Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Nike Arrighi, Patrick Mower, Charles Gray, Paul Eddington, Sarah Lawson, Leon Greene, Patrick Allen
Words – Scott Burns.
Based on the popular novel by Dennis Wheatley, starring Christopher Lee in a fantastic performance and directed by the legendary Terence Fisher, who had helmed the incredibly-successful Frankenstein and Dracula movies that made Hammer the name for horror movies around the world, this film should have heralded a brand-new era for the company.
Lee stars as the Duc de Richleau, a student of the occult and adept at white magic, who, with his friend Rex Van Ryn (played by Leon Greene and dubbed by Patrick Allen), drops in on old friend Simon (Patrick Mower) who is throwing a party for a social group he wants to join. Richleau discovers to his horror that the group is steeped in dark magic and attempts to stop Simon and his friend Tanith (Nike Arrighi) from being “baptised” by the group’s leader, the powerful dark magician Mocata (a fantastic Charles Gray). Mocata, determined to grow his coven, unleashes the forces of Hell to return them to him, leaving only Richleau and his extensive knowledge of the dark arts to fight back.
Hammer were approached by Lee, a fan of Wheatley, to make the film, believing it could be a huge success for the company and a change from the classical Gothic stories that had been their bread and butter for the past few years. The Gothic horror market had become saturated with films from other independent producers both home and abroad, thanks to Hammer’s popularity. The company agreed, resulting in a rip-roaring horror thriller from start to finish, directed by Fisher with his usual seriousness and attention to pace.
Lee, who considered this his favourite of all his Hammer appearances, is rarely better as Richleau, a dedicated warrior against evil. Greene is good, if somewhat subdued, as Rex Van Ryn, the action man contrasting Richleau’s more cerebral character who leaps into fights and car chases to protect his friends, putting aside his natural scepticism when the gates of Hell open. Also on the side of the angels is Richard and Marie Eaton (played by Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson respectively), who become involved at the behest of Richleau, Marie’s uncle. Representing the dark side is Gray’s Mocata, an outwardly polite gentleman who can mesmerise and control the unready and can summon monsters and phantoms (even the Angel of Death) to attack his enemies.
The task of adapting Wheatley’s novel fell to author and screenwriter Richard Matheson, a veteran of film and television whose work includes several episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the acclaimed adaptations of the work of Edgar Allen Poe directed by Roger Corman (themselves inspired by the success of Hammer’s gothic horrors in the States) as well as the writer of the hugely-influential novel I Am Legend. A better writer could not have been found and Matheson’s script distils Wheatley’s narrative with wit and imagination, keeping the cracking pace of the best pulp fiction. With all this talent, the movie couldn’t fail and indeed became another success for Hammer both in Europe and the United States (where it was released as The Devil’s Bride), thrilling audiences with terrifying special effects beyond anything Hammer had attempted before.
However, the company did not continue in the same vein, reverting back to the Gothic form for more outings for Dracula (featuring an increasingly fed-up Lee) and Baron Frankenstein well into the Seventies. Even though the company made interesting and effective films like Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Countess Dracula and Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde (both 1971), as well as the odd noble failure like The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires (1974, a co-production with Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong), their output seemed positively antiquarian next to the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). They did make one other Wheatley adaptation: To The Devil… A Daughter (1976), but the film so offended the author that Hammer were banned from making any more films based on his work. A pity Hammer never took the initiative to show the world that there was more to them than cleavage and Kensington Gore.
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