Also known as The Devil’s Bride in the US, which is the title as it appears on the film in the version I have on BluRay.
This 1968 Hammer film, directed by Terence Fisher with screenplay by Richard Matheson, is adapted from a 1934 novel by Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley had researched into ancient religions, and had made the acquaintance of people like Aleister Crowley; much of what goes on in this story is grounded in the actual practices of black magic.
After the opening credits, which are full of occult symbols and demonic iconography, we meet our heroes, the elegant Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee), and the square-jawed and solid Rex van Rys (played by one actor but voiced by another, which is probably why he always seems a little detached even when he’s in the middle of the action).
It’s April of 1929, and the Duc is worried about the son of an old war buddy, Simon Aron. Even though Simon is now of age, de Richleau had promised his father that he’d look out for him, and the Duc intends to keep that promise no matter what. He tells Rex that he hasn’t seen Simon in three months.
Together, they pay a call on Simon at his new house and find that there’s a party going on. The drawing room is filled with an international group of well-dressed and sophisticated looking people with odd names like the Countess d’Urfe, Tanith Carlyle (Niké Arrighi), and Mr. Mocata (the suavely menacing Charles Grey, last seen here in The Legacy). There are 13 of them.
Simon tells his friends that these people are just a gathering of a little astronomical society he’s joined. Rex has no clue what’s going on, but the Duc knows very well and is appalled.
When the two are asked to leave before the meeting begins, the Duc asks to see the observatory at the top of the house. Simon takes them upstairs, but de Richleau seems more interested in the décor of the room than the telescopes–there’s a distinct astrological theme on the walls and the floor.
When he hears a noise coming from the closet, the Duc investigates and finds chickens in a basket. Not a catered dinner. Literally, two chickens in a large wicker basket.
After he sees the chickens, de Richleau grabs Simon by the lapels and tells him that he’d rather see him dead than dabbling in black magic.
He tries to get Simon to abandon the house tonight, leave the Circle (as Simon calls the group downstairs), and come away with him. Simon says he can’t, and after trying and failing to convince him, the Duc takes the more direct approach of socking the young man in the jaw and carrying him out.
At his own home, the Duc brings Simon around just to hypnotize him into sleeping through the night. He puts a large crucifix–a symbol of protection–around Simon’s neck and tells him that he won’t be able to remove it.
Hypnotized Simon obediently toddles off to bed.
Once he’s gone, Rex scoffs at the idea of real black magic and the occult. “Hocus pocus” is what he calls it. There’s always one in movies like this. But de Richleau has made a study of magic and believes in the powers of Darkness and Light wholeheartedly. And this movie will have absolutely no ambiguity on the subject once things get going. It’s a deadly serious matter.
Upstairs, Simon hasn’t gone to sleep but is under the influence of another power, stronger than de Richleau’s hypnotism. He grabs the crucifix and twists the metal chain in his hand to choke himself.
Fortunately, the butler comes into the room just in time to stop him. He removes the chain from Simon’s neck and brings it to de Richleau to tell him what’s happened. They rush upstairs to find Simon has gone.
Rex and de Richleau go back to Simon’s house, hoping to find him there. The place is now dark and empty. Up in the observatory, the chickens are still in the basket.
“At least we’ve saved your lives,” the Duc tells them. But he leaves the poor things in the basket in the closet and I will continue to worry about them through the rest of the film.
While they’re up in the observatory, de Richleau explains that the members of a Satanist coven–for that is what the Circle is–have been rebaptized with the names of famous occult figures. Tanith, for example, is the name of a Carthaginian moon goddess.
The Duq then looks around the room and finds some rare and esoteric books like the Clavicule of Solomon.
A demon or djinn manifests from the center of the arcane symbol in the middle of the floor. It doesn’t actually do anything but grin at them and stare with glowing red eyes, but it’s at this moment we’re given to understand that, in this movie, these evil spirits are real. There’s no suggestion that it might be trickery or an illusion. The two men are horrified.
De Richleau tells Rex not to look at the eyes, shouts an incantation in Latin, and throws the crucifix at it. Then he yells for Rex to “Run!” They flee the house.
As they drive away, Rex is now a believer. He admits that he’s never been so scared in his life. And he’s a WWI vet.
The Duc explains that creature was summoned by the power of Mocata, who is a very powerful, high-level adept. Simon is under his power and about to be rebaptized into the coven. This event needs to happen on a true night of the Sabbat with 13 people present.
This is April 29. Tomorrow will be May Eve, a night of the Sabbat.
