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January 8, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #1 - The Devil Rides Out

Christopher Lee is perhaps the most respected horror star of the latter half of the 20th century, and rightfully so. While working primarily with Hammer Films in the 50s-70s, Lee played no less than Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, The Mummy, Rasputin, Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde. Plus he went on to appear in The Wicker Man (Not the "Not the bees!"/Nic Cage version, of course), the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the Star Wars prequels, and a Bond film. He's worked with no less than Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, and Billy Wilder. But I'm going to tell you something you probably didn't know about Sir Christopher Lee - his best performance comes in 1968's The Devil Rides Out.

Directed by Hammer go-to-man Terence Fisher, and adapted by Richard Matheson from Dennis Wheatley's novel, The Devil Rides Out gives Lee the rare opportunity to play a heroic role as the Duc De Richlieu, an occult scholar and general bad-ass set for a reunion with old friends Simon (Patrick Mower) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene). When Simon doesn't show up, the Duc and Rex (which would have been a great name for a buddy-cop show) crash a party held at his posh mansion/observatory, and quickly uncover the scary fact that Simon happens to have gotten involved with a cult of devil worshipers led by the sinister Mocata (fellow Bond-villain Charles Gray, known also as The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Criminologist).

The plot gives Lee lots of opportunities to use his forceful presence for good, and he succeeds in every one of them. The Duc is kind of what you would get if you mixed Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, Veronica Mars, and Sherlock Holmes - A loud, intimidating character who is capable of anything he sets his mind to and has wits that are matched by no other. Any actor would love this kind of role, but only an actor like Lee can pull it off with such panache.
Despite Fisher's terrific direction, Matheson's script and Lee's awesomeness, The Devil Rides Out has a few flaws to overcome. Greene, as Lee's cohort, is an entirely vanilla actor despite his impressive chin, and Lee has to carry him through several scenes. The film's damsel in distress is played by Nike Arrighi, who does a bit better than Greene - but it's pretty clear that Lee is operating on a different plane of existence than anyone else in the film, except for maybe Gray as Mocata. Moreover, the film peaks with a few effects scenes that are incredibly dated, and probably weren't even too impressive in their day. Lee has often stated that he'd love to remake the film with modern effects to deal with these issues, and I can't argue with his idea of having a more mature Duc de Richlieu fighting off the cult once again.

In fact, Lee has often proclaimed this his favorite film that he appeared in, and I am darn close to agreeing. But even if I avoid such a grand proclamation, I'd no doubt list it alongside The Wicker Man and Fisher's first Dracula film among my favorite films featuring the fantastic Mr. Lee. If you haven't checked out The Devil Rides Out, which I've unfortunately found is the case for many horror fans, I can't recommend it enough as my first ever Midnight Movie of the Week here at From Midnight, With Love.

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1 comment:

Madame Enfer said...

The Devil Rides Out, The Wicker Man, Horror of Dracula (and The Curse of Frankenstein) are indeed my coterie of favourite Lee films, but to that I would add The Whip and the Body, dir. Mario Bava. It's fantastic.