Growing up in the '70s, we kids had several water cooler (or in our case, playground) debate subjects. A few of the more formidable included the annual Saturday Morning Cartoon Preview (would Scooby-Doo be back? Would the Kroffts new live action slice of surrealism be worth watching?), the tastiness of space food sticks, and the weekly roundtable on the ABC Movie of the Week. Like all impressionable youth, we couldn't get enough of the gratuitous genre workouts, most of the infamous TV films revolving around ghosts, demons, the paranormal, and the people who worship same. After a preplanned viewing, you'd shuffle off to school the next day, insightful review inside your head and collection of awesome/awful scenes at your disposal for ease of impressing. Most times, you struck paydirt - Duel, Trilogy of Terror, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, The Night Stalker, Go Ask Alice. At other instances, you got something akin to an over your prepubescent head chick flick. Many of us still have fond memories of those 90 minute mindblowers. Luckily, something like The Devil's Daughter (an actual ABC offering from 1973), easily amplifies all lingering feelings of nostalgia.
After turning 21, young Diane Shaw appears lost. Tragedy brings her an uncertain direction when her distant and secretive mother suddenly dies. At the funeral, she meets old family friend Lilith Malone. They strike up a fast friendship, and before the girl knows it, mute chauffer Mr. Howard is picking up her belongings from the local hotel. Diane moves in with the matronly eccentric, and she learns that more of her Mom's friends can't wait to touch base and reconnect. Things seem fine, even after meeting oddball neighbors the Poole sisters. But when Lilith gets possessive, and Diane discovers a weird photo album filled with her baby photos, the situation takes a turn for the sinister. Diane moves out and decides to share an apartment with the perky and pleasant Susan Sanford, yet the shadow of her mother's circle of associates continues to grow larger. When Lilith announces that Diane is actually The Devil's Daughter, conceived by Satan, Princess of their cult, and now betrothed to a yellow-eye demon, our heroine flips. Hopefully, a new romance with the studly Steve Stone can change her foul fate - or can it?
Though terribly dated and slightly stodgy, The Devil's Daughter is the kind of weekly wig out that made the ABC Movie of the Week such an unlikely glass teat treasure. With its solid story, up tempo pacing, and devastating last minute denouement (though modern audiences can instantly see through the knotty narrative ruse), it's an effective little chiller that gets buy on nothing more than excellent performances and professional direction. Jeannot Szwarc, a TV vet who somehow finagled the right to destroy the Jaws franchise with that blockbuster's bumbling sequel, does a nice job of using his A-list cast to create tension and dread where the script offers nothing but calm conversation. Shelley Winters, still a potent Golden Era powerhouse here, delivers her insinuating dialogue with all the polish and panache of someone who knows the Method ropes. She has a long monologue, captured in close up, that is nothing more than veiled seething rage covered by courtesy - and she's so amazing at the cinematic subterfuge that the hairs literally stand up on the viewer's nape. Equally effective is Dark Shadows fave Jonathan Frid as a mute chauffeur/companion named Mr. Howard. Even without saying a word, we know there's trouble brewing, and his final onscreen moment is moving in its subtle suggestion. In fact, everyone in the cast, from an accented Abe Vigoda to our lovely lead Belinda Montgomery, do a bang up job, especially when you consider how little the writing gives them to do.
This doesn't mean Harold and Maude's Colin Higgins delivers a screenplay turkey. In fact, either by accident or design, he creates some very disconcerting moments. Everyone has seen the horse rear and whinny at the sight of a supposed evil one, but can you name the last Satanic scarefast that had interracial siblings at the center of their storyline. That's right, Janet and Margaret Poole are indeed sisters, yet it's a real ebony (Margaret) and ivory (Janet) situation with the pair. There's other invention involved as well. Lucifer shows up at the beginning, and his hobbling, handicapped mannerism hides a nice final shot secret. Equally effective is a ritualistic dance sequence that goes from simple shuffle to full blown demonic frug in the matter of a few movements. The glee filled chanting of the spectators adds the right amount of spice to what could have been an awkward, clumsy strut. Certainly, anyone familiar with Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, or even the gloriously goofy Devil's Rain has seen this story a million times before, and try as they might, '70s era filmmakers just can't keep the concept of selling one's soul - or in this case, siring Satan's child - from being slightly laughable. After all, in this day and age, with existence the way it is, there's very little downside to signing your essence away to the mangoat (just ask George Bush).
Still, The Devil's Daughter does stumble here and there. We keep waiting for the big moment of evil incarnate to happen, the slam bang supernatural or paranormal free-for-all which will truly sell us on the story's legitimacy. Yet aside from a single showboating hissy fit from Dame Winters, we get diddly. No late night spook show. No unnerving dream sequences (though Montgomery does a decent job of feigning night terrors sans visuals). Not even a sudden visit from some slightly pissed off minions. Just more and more discussions and a couple of introspective shivers. Though he saves some of it for the end, Szwarc needed a little more visual flair here. The house where Winters lives is wonderfully baroque, and the atmosphere it creates is perfect for this kind of effort. But then we never see anything interesting within it except a standard studio set (bedroom, drawing room) and a couple of establishing shots. He tries to make up for it by featuring several sequences involving roommate Susan's crystal horse collection. It's just not the same. Since more of The Devil's Daughter is straightforward Gothic frighteners in the traditional sense, we can get by without the kind of F/X heavy hokum that passes for horror today. But unless you get into the passive mode of this otherwise engaging film, you might feel a tad underwhelmed afterward.
While not nearly as bad as its Crawlspace companion piece, The Devil's Daughter is about as far from reference quality digital imaging as a DVD can get. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is jumbled and jumpy, filled with washed out colors, editing splices, and bad commercial fadeouts. When placed along side the modern images offered on the format, its one lousy VHS-like picture. But when compared to Wild Eye's other TV movie offering, this is friggin' Blu-Ray.
Similar to the situation visually, the audio elements here are substandard at best. The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono is tinny and flat. Dialogue occasionally gets lost in a lack of sonic separation, and the score by Laurence Rosenthal tends to overwhelm everything. From a technical aspect, this is one mediocre DVD presentation.
There is nothing offered - just a menu screen and a 'start' option. Therefore, there is nothing to write about.
For a long time, this critic has championed the release of the entire ABC Movie of the Week catalog on full season DVD sets. Though many of the movies are clunkers, the great ones make the potential package all the more tempting. When something this solid brightens up the home theater system, all calls for more '70s TV films are instantly renewed. Hopefully, the company who owns the rights to these well-remembered works will step up and remaster them for future consideration and collection. We definitely don't need weak Wild Eye versions violating our aesthetic. Earning a Recommended for all its ridiculous retro riches, this is a prime example of why many of us Me Decaders still hold the idiot box film close to our hearts. Grated, we sometimes tend to view our formidable years through a pair of perfectly blind rose colored goggles. In fact, not all Made for the Boob Tube spectacles were worth that next day recess roundelay. The Devil's Daughter will always be fuel for our wonderfully out of balance adoration.