Sunday, November 24, 2013

Holidays With the Devil

Hammer Films produced a lot of inventive, effective horror movies during the 1960s and early ‘70s. They put out a lot of dreck too, but that’s to be expected and in no way dampens the positively English stamp they put all over classic and new horror stories during their run as a go-to brand for movie-night scares. Even their duds are still fun in the right setting.

Just because Halloween has passed doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some occult spookiness. We recommend a double feature of two Hammer titles: The Devil Rides Out (1968) and The Witches aka The Devil’s Own (1966). If anyone questions why you’re watching movies about the occult instead of some Christmas nonsense, tell them you’re following the European tradition of sharing ghost stories during the holidays. Then press play before they can protest.

The Devil’s Own
Hitchcock vet Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion) stars as Gwen Mayfield, an English school teacher working in Africa. After a jarring encounter with a tribal shaman, and the local ancient pagan practices, she heads back to England. But soon after Mayfield settles in the village of Heddaby, she starts to notice strange behavior in the locals and outright claims of witchcraft.

Fontaine’s a joy to watch, hitting a very Hitchcock-esque tone of the everywoman in over her head. Mayfield tries to keep her wits and logic about her despite the mounting evidence that occult skullduggery is happening right before her eyes.

The pagan ritual at the climax of Devil’s Own may put off some viewers, as it seems a little like a community theater idea, but if those actors can commit to it, just give yourself over to the diet Walpurgisnacht and enjoy the ride. Besides, based on Pentecostal congregations, this performance probably isn’t too far off from the real thing.

One of the big charms of The Devil’s Own is the pacing of the story. There are pauses and diversions built into the story, including a surprising chapter in which Fontaine’s character is institutionalized. It makes the loaded front-end of the movie novel-like.

Based on Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters viewers shouldn’t have too much trouble sorting the mystery of the village, and the ending reeks of MPAA style fiddling. But everything leading up to that is a good fun and a nice choice for viewers who generally avoid horror movies.


The Devil Rides Out
Christopher Lee gets to branch out from his regular Hammer jobs as Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s monster in this chilling tale of Satanism.

Lee plays Nicholas Duc le Richleau (!), a scholar of the dark arts who calls on an old friend, Van Ryn, for help. Richleau is worried about a young acquaintance of his, Simon Aron. A visit to Aron’s estate confirms Richleau’s fear. There are 12 guests at Aron’s “party” and the guest called Mocata (the wonderful Charles Gray) has a certain air about him.

Spoiler: Mocata leads a Satanic cult and plans on baptizing Aron and his lady friend Tanith. Richleau is not about to let that happen, and the chase is on.

Rides Out is based on the Dennis Wheatly novel of the same name. We’ve never read it, but the film leads us to believe that Wheatly must have devoured the works of M.R. James, as the film unfolds with the casually mounting terror of James’ work, with real-world scares (a car chase on narrow country roads) gradually giving way to other worldly horror.

He sees you when you're sleeping
When Mocata actually summons Old Scratch (perhaps it’s Baphomet?) viewers may wonder where the filmmakers could go from there. Giant spider aside – which isn’t bad, but suffers from the effects budget – how do you top a middle act appearance from the Devil? Oh, but they do top it.

Richleau and his cohorts fumble on the way to toppling Mocata, ending in a showdown that turns out to be a demonstration for why you don’t come between a mother and her child. We repeat: Don’t mess with mom.

Like Devil’s Own, Rides Out leans on a denouement that must have been at the bidding of various decency groups in Britain. And that’s fine. We don’t mind the happy ending, even if it does seem to be the cinematic equivalent of handing out a tiny bible as we exit the theater.

Everything else in Rides Out reads like source material for the wave of heavy metal bands that were beginning to fire up their amps, sparking up doobs, and incanting the names of demons for shock effect in the decade that followed. Surely Angel Witch has a DVD of this movie on their tour bus.

Reference material: Occult/Satanism horror tends toward the ridiculous or gore-filled. But somewhere along an alternate scale of films such as The Believers, The 39 Steps, and House of the Devil is the right tone for these two Hammer films. And we didn't link to The Witches/Devil's Own on IMDB for this piece, because the stupid DVD art gives away the big twist.