatley's book, and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT illustrates a series of genuine arcana. Ceremonial details, allegiances to nineteenth century magician Eliphas Levi and dialogue (the Susamma ritual is not Matheson but the actual incantation) are all Crowleyesque in tone. A penny-dreadful villain in the novel, Gray's Mocata is the living incarnation of what Fisher often described as "the charm of evil." His central battle of wills with Lee are perfectly played, and the casting of Arrighi is also noteworthy, as her quirky beauty is suited to a role for a woman seeking spiritual awakening. But even with these strengths, the film was not the box office success Hammer had hoped, and packs less dread today when viewed outside of the cycle of satanic movies that would sweep through cinema until the mid-1970s. Particularly detrimental are the special effects, and the orgy that presages The Goat of Mendes is too tame to seem even remotely diabolical.

Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinski in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. A tour de force for Lee, even Astaroth's effigy - a crucified bat in the source novel but a spread-legged hermaphrodite mounted on an inverted black cross in the film - befits Dracula.

Crowley's mandate to bring the Devil's offspring to Earth was channelled into his 1929 work Moonchild. This inspired a 1953 Wheatley novel that acts as the springboard for TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the last Classic Era Hammer Horror. The film tells of excommunicated Father Michael Rainer (Lee), who is head of a cult which rears innocent minors in a closed Catholic convent to serve Astaroth. One of his charges - Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) - has been chosen as the Devil's representative when she comes of age. Catherine's haunted father Henry (Denholm Elliott) enlists occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark) - an obvious Wheatley alter ego - as the girl's temporary guardian, and with the aid of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her gallery-owner boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine), aim to halt Rainer's plans.

Directed by Peter Sykes, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was afforded the largest budget for any Classic Era Hammer film, but it was a troubled production. Widmark allegedly punched an electrician on set and considered the subject matter distasteful and beneath him; Christopher Wicking's typically anarchic script was constantly being rewritten by THE DUELLISTS scribe Gerald Vaughn-Hughes; and stuntman Eddie Powell suffered burns when set on fire for David's church-bound demise. There was also controversy surrounding Kinski, the scandalous teenage lover of Roman Polanski at the time; her naked cavorting in the final scenes - as the actress was born in 1961 - made them highly illegal. Even the money shot - when Catherine presses the bloodied demon child into her womb - exists only to adhere to EXORCIST-style shock tactics. Equally disappointing is the notoriously flat ending: in the original rough cut, an alternate conclusion saw Catherine return to the Bavarian convent to perpetuate the evil of Father Michael, but all we get is Verney halting the wave of evil by throwing a rock at Rainer's head.