Chrisopher Lee was undoubtedly British horror studio Hammer Films’s most popular and versatile performer. Well, perhaps versatile isn’t quite the word for it. Even though Lee was equally effective in roles on either side of the good-evil dichotomy, he seemed uninterested in the territory of ambiguity. And again, that’s too hasty a judgment, because there’s something truly subversive about Lee’s intense way of bringing similar qualities to roles that either brandish the banner of virtue or vice. Fully capable of playing self-righteous Christian soldiers with the most granite of jaws as well as embodying the honeyed seductiveness of evil incarnate, Lee demonstrated how most continuums are less like straight lines with good and evil situated as far as possible from each other, but rather like a circle where extreme behavior is actually closest to exactly the thing it hates.
Take Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out, where Lee plays the Duc de Richleau, a modern-day warrior-saint against a cult of Satanists (led by the always silken Charles Gray) out to ensnare his surrogate son, Simon (Patrick Mower). From the first scene, where de Richleau arrives to meet their mutual friend, the skeptical Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), at an airstrip, Lee seems to be sniffing out the evil. Arriving at Simon’s mansion that evening, his eyes are immediately drawn to the astrology observatory. When his suspicions are confirmed (the group of pagans have gathered in the living room and Simon begs de Richleau and Van Ryn to call on him another evening because they’re interrupting his “society meeting”), Lee books it to the observatory and almost instinctively knows where to find the sacrificial roosters.
“I’d rather you were dead than fooling around with this,” de Richleau growls to Simon, in full-blown moral outrage. Not to downplay Fisher’s top-notch work (the Hammer auteur turns the centerpiece “circle” sequence into an endless nightmare of atmosphere, suggested evil and, finally, terrifying manifestations) and famed genre novelist Richard Matheson’s smoothly structured screenplay, but Lee’s performance pushes The Devil Rides Out from being merely one of Hammer’s better films into the territory of horror classic.