Some time in the 1920s and the Duc de Richeleau (Christopher Lee) stands at an airfield watching his friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) pilot his light aircraft in to land. They greet each other and once inside the Duc's chauffeur-driven car Rex asks whatever happened to their friend Simon (Patrick Mower) and after admitting he hasn't heard of him in three months the Duc agrees to go over immediately to Simon's country house and check up on him. When they arrive, they seem to be gatecrashing a party, but when the Duc overhears that the guests cannot go ahead with more than thirteen people, his suspicions are instantly aroused...
...and that's because Simon has become involved with a bunch of Satanists! It was Christopher Lee's idea for Hammer to adapt Dennis Wheatley's most famous novel, and once they secured the rights it seemed as though they might have something controversial on their hands due to its daring for the times, pre-Exorcist subject matter. Watching it now, it would be unlikely to scare a five-year-old, but there was a school of thought that to merely mention the Black Arts was to entertain dark forces that would be better off left well alone.
Perhaps that is the reason that it took so long to gain the recognition it deserved, as gradually it won the reputation as one of the finest films Hammer ever produced. Some of that power may have faded now, but as a romp not entirely typical of the studio's output in that it didn't feature any of the classic monsters, it remains highly enjoyable. Casting Lee as the hero was a stroke of inspiration, as he brings the same authority to the Duc as he did to his villains - in fact, he's playing the Van Helsing role that Peter Cushing usually filled and it's a joy to hear him every time be fires off another line of mystical jargon.
Duc de Richleau and Rex make quick work of kidnapping Simon and trying to prevent his second baptism into the ways of Satan once they realise what is going on. Oddly, Rex doesn't appear to have had any prior awareness of the Duc's encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, even though they're supposed to be old friends; he certainly doesn't know what to do when faced with a demon, and is nearly claimed by one in Simon's house despite the insistence not to look in it's eyes (it resembles the djinn from The Thief of Bagdad, strangely).
But Rex (Greene is obviously dubbed by Patrick Allen for some reason) comes in handy when preventing the coven of thirteen assembling once more by taking out one of the members, Tanith (Nike Arrighi). The Duc erroneously believes that she is a fully paid up Satanist, but she's actually to be inducted that very night along with the powerless-to-resist Simon. The dialogue - Richard Matheson scripted, another good choice - is rich with the language of the arcane which lends the film great weight. As long as Lee looks as if he knows what he's talking about, you know you're in safe hands whether in a sacred chalk circle assailed by demons or at an actual black mass. Special mention must go to Charles Gray's smoothly evil Mocata, the head of the cult, his confidence going a long way to generating the tension that lasts to the grand finale. The Devil Rides Out remains the definitive Wheatley film and one of director Terence Fisher's most unashamedly entertaining. Music by James Bernard.