Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Spooktacular # 3: The Devil Rides Out

Having seen it twice now, this has managed to retain its status as my favorite Hammer film. Unlike most of their horror films, this one’s actually set in the 20th century, and in an even bigger shocker, it stars Christopher Lee as the hero instead of the villain. I had seen over a dozen of his films when I first saw this movie, and this was the first time I had seen him not play a villain. To this day, I’ve only seen him as a good guy in roughly two films, to give you a further idea of how much of a rarity this is.

Savor this, it’s about the only time you’ll ever see him being heroic.

As might be obvious from the title, this is a story of the occult, as Lee discovers that a young friend of his has gotten mixed up with a coven that plans to sacrifice his soul to Satan in a few days. Stealing him away from them, we get an ongoing struggle between Lee’s holy magic, infused with the Lord, and the coven, deriving their dark powers from the Devil, and I must say, the Devil certainly does spend most of the movie looking a good deal more powerful. The head of the coven conjures up a genie to attack them, summons up a choking thick fog to make one of the heroes crash during a tense car chase, and even goes so far as to summon the Angel of Death and the Devil Himself in his mad schemes. It develops into something so over-the-top that even a hint of the actors being in on the joke would have ruined it; thankfully, under Terence Fisher’s skilled direction, it manages to strike a perfect blend of over the top madness without ever lapsing into any goofiness. This is especially impressive when considering that at one point Lee mentions that he has a trump card of powerful white magic that he dares not use because it would alter the space/time continuum.

Even factoring that in, there are some great scenes in this film. The attack by the genie is the first indication Lee’s friend, and we as the audience, get that this coven actually knows what they’re doing, and it’s a great bit of understated danger. The greatest scene, though, comes near the climax, when Lee leads his friends and family into a protective circle to wait out the night, as the coven’s head uses every trick he can think of to lure them outside the circle. This includes having the voice of one of their absent friends calling from outside the house for them to let him in, and summoning a vision of one character’s daughter getting attacked by a giant killer spider. It’s a great game of escalation that’s pulled off wonderfully.

I am quite a fan of the Hammer horror movies, and have seen pretty much all of their major ones, so keep that in mind when I say this is their crowning achievement. If you were ever curious as to what their stuff was like, this would be a perfect place to start. Even better, it works as a nice double feature, coming in a two pack with Rasputin the Mad Monk. That film isn’t as good, but it’s still quite entertaining, and has Lee in his more normal villainous role.

Rating: *** ½

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