Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Fantasy Filmmaking:
The Devil Rides Out: A Gainsborough Studios Production!

Whenever you read a book or magazine article about British horror films, you reach the mid 1950s and obviously encounter the words ‘Hammer’, leading into the inevitable discussions of Hammer Films and its output of Gothic horrors. Just as inevitably, one will also see the name ‘Gainsborough’ to illustrate how the Gothic horrors of the 1950s and 1960s were influenced by Gainsborough Studios and the wonderfully cleavage-revealing, bodice ripping, Gainsborough Gothics. It’s safe to say that there’s no great distance between Margaret Lockwood’s vamps ...
Margaret Lockwood in 'The Wicked Lady'
... and Hammer’s vampires:
Barbara Shelley in 'Dracula Prince of Darkness'
The image is reinforced by the presence in the director’s chair for so many Hammer productions of Terence Fisher, a man who’d cut his teeth (pardon the pun) as an editor and director at Gainsborough (although this argument can be supported by his work as editor on The Wicked Lady, it might be undermined if you point out that he also worked on Will Hay’s Windbag the Sailor).

Which brings me to The Devil Rides Out. One of Hammer’s best loved films – directed by Fisher - The Devil Rides Out is based on the quintessential Dennis Wheatley novel – a story of Satanism with the inevitable theme of the triumph of good over evil. And anyone who has ever read the book will tell you the same thing: Christopher Lee was born to play the Duc de Richelieu. It’s almost as if Dennis Wheatley had written the role for him (which he didn’t, since Lee was not yet a teenager when the book was written).
Christopher Lee

Yet as I watched the melodrama unfold for the first time in 30 years, I was struck by how much The Devil Rides Out reminded me of a Gainsborough film. Over the top, melodramatic, with a diabolical villain, it set my mind thinking as to how Gainsborough would have cast the film in the late 1940s. The would probably have been forced to remove references to the supernatural but, by presenting the story simply as a struggle between good and evil, as a group of Satanists try to seduce new acolytes to their demonic ways (thus removing references to actually conjuring up demons). By which time, they would probably have decided to set it in the eighteenth century and turn it into a version of the story of Francis Dashwood's 'Hellfire Club'.

 OK, so it never happened ... but we can dream!
So here we go: The Devil Rides Out (1948) courtesy of Gainsborough Studios (and me):

As earlier noted, Christopher Lee was the perfect Duc De Richelieu. So where would we find a replacement from among the cast of ‘usual suspects’ at Gainsborough? The Duc needs to be aristocratic, wise and mature – not exactly a typical leading role for a Gainsborough film. James Mason was too evil and Stewart Granger too young and dashing. But all is not lost, I know it’s a wild card but I might throw in the name of Noel Coward. The right age, and sufficiently sophisticated, I could imagine him leading his band of friends in their fight against evil with the same dash of wise paternalism with which he led the crew of HMS Torrin in In Which We Serve.
Noel Coward
The Duc’s nemesis is the leader of the coven, Mocata (a character reportedly based on legendary twentieth century Satanist Alastair Crowley).
Charles Grey
Charles Grey handled the character well for Hammer, but Gainsborough had someone perfect for the role. Their villain of choice was the wonderful James Mason. His piercing stare would have been more than a match for anyone and in most of his early films ones always got the feeling that he was just waiting for a chance set loose his inner demons.
James Mason

The Duc’s most loyal friend is Rex Van Ryn, portrayed by Leon Greene in the Hammer film.
Christopher Lee & Leon Greene
There is no competition for this role. Rex is a man of action: sceptical about magical powers and always ready with his fists. So look no further than Gainsborough’s foremost romantic lead, the swashbuckling Stewart Granger.
Stewart Granger

And then there’s Simon, played by consummate 1970s action-man Patrick Mower in the Hammer film, who – under the influence of Mocata - is tempted to stray from the path of righteousness and into the world of darkness.
Patrick Mower
Gainsborough never really had much call for naïve young men in their films so this is a difficult choice. ‘Younger’ male leads at Gainsborough included Griffith Jones and Michael Rennie who were both actually in their late thirties in the post-war period so not really young enough for the role. So I will suggest Dennis Price for the role. He appeared in many Gainsborough films of the period and was often cast unsuitably so maybe he is ideal for the naïve Simon.
Dennis Price
Onto the female lead: Rex’s love interest is Tanith, a young lady who is drawn under Moccata’s spell into the world of Satanism.
Nike Arrighi
Nike Arrighi
Played by Nike Arrighi in the Hammer film, the perfect candidate for the Gainsborough role would need to be someone capable of playing a damsel in distress, the orphan set adrift in a callous world and prey to the attentions of evil, before Stewart Granger steps in to save the day. Hello Phyllis Calvert, your role awaits you.
Phyllis Calvert

Phyllis Calvert
Wait, I hear you say .... What about a role for Jean Kent? No problems. Gainsborough's sauciest star often appeared in fleeting roles when all that was needed was a quick glimpse of flesh and something for the men to gawp at for a few seconds. So Jean can appear as 'Satanist coven girl if low-cut flowing dress' (see below right):

Thanks Jean:
Jean Kent


While we are discussing the inspiration that Gainsborough had on Hammer's gothic output, I should mention the one film that immediately struck me as being especially close in tone to Hammer's later output ... and it isn't even a Gainsborough picture!

Released in 1948, Blanche Fury is an overtop melodrama that - while based on a true story - was clearly inspired by Gainsborough. So much so that the producers even brought in Stewart Granger as their leading man.
Stewart Granger
It's the fantastic colours that set the film apart from so many other films of the period - and in particular give the modern viewer the idea that they are watching a Hammer film without the supernatural. There's the coach bringing the governess to a dark, mysterious house ...

... the menacing heraldic symbol of 'Fury's Ape' that symbolises the family curse ...

... and this scene of Valerie Hobson moving in to kiss Stewart Granger: All she's missing are the fangs ...
Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger
... plenty of death ...

... there's even a brief appearance by George Woodbridge who later appeared in seven horror films for Hammer:
George Woodbridge

Here's a quick rundown of who else appears:

The wonderfully named Cherry London:

Ernest Jay:

Maurice Denham:

Michael Gough:
Susanne Gibbs:

Sybille Binder

Walter Fitzgerald:

So remember, next time you are discussing Hammer films with your friends (I'm assuming you do discuss such subjects among your friends, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this blog) and someone says 'You can really see the influence that Gainsborough had on Hammer', turn to them and say 'Yes, but I feel that the 1948 Gainsborough rip-off Blanche Fury was possibly even more influential.'

(just make sure you've seen it first, so you know what happens)


1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this. Great stuff. I go along with most of it. I wonder, though about Coward's lack of stature, so how about Trevor Howard?
    Also, I don't think Price could ever look innocent, so what about Richard Attenborough? And what about Margaret Lockwood as the witch played by Gwen Francon-Davies?