How to prevent this? “We must find the girl!” the Duc declares.
Not that this task presents any difficulty. By the time Rex awakes at the Duc’s home the next morning, de Richleau has already located Tanith at a London hotel. She’s staying with the countess.
De Richleau needs to spend the day on research before he’s ready to confront Mocata that night; Rex’s assignment is to get hold of Tanith and get her out of London, away from the coven. The Duc suggests that Rex take her to the country home of Richard Eaton, his nephew-in-law (married to his niece Marie).
Rex: “May I borrow a car?”
De Richleau: “Yes, take any of them.”
Rex and Tanith are already acquainted, so he has no trouble getting her into a roadster under the premise of an invitation to lunch. He just didn’t tell her they weren’t having lunch in the city, and the next thing she knows the two of them are driving around the countryside.
Once Rex mentions the Sabbat that night, Tanith isn’t at all reticent about her involvement with the cult and acknowledges that she must be there on time. Although she likes Rex, she has no time to waste on lunches or country jaunts with young men like him.
“You know as well as I do that neither of us is free to give our lives to such things.”
At this point, she thinks that his objective is merely romance. When she realizes that Rex means to keep her away from the Sabbat, she grabs the wheel and tries to turn the car around. She’s afraid of what Mocata will do if she doesn’t show up.
It turns out that this will be her initiation too. She’s not been rebaptized into the coven yet; Tanith is the name her parents gave her.
Rex goes on talking about how de Richleau can help her break away from Mocata, but Tanith doesn’t hear him. It’s Mocata’s voice she hears. She sees his eyes gazing intensely into hers in the rearview mirror. Mocata tells her to listen, but we don’t hear what he instructs her to do. It will become clear in a moment.
Richard and Marie Eaton (Paul Eddington, whom one doesn’t expect to see in a horror film, and Sarah Lawson) and their young daughter Peggy have been informed about their expected guests. They’re waiting in front of their charming Tudor manor house with lunch on a table on the front lawn as Rex and his mysterious lady friend drive up.
Peggy is very excited to see Uncle Rex, but as soon as he gets out of the roadster, Tanith slides over to take the wheel and speeds off. Rex quickly takes Richard’s car and goes after her.
Peggy: “He didn’t stay long, did he?”
This leads to a car chase along the country lanes, until Mocata communicates with Tanith via the rearview mirror again. He tells her not to be afraid. Rex won’t catch her.
The windshield of Rex’s car suddenly turns opaque. He punches through it so he can see to drive, and carries on.
Mocata next throws up a smoke screen at a turn in the road. Here, Rex crashes into a tree and that puts a stop to him.
Luckily, Rex isn’t hurt and the crash occurs just a short walk down the lane from Mocato’s house where the coven is assembling. The countess nearly runs Rex over when he tries to flag her down for a lift. He follows her car to the entrance gates and sneaks inside. Mocato is there. So are the new recruits Simon and Tanith.
Rex hides and watches the group emerges from the house to get into their cars and drive out into the woods. It must be dusk, so they turn their headlights on.
Everybody is wearing loose white robes except for Simon and Tanith, who are still wearing their regular clothes, Mocata, resplendent in purple, and his assistants who escort the two kids out, in less fancy purple robes.
I notice that there are a lot more than 13 people here for the Sabbat.
Also, one among the congregation is Peter Swanwick, an actor I recognized immediately as the Supervisor who oversaw all surveillance operations in the Village in multiple episodes of The Prisoner. Apart from his clothing, he looks exactly the same here as he does there, so one can imagine that this is how the Supervisor spends his time off away from the Village.
Mocata leads this small procession of purple-robed attendants and initiates up to an altar before the crowd of acolytes and starts the ceremony by proclaiming in Latin: “Ecco, ecco, Adonai! Ecco, Babylon! Ecco, Osiris.” The group echoes these proclamations.
Two chickens’ lives were spared, but a poor goat isn’t as lucky. It’s led out to be placed on the altar, where Mocata cuts its throat and fills a large bowl with its blood. I observe that what appear to be the bodies of other small, dead animals–squirrels or rats, and at least one bat–are strung up overhear.
At the spilling of blood, Simon flinches but the assembled group responds enthusiastically. Mocata holds the bowl above his head.
Rex has seen enough and heads back to the lane to find a phone box. He calls de Richleau and tells him where the Sabbat is taking place.
