Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
To the Devil a Daughter is the last official Hammer horror film, made in conjunction with a
German studio. Basically well-acted and directed, it shows England's house of horrors on its
final tether. Long gone is the Hammer that initiated new trends; this unpleasant and exploitative
satanic show follows meekly in the footsteps of The Exorcist, with very mixed results.
Popular author John Verney (Richard Widmark) is an expert on the occult, and as such
is approached by desperate Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott), to help him oppose a devil cult that
threatens his daughter Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), a nun raised from birth under their tutelage.
Excommunicated Father Michael Rayner
(Christopher Lee) and his assistants George and Eveline De Grass (Michael Goodliffe and Eva
Maria Meineke) have committed atrocities to ensure the birth of a horrid demon-child, and now need
Catherine's sacrificial blood to revive the world's new demon ruler. John enlists the aid of his
literary agents Anna Fountain (Honor Blackman) and David (Anthony Valentine), but underestimates
To the Devil a Daughter is one of Hammer's better-looking later pictures, considering the
company's desperation behind the scenes. Dependable Peter Sykes was brought in to direct the picture
after several bigger names turned it down; for a shoestring film shot on the fly (with cranky,
spoiled American actor Richard Widmark griping and bitching every step of the way) it looks great.
Ace cinematographer David Watkin is a pro who extracted many a film from troubled production
circumstances, and he gives this dip into devil-worshippers a very attractive surface look.
Savant's on record as having a low opinion of The Exorcist. The ultra-exploitative
imitators that followed in its wake are some of the worst horror movies ever made. The genre followed Friedkin's film into a
spiral that abandoned theme, context and character for gory taboo breaking, and cheaply bought
shocks. Dennis Wheatley's novel was much older than The Exorcist, but the timing was right
for a horror film where an infant is sacrificed on screen, and a demon baby is born by forcing it
to rip through its mother's belly.
Horror films are supposed to have edgy, disturbing content. The Exorcist was able to go
way over the edge, and blast past every MPAA taboo by cloaking its obscenities in pious
church-talk and a not-badly-presented crisis of faith in its Priest hero. It's a horribly
conservative movie that expects its audience to be superstitious suckers. When it comes to
audience manipulation, Friedkin makes Spielberg look like an amateur.
To the Devil a Daughter is basically another story about chasing down a devil cult before
it can sacrifice a victim. Like Hammer's previous The Devil Rides Out, it is also from a
Dennis Wheatley book. That Terence Fisher film was a quaint period piece, and introduced
some thrilling occult ideas, such as the protective properties of the magic circle. To the
Devil a Daughter's good acting is defeated by a very standard, oversimplified detective story.
John Verney knows exactly what he's getting into when he opposes an international conspiracy that
has already raised a child
for its purposes, murdering its mother at birth. Yet he casually asks his best friends to watch
over the victimized young woman at his own house, without telling them what they're up against. He
knows quite well that the nymph-like Catherine is no normal nun, and is associated with very dangerous
people. Verney and his friend David just leave bodies lying where they find them and soldier on to
find the killers, when they have enough evidence (the nature of the bodies themselves, Beddows'
letters) to warrant swift action by Scotland Yard. As we all know this will lead to a showdown
between Widmark and sinister Priest Christopher Lee, there's neither suspense nor surprise in
anything we see ... a fairly innovative idea has been stripped of anything fresh.
Intercut with Verney's efforts is the satanist Rayner's plan to (what else?) bring
about the rebirth of a combo Devil/AntiChrist called Astaroth (Astaroph?). Other satanic shows
starting with Rosemary's Baby raised hackles by alluding to Black Magick rites calling
for killing babies. To the Devil a Daughter dully shows them played out, with mothers we
don't know being tortured to death in childbirth, and a full-on shot of a fairly convincing
infant being gashed with a knife. I suppose it's possible to see the casualness of the atrocities
as a statement unto itself, but there's no audience reaction except for surprised disbelief - we
don't know enough about the killers to appreciate their lack of emotion during the rites. Even
Father Rayner's glee tells us nothing. The only subject of these scenes is the bloody ugliness
of the imagery.
