1968 was an epochal year around the world in horror films and for Hammer it was no different. After covering Mummies, vampires, yetis and reptilian women, there was one evil being that had yet to be filmed. The Devil Rides Out is a terrific film it it’s own right but the score is something else.
There are no holds barred in the film, no twists in the tail, if you pardon the pun – it really is the Horned Beast being dealt with, and composer James Bernard wrote accordingly. It is, perhaps, the definitive horror score up to that point in history. Everything about it screams…well, it just screams.
The opening credits are enough – a five-note refrain builds to a particularly satisfying crescendo – except the crescendo just keeps going and going. Five times this is repeated getting ever higher until the orchestra simply run out of notes and the strings spiral downwards. It’s exhausting and the film has barely begun.
As, most famously with 1958’s Dracula, the five notes spell out the film’s title in musical syllables. There is an almost constant rumble of drums, particularly timpani, in the background of the score, sometimes keeping their distance, sometimes thrashing their way to the front, either indicating a threat or imminent ritual. It’s the string section that really get a workout though, regularly trilling like nails down a blackboard, one imagines they were on footballer-like bonuses to keep up.
The tension does not relent for the whole score, nearly thirty cues, even the love theme suggesting a whispering threat. On ‘The Baptism Begins’, gongs, cymbals, xylophones and a braying horn combine to almost sickening effect, the main theme again signalling ultimate evil.
Filming had already begun by the time Barnard became involved, Hammer executives concerned that the early rushes were leaning rather too much towards the comedic. Riddled with disconcerting tritones and minor seconds, the score is hugely influential and is perhaps the most effective suite of music written for any horror film. Tritones are a common technique for creating unease in music, employed to disturbing effect in the likes of Blood on Satan’s Claw.
Bernard’s use of clashing chords was a common trick used and would utilised far more often from this point forth; unfamiliar notes and sounds adding to the tension on-screen. An ethereal-sounding vibraphone is used in combination with a piano to add to the undercurrent of strangeness.
There is slight redemption in the finale, the final cue reflective, more controlled but without the soar away happily-ever-after satisfaction given to most films and, inevitably, a variation on the main theme used throughout the film to represent the devil, here ending in a major key for the first time, with bells added to the mix. Both author Dennis Wheatley and Bernard more than suggesting that messing with things you don’t understand can never end with redemption, both good and evil being very much two sides of the same coin.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
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