To the Devil a Daughter (1976)
By: Mr Intolerance on September 9, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
Anchor Bay (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 Mono. 92 minutes
The Movie
Credits
Director: Peter Sykes
Starring: Christopher Lee, Richard Widmark, Denholm Elliott, Nastassja Kinski, Anthony Valentine, Honor Blackman
Screenplay: Roy Skeggs, Peter Sykes, Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
Country: UK
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
This film could be otherwise known as the movie that drove the final stake through the heart of Hammer. No, it's not a bad film, and indeed it was quite a commercial success on its release, but it was the very last film the illustrious British company released, and was indeed, in terms of what preceded it, the proverbial whimper rather than bang on which this groundbreaking studio should have finished.

What killed Hammer? The British movie-going public, basically. Well, that's a little harsh – Hammer was also killed by an unwillingness to move forward with the times. Swamped in a morass of period-piece Gothics while the US and Canadian horror cinemas had already given us Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, Shivers, Rabid, The Crazies, The Exorcist, The Omen and was just about to unleash Dawn of the Dead, Martin, Scanners, Videodrome, The Brood, Halloween, Friday 13th and so on and so on, the British horror scene was going through exactly what would happen to the US scene in the late 80s and all through the 90s – it was being overtaken by younger and more aggressive markets. The more extreme domestic UK produce of the time, like Pete Walker's Frightmare, or House of Whipcord was relegated to an underground audience at best, never really gaining a solid fan-base until the advent of the digital age.

To The Devil…A Daughter was basically a re-vamped 70s model of occult supremo Dennis Wheatley's 1953 novel of the same name. Mind you, no-one told Wheatley that they were going to totally bastardise said novel and come up with a much more lurid and exploitative version of the same story, eschewing the more faithful approach they'd taken to adapting Wheatley's novel The Devil Rides Out some eight years prior…

Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) is being excommunicated for heresy at the beginning of the film, and we're not told why. Given the actor's charisma and our thoroughly anti-authoritarian stance in the mid-70s, we initially sympathise with him, but it doesn't take too long for our sensibilities to be re-aligned to see him as maybe not quite the figure of pity we might have thought him to be.

Twenty years later and we're in Bavaria, seeing Rayner (oddly enough, despite his excommunication, still frocked up in full Catholic regalia) seeing off 18 year old Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski, who was actually 16 at the time apparently – and in nude and other sexually oriented scenes, this actually makes for rather uncomfortable viewing – looking at sexually active underage girls can tend to make one feel like a bit of a paedo, regardless of whether or not you find them arousing) as she heads off to London to meet her father, having spent her whole life to this point in a convent with nuns. The mystery grows here – why has she been cloistered in such a fashion? Where were her parents? All will be revealed, never fear.

John Verney (Richard Widmark) is an author versed in the occult. At a press junket organised by his agent Ann (Honor Blackman, better known as Mrs Cathy Gale, in The Avengers, or Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) and her partner David for Verney's new book, he's approached by Catherine's father Henry (a harried and nervy Denholm Elliott) for help. Through distancing via the camera we're kept out of the conversation, we only know that Ann and her husband are against the idea of John getting involved. It's in places like this where we see that To The Devil…A Daughter bucks the traditional Hammer style. Not just in it's modernity (they'd been doing that with the Dracula franchise for many moons by this stage), but in its use of camera, lighting, sound and even acting style – the script is nowhere near as stuffy, or as uniformly English, as some of the more recent episodes in the studio's output. This could have been made by an entirely different company it stands so far apart from what came before.

Verney goes to pick Catherine up from the airport, footage that's intercut with some rather mysterious shots of a pregnant German woman Margaret in some kind of private clinic run by friends of Catherine's family, and Henry, at home loading a gun and lying none-too-convincingly on the telephone while burning some documents in a furtive manner. You really have to pay attention to this one – the average Hammer film has a much less complicated narrative structure than To The Devil…A Daughter, and it seems a much more modern film than even the immediately preceding The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, The Satanic Rites of Dracula or Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell for those reasons. The performances and the script lack the slightly camp Gothic melodrama that practically defines Hammer's output, and in some regards makes this a better film due its grittier, edgier feel – that said, the plot sometimes stays just shy of coherence, and the less said about the woefully inadequate ending, the better.

Catherine reveals that the name of her religion is "The Children of Our Lord", a nicely non-specific title, and one that allows us to at least have a slight understanding of why Rayner is still allowed to be preaching the epistles to the apostles, if I can steal a line from Withnail & I. Excommunicated from the Catholic Church? Fine – start your own. Even if you haven't read the novel (I have), you'd be getting a feeling that all is not well – if nothing else, Beddows' behaviour alone allows you guess that things are not as peachy-keen as they seem.