The timing of these scenes is a little confusing. Rex and Tanith were expected for lunch, so it can’t be more than mid-afternoon at the time they speed off from the Eatons’ home. From the amount of time they drive, Mocata’s home doesn’t seem to be much more than 10-15 miles away, and is probably closer to London; de Richleau was home when he received Rex’s phone call and arrives before the ceremony has progressed very far. And yet it’s dark–or at least day-for-night–when the coven goes into the woods and the Sabbat begins (although it’s broad daylight at de Richleau’s house).
As he and Rex drive into the woods, the Duc gives Rex little packets of salt and mercury to put into his pockets. His research has informed him that these substances will provide protection against the Dark Forces. The Duc cryptically states that he has his own protection.
At the Sabbat, everybody is sipping the goat’s blood from the bowl or goblets, dancing, laughing as if they’re drunk, and carrying on in a PG way. They can’t be getting too wild; everybody still has their robes on. Simon and Tanith stand apart from this bloody bacchanalia and look on with mild distaste. When one of the men tries to make Tanith drink some blood, she refuses and he ends up spilling it down the front of her dress.
Mocata also stands remote from the revelry, watching with a slight smirk until he calls a sudden halt to it and draws everyone’s attention back to him. He returns to the altar and shouts out “Baphomet!”
The coven responds, “Baphomet!”
Baphomet appears on a large rocky outcropping above and behind the altar. This satyr-like demonic creature has a man’s body with the head of a goat and (I think) goat’s legs.
The Duc, hiding among the trees with the horrified Rex, identifies this creature as the Goat of Mendes. “The Devil himself!”
Mocata looks rather pleased as he turns and points at Simon. One of the purple- robed attendants brings Simon forward to meet his Master.
Rex wants to charge in to the rescue, but de Richleau stops him. It would put his soul as well as his life in danger. If only there were some light!
This gives Rex an idea.
They go back to the parked cars and take one (I believe it’s the same one Rex borrowed from de Richleau, that Tanith stole). With the headlights on, they drive into the clearing, through the crowd, right up to the altar. Baphomet flinches at the light, but isn’t until Rex flings a crucifix at him that the demon disappears in a puff of smoke.
Rex, being a man of action, slugs Mocata and one or two members of the coven who try to stop him as he grabs Simon and Tanith and loads them into the car. Our heroes speed off.
The timing confuses me again as they arrive at daybreak at the Eatons’ house.
They put Tanith and Simon to bed, and de Richleau explains the situation to Richard and Marie. It is now Richard’s turn to be skeptical but Marie, who knows her uncle and his work, is ready to help and wants to know what they can do. The Duc tells them to guard the two kids under Mocata’s influence and not to leave them alone for an instant. Rex is already keeping an eye on Tanith, and Richard agrees to sit with Simon.
De Richleau also prepares them all for the next phase of battle with Mocata. They are to fast today, with just a few biscuits and little fruit to eat. Water to drink. No alcohol–sorry, Richard. Then he leaves them to continue his research in town.
As soon as he’s gone, Mocata, who’s been waiting down the road and watching, drives up to the house. He asks to see Marie and claims that he’s come to return her uncle’s car. I wonder if anyone told Richard what happened to his car.
She is wary, but he’s changed out of his purple robe into a well-cut suit, and he’s charming and doesn’t seem immediately dangerous. They sit down in the drawing room to talk. There’s a bit of banter about Simon and Tanith leaving the house. Mocata speaks of it lightly. Marie won’t allow it.
Then his tone changes and she finds herself doing what he says: She sits down again when she was about to show him out the door. She listen as he talks to her about the nature of magic. He says that it’s not a matter of good or evil, but of effecting change through exertion of the will. The next thing she knows, she’s as much under his power as Simon and Tanith were.
This is really a very good, tense scene, one of the best in the film. Like Marie, the viewer is drawn in by Charles Gray’s smooth voice. As he speaks, the cameras on him and on her both move very slowly from a comfortable distance into intense close ups.
Under Mocata’s spell, Marie answers his questions about where Simon and Tanith are and who is with them. Without leaving his chair, he exerts his will over them too by casting his eyes to the ceiling and the rooms overhead. Simon throttles the unwary Richard. Tanith is about to stab Rex, who has foolishly fallen asleep while sitting at her bedside.
The spell is abruptly broken when little Peggy comes into the drawing room looking for her mother. Marie is free, and Tanith drops the knife.
Marie orders Mocata to leave her house.
“I shall not be back…” he says menacingly, “but something will.” Whatever it is, it will come to fetch his two initiates.
After he exits, she learns from her husband about Simon throttling him, and goes upstairs to see if Rex is all right.
