Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out in an outstanding if controversial new Blu-Ray release from Studio Canal
1968 was something of a banner year for films involving cults and Satanism, thanks to two distinctly different takes on the subject: Roman Polanski’s terrifying maternity nightmare Rosemary’s Baby, involving a woman’s obsessive paranoia that her unborn child could possibly be the seed of Satan and that her doting neighbors are Antichrist-awaiting occultists; and the less commercially saturated Hammer classic The Devil Rides Out, a popcorn matinee-style adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel about a sinister occult’s attempts to initiate a young man and woman into their satanic rituals.
Studio Canal has given The Devil Rides Out a meticulously cleaned-up new transfer and some interesting new supplements for its Region 2 Blu-Ray release, as well as a couple of controversial new “enhancements” that have Hammer fans more than a little upset.
Starring Christopher Lee as, in a rare casting decision, the film’s hero, Duc de Richelieu, The Devil Rides Out has him and a long-time friend battling a powerful occult leader (icy-eyed Charles Gray, who would go on to play Bond’s nemesis Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever), who wishes to initiate the young son of a dear friend into their devil-worshipping cult. In their efforts to protect the lad from the forces of darkness, de Richelieu and his somewhat loose-cannon friend Rex (played by Leon Greene) must face down black magic, mind-control, and even the Angel of Death himself. The film’s most chilling highlights occur during a night of terror, while our heroes stand protected within a sacred circle as various horrors attempt to get in – or lure someone out.
Though dealing with themes similar to those of Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Rides Out takes the controversial subject of Occultism in a far different direction than Polanski’s cynical, multilayered nightmare vision, by simply telling a chilling tale, with rousing action set-pieces and old-fashioned frights as only the legendary Hammer studios could provide. What we get is a film that throws us car chases, fistfights, giant spiders, cloven-hoofed devils and a break-neck pace – all while not shirking on some genuine chills and frights.
The stark contradiction between the worldviews of Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out is tellingly expressed in both films’ culminating dialog: Toward the end of Rosemary’s Baby, Sidney Blackmer nihilistically proclaims, “God is dead! Satan lives!” Conversely, Devil ends with Christopher Lee’s stoic, hope-filled proclamation that “[God] is indeed the one we must thank.”
This rather old-fashioned ending of The Devil Rides Out feels like something of a cheat. After everything we’ve witnessed, and everything the characters have been through, it’s hard not to look at the final resolution as anything but a letdown. Too much had built up to so quickly whisk the conflict under the rug so conveniently.
But overall the film is a lot of fun, with Lee turning in an engaging performance, as full of presence as any he’s ever given. Gray is a formidable villain, filled with a calm menace and steely, hypnotic gaze. And Leon Greene is a hoot to watch as Rex, who more than once often blindly leaps into grave peril, only to have Lee all but roll his eyes and utter what a “fool” his headstrong friend is.
The Devil Rides Out has been given a nearly flawless restoration in terms of color and grain. The 1080p/AVC encoding looks absolutely fantastic in its original 1.66:1 widescreen ratio – and it should! The film underwent an incredibly meticulous frame-by-frame clean up that removed roughly 1.5 million blemishes. Needless to say, after such an exhaustive restoration (which is detailed in one of the film’s extras), The Devil Rides Out has never looked better than this.
However, this comes with a bit of a price. In a move that’s become controversial among fans of the film, Hammer and Studio Canal gave some of the film’s shoddier special effects a few “enhancements.” The Angel of Death sequence, some matte backgrounds, and some post-production lightening effects have been tinkered with digitally for a more updated look. And if it’s one thing film fans can’t stand (particularly fans of the original Star Wars trilogy or Spielberg’s E.T. to name two notorious examples), it’s when a classic film is “improved upon” with new special effects – particularly if you aren’t given the additional option to see the film in its original form.
In fairness to Hammer and Studio Canal, the direct comparison to George Lucas’ infamous Star Wars tinkering, that some critics have made, is misleading. Lucas’ digital alterations added new effects and even characters, and were so obvious and egregious, they took his original films out of their 1970’s/80’s context and made them look truly “updated.” That never happens with Devil. In fact, the enhancements are rather well done and subtle enough, so that if you’re not familiar with every frame of the film, you might never know anything was done at all.
That said, it would have been good to have the option to view the film without these post-production fixes. If you’ve still got that long “Out-of-Print” Anchor Bay DVD from America, it might behoove the purist in you to hang onto that copy.
The English LPCM Mono track sounds great. Sound effects and dialogue are clear as a bell, with no pops or hissing to be heard, and James Bernard’s score is retained in all its bombastic, Hammer-esque glory.
With America’s Anchor Bay release being Out-of-Print for so long, owners of Region-Free Blu-Ray/DVD players can rejoice in knowing that all of the supplemental material (with the exception of the UK & USA trailers) from the previous DVD have been ported over and are now accompanied by 3 brand new documentaries created exclusively for this release.
Black Magic: The Making of The Devil Rides Out (33:35) is the first and most substantial of these exclusives, featuring interviews with various genre experts, the screenwriter Richard Matheson, actor Patrick Mower and others, who recall the making of the film and its lasting impressions. Unfortunately, Christopher Lee isn’t present for this (or for any of the new supplements), and his absence certainly is felt.The Power of Light: Restoring The Devil Rides Out (11:32) is a detailed look into the intricate restoration of the film, as well as those effects ‘enhancements’ mentioned above. It’s definitely interesting stuff, and the time and effort that went into making the film look better than ever is more than commendable.
Dennis Wheatley at Hammer (12:51) is another fascinating feature, which examines the horror author’s works that became Hammer films, such as the present one, The Lost Continent and To the Devil A Daughter. We also get to discover what the author thought of these films that were based on his works.
There’s also a Still Gallery presented in a moving slideshow format (no toggling, you would need to fast-forward to browse through at your own pace).As far as the content previously released by Anchor Bay in 2000, we have the wonderful Audio Commentary with stars Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson, moderated by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. As he is on screen, Lee is just as engaging in his commentaries and in the matter of The Devil Rides Out(a film he considers a personal favorite), he shows he not only has an appreciation and vivid memory of the production, but an impressive knowledge of author Wheatley’s work and black magic too. Lawson finds a great counter-balance with Lee and the two bounce off of each other’s comments nicely.
Lastly is the World of Hammer Episode titled “Hammer” (24:52) which is narrated by Oliver Reed and features clips and facts about the studio’s films.
After 45 years The Devil Rides Out remains as chilling, rousing and suspenseful as ever. Put aside the nuisance of not being offered the “unenhanced” version of the film, and you have a pretty stellar release of one of Hammer’s classics. The exclusive supplements and that fine-combed restoration make this an easy purchase for collectors and fans of Hammer films alike.
~ by Jason Marsiglia