Beddows call Verney and has Catherine stay with him until he arrives himself, and is almost immediately attacked by the minder who came with Catherine from Munich, but from whom Verney whisked her away. Margaret is giving birth under the watchful eye of Rayner and his accomplices George and Eveline (Catherine's erstwhile carers in Bavaria). As a rather unique pre-natal procedure, they tie her wrists to the bedposts and tie her legs together as she goes into labour – just where do they think that baby's coming out? Oh dear, this is going to be ugly…

You can probably tell, the pace of the film is pretty rapid and the plot is reasonably mysterious and multi-faceted. Believe me, it bears little resemblance to the Wheatley novel of the same name, something the author resented greatly, to the point where he forbade the company to be allowed to adapt any more of his novels for the screen (although after this film, he needn't have bothered). I'm not saying Wheatley's novel is simplistic – it's not – it's just that it proceeds at a much more believable pace, and is somewhat less lurid and frenetic.

Margaret gives birth, which Catherine somehow seems to feel sympathetically. We don't see the baby, which of course should get all kinds of klaxons going off inside your head, this being a post-Rosemary's Baby world, as the title should have clued you into the potential intertextual link between the two tales.

Catherine tells Verney about her Church, who basically just end up sounding loonier and loonier by the minute – not only does Rayner refuse to give Margaret morphine during her ordeal, but he smiles in a weirdly avuncular manner all the way through the process, and acts in an opposite fashion to George and Eveline, who, even though we are positioned to dislike them, do not appear to have lost all of their humanity. It certainly isn't a Christian religion, and is evilly fascist at the same time.

We get a flashback (while Verney is off trying to track down Rayner) from Beddows' perspective, of the night of Catherine's birth. It's certainly not one of those moments where you look at childbirth as the wonder of creation, let me assure you. There's no comfort, only threats and fear. Can I state at this point, that while this is not Christopher Lee's best role ( I think you'll find The Wicker Man has that one all sewn up), this is certainly his most subtle and understated. Oh, he's still threatening and evil as all get out, but he just seems to be less Christopher Lee-like than usual. This definitely works in favour of the film, adding to the quite realistic flavour it presents – certainly the violence is much more realistic than previously, much less obviously staged, and with a greater emphasis on grittiness rather than melodrama, as with the rest of the film generally.

Rayner, George and Eveline conjure, via the power of their Lord, the demon Astaroth, a kind of mind control over Catherine, and Verney knows that something must be done to free this young woman from a nightmarish future. But will he be able to save her from carrying the spawn of the devil? Watch it and find out. Several shocks and episodes of nastiness will ensue before the unfortunately anti-climactic five to ten minutes – everything seems to be leading towards something awesome, but script problems and budgetary constraints became the enemy of a fine ending to an otherwise excellent film – I would have given it four out of five, but the sheer crap-tastic nature of the final scenes made me snip off a mark, giving it only three as a result. Don't let this put you off – To The Devil…A Daughter is pretty fine entertainment for any horror fan by any standard, it's just a shame that a successful, engaging film such as this had to sound Hammer's death knell – despite all the loot it made, Hammer barely saw any of it, and slunk away into the night, like a pale shadow of one of their own villains.

Video
The 16:9 enhanced 1.66:1 presentaion is very good indeed – crisp and clear, although that means you do have to put up with some very up-front images of bad 70s fashion in a crystal clear picture.
Audio
The 2.0 mono track sounded a little muffled at times, and I found myself occasionally losing lines of dialogue. Nothing drastic or important or even all that frequent, I just thought the audio presentaion could have been better.
Extra Features
Not exactly the most comprehensive of packages, but still, we get all the usual low-rent stuff like the original trailer, a poster and still gallery, text talent bios, and the one shining jewel in the turd-heap, a 24 minute featurette called, "To the Devil…The Death of Hammer", which is well worth the price of admission – although I don't think that Richard Widmark would ever want to hear it… Let me just say that given what his co-stars and crew have to say about him, it would suck to be him right now. To call this featurette candid would be mild. It's interesting to hear the script-writers talk about the day to day nature of writing the script as well – the dialogue and story were still being finalised 10 days into the shoot, and they began on the first day having been given the script for that day that very morning. Given that kind of lack of organisation, it's amazing that the film ended up being as good as it did.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
To the Devil…A Daughter is definitely a film for any Hammer fan, anyone who digs psychological horror, and especially for those who like the Satanic stuff. Not a patch on Wheatley's novel, nor even the best of Hammer's laudable, if not totally enviable canon, this film is certainly confrontational, given its context, as well as being intelligent and taut. I just would have liked to have seen Hammer go out on a slightly higher note. That said, this would certainly have been a step forward into the future for Hammer, had they have had the finances to push on for another film. It's a crying shame they didn't.

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