The oddball ending improvised during filming and post-production compounds the lack of credibility
by making Verney's defeat of
Rayner much too simple. Nubile vessel Nastassja Kinski is raped on an altar by a grotesque fetal
demon that looks like a skinned, bloody Muppet. The revoltingly tasteless shots of it copulating
in Kinski's crotch are the utter lowpoint of Hammer filmmaking. Compared to this, the mysterious
sordid horror of David Lynch's Eraserhead creature, is profoundly humanistic and sensitive
Not having seen this picture on its American release, I wonder how much, if any, of the extreme
visuals were cut by the MPAA.
When Verney enters the magic circle, David Watkin's camera provides a striking visual solarization
that almost makes the scene play. The wild colors echo the images of the stained glass
colors projected onto the chapel floor where Rayner is excommunicated, in the beginning of the film.
Peter Sykes' direction of actors in the picture can't be faulted. Christopher Lee has a role with
something to do besides look baleful, and as always is more than satisfactory. Widmark is
out, Honor Blackman is all charm, and even Nasstassja Kinski is not bad as the confused, remote-
controlled vessel of Astaroth. 1
Denholm Elliott steals the show in his scenes of the traumatized, paralyzed father. If only Hammer
had scripts that could have attracted actors of this caliber earlier in their history. By 1975, the
British film industry was in such bad shape that even a Hammer assignment was nothing to turn down.
Older occult films like
Curse of the Demon and Rosemary's Baby
made their major theme the struggle of belief in superstition. Both keep some degree of
ambiguity for awhile, and explore the nature of the occult - why we do or don't believe in it.
To the Devil a Daughter is a post - Pazuzu thriller that just assumes that all its Black
Magick is real (yawn) and then does nothing with it but produce a parade of exploitative scenes.
This film has a lot of genre significance, but is both unpleasant and trashy.
Anchor Bay's stunning DVD of To the Devil a Daughter has their usual flawless transfer that
even looks more colorful than usual. The nicely produced docu has a thoughtful Christopher Lee
interview (more than big-studio Warners will do for their top-rank Hammers) and a good run-down
of the production history of the film, during Hammer's death throes. 3
Lee makes a feeble effort to justify the film as a cautionary tract, as if nasty devil cults
were a major threat in our modern world, and his involvement were a public service. To the extent
that he likes the movie, it's more likely because it affords him a decent part with real scenes
and dialogue to speak, something Hammer rarely gave him.
Through writers Christopher Wicking and Gerald Vaughn-Hughes, the docu stresses Dennis Wheatley's
outrage at the changes Hammer made to his story. None of his books appear to be in print now,
which doesn't make them sound as phenomenally successful as we're told they are. 2
The DVD has an Easter Egg: Go to the "extras" menu and poke around (I think you arrow left or something) and
you'll see a bit of camcorder footage of Eddie Powell talking about doubling Lee in the nude scene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To the Devil a Daughter rates:
Supplements: Docu, Trailer, Poster and still Gallery
Packaging: AGI keep case
Reviewed: November 5, 2002
Thanks to Gary Teetzel and Stuart Galbraith for their input.
1. It's frustrating thinking how this mostly negative review
will be received, when the typical fan response to the film on the web is "And there's really cool
shots of Nasstasja Kinski with full-frontal nudity!" Even Anchor Bay realizes this is the the true
goods they're selling, with a similar mention on their package text.
2. note from Gary Teetzel: "Although Wheatley is pretty much out
of print now, there were paperback
reissues of a few titles in the U.S. about 5 - 6 years ago or so. I have
that edition of The Devil Rides Out, which as a novel takes itself quite
seriously and is dated to the point of coming across as a quaint Victorian
relic--even though it was written in the 20th Century. I think To the Devil
a Daughter was one of the titles reissued, but I didn't buy it.
I've looked, but never seen a copy of Uncharted Seas (the book that became
The Lost Continent.) Wheatley wrote several novels featuring the Duc de
Richelieu, Lee's character from The Devil Rides Out, but I don't think he
appears in the novel version of To the Devil."
3. Gary Teetzel, again: "I thought that Lee had optioned the To
the Devil a Daughterfilm rights for Charlemagne Productions and then sold them to Hammer
after the failure of Nothing but the Night sank his company. That's not quite the
version Lee tells in the docu, though, so perhaps I'm misremembering the story. I know that Lee had
hoped for Charlemagne to make a series of Wheatley adaptations."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson