TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)
An occult novelist battles to save the soul of a young girl from a group of Satanists, led by an excommunicated priest, who plan on using her as the representative of the Devil on Earth...
On White Zombie’s groundbreaking 1995 album Astro-Creep: 2000, we hear a passage of dialogue in Latin. It’s the excommunication sentence sampled from the opening scenes of To the Devil a Daughter. After this, Christopher Lee’s defiant voice proclaims “it is not heresy, and I will not recant!”
It’s no secret that Lee was becoming disillusioned with continually reprising Dracula for Hammer, as he’d skilfully introduced nuances to the character, which he felt had been lost in favour of simple sadistic cruelty. In To the Devil a Daughter, Lee got the chance to play an equally terrifying, yet complex personification of evil in Father Michael Rayner, excommunicato. His performance of this Satanic antagonist is engrossing and perhaps one of his best for the studio. His quietly powerful presence, punctuated with incongruous displays of restrained emotion, really gives the entire film its form.
In many ways, To the Devil a Daughter is typical Hammer. For one thing, it stars Christopher Lee, a stalwart of the studio’s ensemble. After the opening scenes in Bavaria, the main action is set against a distinctively British backdrop. There are moments of titillation thrown in to appease the male gaze, and it has a supernatural narrative. At the same time, is very different to anything in the back-catalogue, even when viewed alongside The Devil Rides Out (1968), which was also inspired by a Dennis Wheatley novel, starred Christopher Lee, and shares a Satanic theme.
Wheatley wrote To the Devil a Daughter as a tangential sequel to The Devil Rides Out. The two novels are linked only by the Satanic conspiracy and a name-drop of high priest Mocata, letting us know that both stories inhabit the same world. The Devil Rides out was a more definite sequel to The Forbidden Territory, so all three novels are sometimes referred to as ‘The Devil Trilogy’.
The Devil Rides Out, which tends to be the more respected of the two, was adapted for Hammer Productions in 1968 by Richard Matheson and, although much mediated for the screen, at least kept the 1930s setting and the character names of the key players. Lee played Wheatley’s recurring occultist hero Duc de Richleau—the good guy for a change—and Charles Gray took on the role of Mocata.
To the Devil a Daughter is even further removed from its source material, with whole plot threads jettisoned and characters renamed and amalgamated from several in the book. Wheatley’s narrative was just too rambling and unwieldy, to say the least, and it was veteran Hammer screenwriter Christopher Wicking’s job to turn it into in a solid script after a couple of other writers had failed in their attempts.
Wicking drew on his extensive experience writing for the horror genre, having contributed several scripts for American International Pictures, and writing Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971), one of my favourite Hammer horrors. To appeal to similar audiences as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), the 1930s period was made contemporary and the script introduced strong psycho-sexual elements and body-horror that was boundary-pushing stuff for the time. It brings to mind early David Cronenberg, then a fairly obscure Canadian indie filmmaker dipping his toe into similar waters with Shivers (1975), who wouldn’t reach comparative extremes until The Brood (1979).
Unable to rest on their Gothic laurels, Hammer were looking to respond to the downturn in film funding with a change in direction and wanted to reinvent themselves. They were having difficulty raising even half the required production budget from UK funders, so they looked to Europe, where a few nations still enjoyed thriving film industries. Hammer already had an established market in Italy, but it was Terra Filmkunst that finally joined them in making a British-German co-production.
This deal brought with it some German casting. A young Nastassja Kinski was given the female lead of Catherine Beddows, and Eva Maria Meineke plays her sinister adoptive ‘mother’. The opening scenes were also filmed in Germany, but it’s more than this giving the whole film a more pan-European feel. With the use of modern, sometimes stark locations, airport lobbies, the newly gentrified St Katharine Dock, outdoor escalators, the 1970s fashion, cars, trimphones, and with an American actor in the lead, it reminded me much more of the kind of mystery movies coming out of Italy in the ’70s.
The music, by Paul Glass, is quite experimental in its unusual use of traditional instruments and the human voice. Again, this carries a resonance with the Morricone approach to scoring early Italian horrors and gialli, though Glass veers in a much more discordant direction. There are choral passages that sound like demonic choirs, subtle, almost Ligeti-like ambient moments, with occasional eruptions of demented strings and clatters. The music goes a long way in helping to establish the distinctively disquieting atmosphere that slowly builds throughout the film.
Richard Widmark made his mark in classic noirs like Kiss of Death (1947), a.k.a Cry of the City, going on to make many iconic war films and westerns though the 1950s and into the ’60s. By the ’70s, his Hollywood career was tailing-off a little and he was beginning to take more TV roles, which is probably why Hammer could afford to bring him aboard.
Although reportedly unhappy and difficult on set, Widmark is consistently convincing in the lead role of John Verney, a horror writer dragged into an international Satanist conspiracy. His interactions with the cast are emotionally grounded. They all manage to make their characters believable and lend them some depth. He’s particularly generous in his support of Kinski and, as a result, she’s marvellous as the adolescent Catherine. The rest of the cast is made up with a showcase of well-established British talent, including Denholm Elliott, Honor Blackman, Anthony Dial, and Michael Goodliffe.
Verney’s involvement with the Satanic plot begins when a stranger, Henry Beddows (Elliott), asks him to meet his estranged daughter, Catherine (Kinski), at the airport on her arrival in London, fresh from an isolated upbringing in a mysterious convent. Although we don’t know it at this point, he implores the author to keep her out of harm’s way and protect her from some Satanist associates of his. Intrigued by the possibility of an adventure that may inspire his next book, Verney agrees, despite a clear warning not to from his agent, Anna Fountain (Blackman). He tries to reassure her by explaining that “98 percent of so called Satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks, who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing church yards and use the devil as an excuse for getting some sex. But then there is that other 2 percent…”
Peter Sykes had already directed Demons of the Mind (1972), another Hammer film written by Wicking, but veteran cinematographer David Watkin was new to the company, though no stranger to possessed nuns, having shot The Devils (1971) for Ken Russell. He’s a famous cinematographer (later awarded a lifetime achievement award by the British Society of Cinematographers), known for his subtle palette and for devising innovative methods of using reflectors to ‘bounce’ light around interiors, creating a painterly effect that’s been compared to the Dutch Masters. At least in part, his photography may be why To the Devil a Daughter has a more European feel and builds up such a distinctive, standalone atmosphere.
There’s plenty of prowling camera-work that allows us to observe from the point of view of voyeuristic spirits. There is also much use of reflections, windows, and other transparent barriers that imply divisions or separate worlds. Sometimes, we’re left on the outside looking in, allowed see things at a distance without being able to hear what’s being said. Information is transferred in letters and along telephone lines. This motif, of influence being exerted at a distance, of seeing things through transparent barriers, takes on much metaphorical meaning as the plot progresses. Later on, evil priest, Father Michael Rayner (Lee) will use his powers of suggestion to manipulate the behaviour of others simply by speaking to them over the phone…
To begin with, there is so much enigma and mystery that we don’t really learn anything solid until Satanists are mentioned, about 25-minutes in. It soon becomes clear that there is something to all this black magic malarkey after all, and that Catherine is indeed in the thrall of the coolly charismatic Rayner. Verney enlists the help of his closest friends, Anna Fountain and her partner, David (Anthony Valentine).
After the young girl is puppeteered to commit murder, Verney realises that they’re dealing with that “other 2 percent,” and starts to take things very seriously. One of my favourite scenes is when he seeks out the priest responsible for excommunicating Rayner 18 years before and blags his way into the legendary ‘Black Room’ to peruse the Grimoire of Ashtaroth. This is the climax of the narrative and from then on, Verney has the knowledge to turn the tables, or rather the Satanic altars, on Rayner.
The film then becomes a kind of race against the clock as the ritual re-birth of Ashtaroth approaches. There is an uncomfortably prolonged sequence as the foetal demon slowly attempts to enter Catherine, and so possess her as his avatar. Although much derided, the animatronic demon baby created by Hammer’s special effects maestro, Les Bowie, is quite effective, especially as it seems to be part of a nightmarish hallucination. The ensuing psychic battle between Verney and Rayner is represented by false colour and windswept hair and, I am sorry to say, is a little anticlimactic.