Rex is still asleep, but Tanith has gone. Marie wakes him and tells him, and Rex races out of the house to catch up with Tanith on the lawn.
She’s not going to Mocata, she explains when he stops her; she is a medium, and Mocata can work through her, as we’ve already seen. After the near-stabbing incident, she doesn’t want to hurt Rex or the others. Rex’s solution is to take her out of the house and tie her up in the barn, so she isn’t able to do anything but flop around and scream when Mocata tries to exert his influence over her.
However, Rex neglects to cover her eyes. After she struggles against her bonds for awhile, she sits up and stares at him. He meets her eyes, and Mocata uses her gaze as a conduit; through Tanith, he hypnotizes Rex into untying her.
Tanith doesn’t run away, only stands at the barn window looking out toward the house.
The four people at the house have prepared for what’s coming by clearing all the furniture out of the drawing room. De Richleau has drawn a giant magic circle on the floor with a protective prayer in Latin written around the rim. From what I can read, it looks like it says In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…
The Duc tells the others that they are safe as long as they stay inside the circle, but that Mocata will try to trick them into stepping out of it and placing themselves in danger. He warns Richard that he will be the weak link, since he’s a sceptic.
Richard is indeed skeptical of all this, but he agrees to comply with instructions as a favor to his uncle-in-law. As it turns out, he’s not the one who crumbles.
When the lights dim and the room grows cold, the Duc starts praying. A wind blows through the room and dies down.
This sequence is one of the most memorable highlights of the movie, but it’s also where the special effects are the most disappointing.
The first tricks Mocata uses are mild and deceptive: Simon finds the water in the decanter they have within the circle with them tastes sour and Richard automatically offers to get some fresh. Then there’s a knock at the door and a voice that sounds like Rex asks to be let in. The Duc won’t let anyone go to the door, and the voice soon fades away.
Mocata then moves on to the tougher stuff.
A giant spider appears (unconvincingly, since it’s one of those double-exposure effects that never really looks like it connects with its surroundings). As it roams around outside the circle, Peggy comes into room. Marie is naturally anxious to go and rescue her little girl.
After holding back the hysterical mother to keep her from crossing out of the circle, the Duc throws Holy Water at Peggy and the spider. The little girl, who was only an illusion, immediately disappears. The spider curls up and dies. I can’t say I’m happy about that–no chickens or goats were harmed in the making of this film, but it looks very much like a spider was.*
Next, it’s Simon’s turn to freak out. The other two men restrain him and Richard punches him to knock him out.
“Do we have any way to defend ourselves?” asks Richard, who’s beginning to believe in Mocata’s powers after these demonstrations.
The Duc responds that he can invoke the “last two lines of the Susama Ritual,” but he doesn’t dare until/unless their souls are in peril; the Ritual alters time and space and it might destroy them as well as Mocata’s spells.
That moment of extreme peril about to arrive. De Richleau hears hoofbeats approaching and knows that Mocata has sent his final and most deadly agent: the Angel of Death.
A black-winged horse with a purple cloaked and helmeted rider appears in the room. The Angel wears a cloth over its face, for to look upon its face is death.
The horse and rider are kind of cool-looking, but the movie makes an unfortunate choice whenever the horse rears of running the film back and forth for a few seconds, which spoils the effect.
Simon awakes while the horse is stomping and rearing. He looks up just as the Angel removes its face covering. The face of Death is a bare skull (against a background that doesn’t match anything in the lovely, oak-paneled room).
De Richleau raises his hands and shouts the lines from the Susama Ritual. The Angel and horse disappear, and Simon is saved.
But the Duc knows that the Angel of Death, when it appears, cannot return empty handed.
Over at the barn, Tanith screams and drops dead. Rex carries her body back to the house in the misty dawn, and places gently her on the drawing-room window seat.
Apart from this sad death of a girl none of them really knew anyway, everyone but Rex is relieved. They think that the danger has passed–until Marie starts upstairs to check on Peggy and the butler reports that the child is gone. Marie knows instinctively that Mocata has taken her.
They hear the sound of a car’s engine outside. It’s Simon tearing off to retrieve Peggy. The Duc restrains the others from doing the same. It’s what Mocata expects them to do, and it will only endanger them and not save Peggy.
He has his own means of finding her. He and Marie return to the chalk circle in the drawing room, where he performs a ritual that involves certain gestures–the Sign of Osiris slain (arms folded over chest) and of Osiris risen (arms upraised)–and burns a bit of salt, hair, and blood in a small brazier.
