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DVD SAVANT

TO THE Devil A Daughter


To the Devil a Daughter
Anchor Bay
1976 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 93 min. / Street Date October 8, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott, Michael Goodliffe, Nastassja Kinski, Eva Maria Meineke, Anthony Valentine
Cinematography David Watkin
Art Direction Don Picton
Film Editor John Trumper
Original Music Paul Glass
Written by Christopher Wicking from the novel by Dennis Wheatley
Produced by Roy Skeggs
Directed by Peter Sykes

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.

Synopsis:

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 Rayner's ruthlessness.

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 filmmaking.

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 believably stressed 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:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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.

Footnotes:

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.
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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."
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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."
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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