Although a controversial choice, Kinski is perfectly cast as the catalyst for the whole plot. This was just her second film, after Wim Wenders’s Wrong Move (1975) in which she appeared partially nude, aged 12. Here, although Catherine is a 17-year-old, Nastassja is just 15 and disrobes entirely during the finale. The conflict created by her appealing vulnerability, arousing the protective parental instinct, and her youthful sexuality provoking other instincts, can certainly make a viewer uncomfortable. All we have to do now, is mix in worrying black magic birth trauma, medical horror, mind-control and murder, to evoke an atmosphere of unrelenting unease. But it’s all done Hammer-style.
Inevitably, To the Devil a Daughter will suffer from less favourable comparisons with its predecessors, The Devil Rides Out, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist. But given the choice, I would re-watch a double bill of Hammer’s Devil offerings, rather than the other, perhaps more solid though certainly less fun, options!
I think it was Christopher Lee who insisted on referring to Hammer films as ‘Terror’ films, rather than ‘Horror’, because he thought they relied much more on psychological suspense. With To the Devil a Daughter, further elements of Freudian nightmare and sexual tension are thrown into the already heady mix, along with some straightforward blood and gore, making it one of the more transgressive movies to come out of the British mainstream in the 1970s. Certainly a statement of intent from Hammer that gives us a clue as to where they might have been heading… Depending on your opinion, the fact they never followed that path is either a curse or a blessing!
Despite being baited with a Satanic sex orgy, a baby baptised in the blood of its dead mother, and an under-age full-frontal, the British censors allowed it through uncut—but Wheatley was profoundly shocked by scenes he thought were perverse and obscene! He withdrew all the rights to his stories that Hammer had already optioned, including an adaptation of The Satanist that was in development with Lee and Britt Ekland. There had even been talk of a TV series based on his work, and To the Devil a Daughter had been considered as a pilot for this.
As it turned out, all this kerfuffle was irrelevant as the studio couldn’t halt its decline and this was the last of the Hammer horrors. It wasn’t that the film flopped, it did rather well at the box office, but most of the profits left the country to pay its foreign investors. Hammer only made one more film, The Lady Vanishes (1979), until their 2008 revival.
By the mid-1970s, the British film industry had pretty much stalled. It’s hard to believe that in 1968 Hammer Films won the Queens Award for Industry after bringing close to £3 million into the UK economy through sales to foreign markets, yet less than a decade later the company was being wound-up…
It wasn’t just the British film industry in trouble, cinema-going was simply becoming a less popular pastime. Then there was a sudden surprise success with Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws (1975), which brought a tiny spark of new hope for the industry. Riding on this brief wave of optimism, George Lucas was quick to take advantage of the surplus of unemployed film technicians and crew that had been cast adrift around Elstree Studios, home of Hammer since the 1960s. If Hammer had not kept so much British talent in work, in one place, for so long, that infrastructure wouldn’t have been there to usher in a new chapter of film history, many hailing Star Wars (1977) as the saviour of cinema. Hammer had demonstrated that an inventive and prolific studio could make a significant contribution to the UK economy. It’s obvious just how important they were, both historically and stylistically, to the British Film Industry.
To the Devil a Daughter looks better than ever on this Blu-ray release from StudioCanal, as part of the newly released Hammer Horror Collection. It’s a shame they missed the chance to add a commentary. There would be plenty to say! How about a picture gallery? (Surely they could have dug something out of the Hammer archives of more than 200 scripts, production stills, lobby cards and associated memorabilia held at De Montfort University’s Cinema And Television History Research Centre?) Apart from the theatrical trailer, the only extra we get is a featurette of talking heads, mainly fans and film enthusiasts who do their best to find something interesting to say. It’s a bit like going for a pint with a bunch of well-informed mates after watching the film – taking time out to consider what you’ve just seen does help deepen the appreciation, but there’s not a lot of new information that any Hammer acolytes won’t already know…
director: Peter Sykes.
writers: Chris Wicking, John Peacock & Gerald Vaughan-Hughes.
starring: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Nastassja Kinski & Denholm Elliott.