“Before me, Raphael
Behind me, Gabriel
On my right hand, Michael
On my left hand, Uriel”
In the names of these archangels, he calls back Tanith’s spirit, and she speaks to him through the hypnotized Marie. Tanith agrees to help Rex and his friends, “because I love him.”
She cannot see Mocata–he cloaks himself in darkness–but she can see Peggy. She is, however, afraid to enter the place where Peggy is because “winged serpent guards the way” and Evil is present. De Richleau presses her to try and go in, but she screams and faints before she can tell them anything more.
Rex recalls that there are winged serpents on the gateposts at Mocata’s house.
We see these serpents as Simon drives up to the gates and goes inside the house. The house is quiet and appears empty, but one door swings invitingly open and he steps into a large room that was once a chapel.
The coven is waiting for him.
Mocata greets him, “Welcome back, my son.”
Simon replies that, since he has come back, Mocata can release the child; Mocata responds that, now Simon’s back, he doesn’t need to release the child. He has another use for her. She can take Tanith’s place in the body. Tanith’s own soul will be placed in Peggy at the right time.
Simon tries to stab Mocata with the ritual knife, but he’s still too much under Mocata’s will and is forced to take his place in the coven. (Although Mocata will say that there are 13 present, I only count 10 people. 11 with Simon. 12 if you want to include Peggy.)
Peggy is brought in and placed on the altar.
Just as Mocata begins the ceremony, our heroes arrive and interrupt him. In spite of de Richleau’s warning to the others to stay close to him, Rex ploughs right into the middle of the room for some more coven punching. This time, he gets knocked out.
Richard breaks away next once he and Marie understand what Mocata intends for their little girl. But he doesn’t even get as far as Rex before the coven subdues him.
The Duc and his niece look on helplessly as Mocata goes on with his ceremony and prepares to sacrifice the child. Marie begs her uncle to say those words from the Susuma Ritual again to save Peggy, but he can’t use them twice.
Mocata raises the little girl from the altar and is about to cut her throat, when a voice speaks through Marie:
“Only they who love without desire shall have power granted them in their darkest hour.”
It’s the spirit of Tanith again. The love she speaks of is, I assume, that of a mother for her child.
Marie walks unimpeded up to the altar. While all the men just stand there looking on, Tanith’s spirit speaks through the mother and teaches the child the Susama Ritual; she speaks each phrase, and Peggy repeats them after her. The Duc folds his hands in prayer.
As Peggy finishes the last lines of the ritual, a bolt of lightning flashes into the room and destroys the altar. The wall hangings go up in flames, revealing the Christian symbols of the old chapel hidden underneath.
The coven screams and cowers in the burning room. Mocata is utterly destroyed.
Then, suddenly, the flames and the coven disappear. The good guys stand in an empty chapel.
The end? Not yet. The invocation of the ritual has done much more than get rid of Mocata and his coven. As the Duc de Richleau has said, it has power over time and space.
One moment, everyone is standing in the empty chapel; the next, they’re back in the Eatons’ drawing room. Simon is lying on the floor within the chalk circle and de Richleau stands over him. They’ve gone back an hour (15 minutes of film time) to the point just after the Duc invoked the Susama Ritual the first time and sent away the Angel of Death.
Simon repeats the question he asked before, “Is it all over?” The Duc replies again that it is.
This time, Richard and Marie rush upstairs to see if Peggy is all right. Simon and de Richleau look to the window seat. Didn’t Tanith die? Her body isn’t lying there.
When they look out of the window, they see Tanith and Rex walking together out of the woods. The Angel of Death has taken the man who sent it instead of her.
This is a film I respect on an intellectual level rather than the way I enjoy most horror films of the period. With the exception of the Goat of Mendes and the initial appearance of the Angel of Death, the special effects aren’t effective enough to take the dangers as seriously as the characters do. On the other hand, while there are some goofy moments, and a few deliberately amusing bits, it’s not silly enough to be enjoyed as camp.
What I do like is the detail of the rituals that show that Wheately as well as Fisher and Matheson did their occult homework. Christopher Lee’s Duc de Richleau does a heck of a lot of explaining to the other characters about what’s going on, but his expositions always sound knowledgeable. When he enacts a ritual, as when he summons Tanith’s spirit to speak through Marie, it looks authentic and convincing.
And that time-loop at the end is an incredible twist the first time you see it.
*One of the special feature interviews on the BluRay informs me that there were three spiders used–one already dead, one that died under the studio lights, and a third that I hope survived.