StudioCanal’s mission to buff up our favourite Hammer classics continues with the DVD/Blu-ray release of The Devil Rides Out (1968). In a fast-moving tale about devil worshippers in the leafy Home Counties, the actor best known as Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) goes head to head with the smooth-talker who once played Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray). Arachnophobes may recoil at the restored version of the film’s celebrated giant spider sequence, but Lee fans will enjoy hearing him pit his expertise against Hammer historian Marcus Hearn on the film’s commentary track.
Against an elegant 1930s backdrop of sprawling country houses and veteran cars, satanists led by the powerful Mocata (Gray) are planning to initiate new member Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) into their circle of depravity. But the aristocratic Duc de Richleau (Lee) soon realises the true purpose of his ward’s “little astronomical society” and spends the next 90 minutes keeping Simon and Tanith (Niké Arrighi) out of Mocata’s clutches. Arming himself with salt and mercury — “effective against the dark forces” — the Duc’s formidable intellectual powers are seemingly unaffected by a lack of food or sleep. His sidekick Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) provides some much-needed brawn, but is dangerously smitten with the lovely Tanith, through whom Mocata channels his powers.
The Devil Rides Out was adapted by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) from a novel by Dennis Wheatley and directed by studio regular Terence Fisher (Dracula). With its tame (nudity free) orgy scenes and surprising lack of gore, The Devil Rides Out won’t raise too many eyebrows or hackles these days. We have Lee to thank for persuading producer Anthony Nelson Keys to greenlight the project, because despite the popularity of Wheatley’s books, it was still considered daring for Hammer to tackle a movie about satanism.
Lee will always be associated with his Hammer vampire roles, but he’s equally masterful here in a film that doesn’t require him to sink his teeth into anyone. While Rex handles the car chases and punch-ups, it’s always the Duc pulling the strings as he tersely issues orders and reveals the ghastly significance of finding a white hen and a black cockerel in a cupboard. He’s well matched by Gray’s smoothly understated performance as Mocata, in a part that some actors would have seen as an opportunity for unbridled scene chewing. The sequence in which he transfixes the Duc’s niece Marie (played by Sarah Lawson), is one of the most chillingly effective demonstrations of “mind over mind” ever committed to film. With his piercing blue eyes and perfect diction, Gray almost makes the triumph of evil seem like a victory for calm reason and good manners.
Sarah Lawson joins Christopher Lee and Marcus Hearn on a commentary track that isn’t quite as much fun as the one for Dracula Prince of Darkness. Lee, who knew Dennis Wheatley well, proves highly authoritative on the source novel and guides us through the terminology and ceremonies of the black arts. But he and Lawson obviously haven’t watched this film recently, and they have an annoying tendency to talk over each other. By the time we reach the climactic scene in Mocata’s basement, you wish they’d stop saying “I don’t remember that”, and that Lee wouldn’t keep droning on about the wonders of digital special effects.
The optical effects work of Michael Stainer-Hutchins on The Devil Rides Out is affectionately but honestly appraised by his son and daughter in one of the accompanying documentaries. Cineimage, who did the painstaking restoration work, explain how they cleaned up that gigantic hairy spider and the Angel of Death, without doing violence to the period nature of those effects.
The highlight of the extra features on this disc is the short appreciation of author Dennis Wheatley and his association with Hammer. His biographer Phil Baker has an uncanny and hilarious ability to dismiss the legacy of “Britain’s occult uncle”, while sounding terribly respectful. “One of the all-time great bad writers” he concludes, before conceding that the prolific author has now made the transition from being “merely dated to vintage”. It’s a description that could be applied to Hammer’s film adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, whose status as a genre classic is enhanced by this sparkling restoration.
The first Hammer film I ever saw was She, in which Ursula Andress dons some extravagant headgear to play the immortal Queen Ayesha — “She who must be obeyed”. I’m guessing the star of Dracula Prince of Darkness, Christopher Lee, won’t need to sip rejuvenating pints of blood when he celebrates his 90th birthday in May. His co-stars also seem to have discovered the secret of longevity, as several of them join him on the commentary track for this restored DVD release. Lee’s voluble contribution more than compensates for the fact that Dracula (famously) doesn’t speak in the movie.
Dracula Prince of Darkness sees Lee (“Chris” to his fellow thespians) belatedly return to the role he first played in 1958′s Dracula. It’s his masterful presence alongside Scream Queen Barbara Shelley that elevates what would otherwise be a pretty routine vampire flick. Hammer historian Marcus Hearn calls this “quintessential Hammer horror”, which is a fair reflection of a plot in which some clueless English tourists spend the night at Dracula’s Gothic castle and live to regret it. Well, not all of them actually live.
Terence Fisher’s film begins with a stirring pre-credits sequence, reminding us how the infamous Count was turned into a heap of ashes by Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Ten years later, his former neighbours are still wracked by fear and superstition. But they — and we — have to wait another 40 minutes to discover the secret ingredient needed to reconstitute those ashes into something with a lot more sex appeal.
Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer play winsome young couple Charles and Diana (Kent, not Windsor), with Shelley as the uptight sister-in-law, married to Alan (Charles Tingwell). Their mildly entertaining familial banter has more of an edge to it once they’re at the mercy of the Count’s lugubrious manservant Klove (played by Philip Latham). In the film’s most memorable scene, he lovingly prepares the sarcophagus from which his master will soon rise again. All that’s needed is a bucket of “claret”, courtesy of the freshly butchered Alan.
Beautifully lit and shot, this chilling ritual also features some pretty impressive special effects by the standards of a low-budget, mid-60s horror movie. That’s something the cast note with approval on the commentary, with Lee “That is my left hand!” apparently surprised at the way he emerges from the smoke-filled tomb.
At times they’re a bit hazy on the names of some other cast members (clearly no one had a smart phone handy to check IMDb). But Lee, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Barbara Shelley obviously have fond memories of Hammer and director Fisher, so the anecdotes come thick and fast. Shelley losing a “fang” during her climactic staking scene is, perhaps, old news. But I didn’t know that she’d met Humphrey Bogart while working as an extra on The Barefoot Contessa. Cue several Bogart impersonations.
Dracula Prince of Darkness is the first title from the Hammer back catalogue to get a full makeover and restoration on DVD and Blu-ray. They’ve even gone to the bother of putting “Associated British Productions Limited” back onto the title sequence. The enhanced picture quality does wonders for Dracula’s glowing red eyes, as he fixes the ladies with his “come hither” stare. The fake gore, though, now looks even more like fruit cocktail.
The extras package here is good, with a new half-hour documentary featuring cast members as well as experts Marcus Hearn, Mark Gatiss and author Jonathan Rigby. But my favourite moment on this DVD comes during an episode from The World of Hammer series. It’s basically a Christopher Lee Greatest Hits package, with Oliver Reed offering a few comments, but not much in the way of analysis. In To the Devil a Daughter (1976) Lee’s Satanist ex-priest is attempting to lure away a young girl played by Nastassja Kinski (who was 15 at the time). “Not a bad idea” intones the lecherous Ollie. Nicely put.