As we mourn the loss of horror legend Christopher Lee, tributes have focused on his famous roles: Count Dracula, Saruman and Count Dooku. He was fantastic in all of those roles, but I love him best in a lesser-known Hammer film: The Devil Rides Out.
It’s one of the rare times he played a hero instead of a villain.
With Lee’s impressive stature (he was 6’5”) and preternaturally deep voice, he was destined to play the bad guy time and again. And he was damn good at it. But in The Devil Rides Out, (aka The Devil’s Bride) he plays Nicholas, Duke de Richleau, who faces down a satanic cult to save a friend’s son.
Richleau was featured in 11 novels by British novelist Dennis Wheatley, a friend of Lee’s who sparked his lifelong interest in the occult.
As Wheatley described him, “The Duke was a slim, delicate-looking man, somewhat above middle height, with slender fragile hands. … His hair was dark and slightly wavy, his forehead broad, his face oval with a rather thin but well moulded mouth, and a pointed chin that showed great determination. His nose was aquiline, his eyes grey, flecked with tiny spots of yellow; at times they could flash with piercing brilliance, and above them a pair of ‘devil’s eyebrows’ tapered up towards his temples.”
Unfortunately, Lee only played him the one time. As he told Total Film in 2005, he was eager to revisit the role: “Joe Dante and myself tried for years to remake Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, but we couldn’t get the rights. Now with CGI the effects would be terrifying, like the scene where the Angel of Death appears.”
Richleau was one of the actor’s most elegant characters, sporting a goatee and immaculately dressed in a stylish suit.
When asked to look into the disappearance of his friend’s son, Simon (Patrick Mower), he quickly realizes he’s up against an especially sinister foe: Mocata (Charles Gray), who is able to control Simon and a fellow initiate Tanith (Niké Arrighi) with just his mind.
If you’ve never seen the film, I urge you not to watch the trailer ahead of time: The occult surprises are best experienced without warning! Although the special effects are dated, the film’s satanic rituals are still disturbing.
Admittedly, there are two other factors that may distract you from taking the film seriously: The villain, Charles Gray, is best known as the wheelchair-bound Criminologist of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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And Anglophiles will recognize one of Richleau’s friends (Paul Eddington) as Jerry from the ’70s sitcom Good Neighbors (aka The Good Life in the UK).
The film ends with a life-or-death ceremony in which Richleau must summon all his knowledge and power to defeat the evil Mocata. Can he actually turn back time and save the day? If anyone could (besides Superman), it was Lee.
The film has an excellent pedigree: The screenplay is by sci-fi icon Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and directed by Terence Fisher, who also directed Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein, (1957) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Mummy (1959).
Sadly, it’s out of print on DVD and the Blu-ray currently for sale on Amazon is apparently not playable in the US. Nor is it being shown by TCM as part of its all-day tribute to Lee on June 22. But keep an eye out for it: It’s well worth your time.