“I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death and Hades was following close behind him.” Duc de Richleau must save his friends from the accursed pawn Mocata, a man imbued with the devilish powers of The Accuser, who summons forth his master to claim them as His own.
Director Terence Fisher structures a rather linear story into an action and suspense packed thriller while legendary writer Richard Matheson trims the story of excess, allowing the narrative to smolder with tension before the final conflagration. The opening credit sequence sets the tone, with a creepy score lurking beneath the lingering icon of Satan as smoke curls about his horned visage, like souls relegated to an eternity of ethereal damnation.
The film begins with Duc de Richleau and his cohort Rex van Ryan accidentally discovering their friend Simon is dabbling in the dark arts. The “dinner party” they crash is actually a meeting to induct Simon and a young girl named Tanith into a Satanic Cult, and the scene is ripe with a vague uneasiness as the whispering guests and subtle glances reveals subversion: oblivious, Rex continues his conversation while the well-traveled Duc suspects the worst. After a hasty exit in which they explore the strange observatory, they confront Simon and kidnap him. But Mocata needs thirteen for his ritual and his willpower cannot be broken!
Christopher Lee is the well-groomed protagonist Duc de Richleau, playing against type which instills his character with a humane yet hammer-strong personality. Charles Gray is the villain Mocata; his baby blue eyes impale any whom his gaze falls upon. Both actors are wonderful in developing characterizations without becoming mere caricatures, allowing their expressions and performances as revelation, so the film needn’t waste time with exposition.
Fisher spices the story with eerie images of occult iconography: from goat-headed pentagrams to detailed ceremonies with fiendish chanting and orgasmic revelry. Fisher often uses reflections or extreme close-ups, focusing on the eyes and expressions to convey a hypnotic anxiety: the eyes are not only the mirrors of the soul…but a doorway to that gossamer territory. Mocata is able to use his mind to control his subjects, and he forces Simon to escape and kneel before Lucifer. Covered in the fresh blood of a lamb, the beautiful Tanith and the naïve Simon are about to be lost in abyssal horrors…but suddenly a heavenly light pierces the darkness and Simon is whisked away to temporary safety once again. Later, Richleau and Rex discover that Tanith’s soul has yet to be devoured and they attempt to attain her salvation also.
Then begins the dark night of the soul, as Richleau must battle evil incarnate with every ounce of his mental strength and formidable knowledge: bounded by the safety of a pentagram, he must convince his friends not to succumb to temptations that shall destroy them. A giant spider, the sacrifice of a child, and Death itself are excised…but at great cost. The action is fast and furious, from the battle within the safety of chalk dust to Tanith and Rex’s struggle against Mocata’s fiendish impulses while hiding in a manger. Finally this dread night passes and Death claims its victim, but Richleau’s counterspell sentences his nemesis to a poetic justice.
Final Grade: (B+)