Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

"...and suddenly the screams of a baby born in Hell!"

Plot

American occult novelist John Verney is asked by a total stranger named Henry Beddows to go and meet his daughter, Catherine, at the airport. Catherine is a nun with the mysterious heretical order, The Children of the Lord, and is allowed to visit her father once a year. However, once Catherine arrives, Henry tells Verney that he must keep her safe and secure at all costs, out of harm's way of the Satanic order led by the sinister excommunicated priest Father Michael Rayner. Verney soon learns the extent of Rayner's plan: Catherine is to become an avatar of Astaroth upon her eighteenth birthday and Rayner will do anything to get her back, including the use of black magic.

 

Hammer Film Productions had once been at the cutting edge of horror, pioneers who specialised in reinventing the genre in the late 50s and kick starting the great Anglo-horror cycle which was to dominate for years. However by the 70s, it's output had become increasingly outdated and attempts to paper over the repetitive nature of the Gothic horror films with more gore and sex were not bringing punters flocking back. Across the Pond in America, audiences were being shocked and repulsed with bleak films that had pushed the limits in graphic violence and extreme gore in contemporary settings, making them much more realistic and relatable - Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist to name three. The last horror film to be made by the legendary studio before it closed doors (and its penultimate theatrical release before its resurrection in the late 2000s), To the Devil a Daughter was a final throw of the dice by Hammer to tap into the popularity of occult-themed horrors which the 70s was currently enjoying thanks to The Exorcist and furthered by other noteworthy genre entries such as The Omen. Though ironically, The Devil Rides Out had proven to be one of Hammer's most respected films upon its release in 1968, which was very much ahead of its time with its focus on the supernatural and black magic, and so the studio went all out to put more of writer Dennis Wheatley's occult work up on the big screen. However, To the Devil a Daughter is haunted by Hammer's biggest pitfall and arguably its eventual undoing - outside of the Gothic horror framework, the studio just didn't know how to reinvent itself for a modern audience and when it did, it was too late.



To the Devil a Daughter should have been the type of film Hammer had made a few years earlier, to be the genre trend-setters once again whilst there was still time to prevent the company's financial decline. Though the film was indeed a decent success at the box office, all of the profits went to the German investors and creditors and Hammer didn’t feel any of the the financial benefits, thus dooming the studio anyway. This is because To the Devil a Daughter was far more controversial and graphic than anything Hammer had put out there before, so much so that you wouldn't even realise it was the same studio who had been churning out quaint Gothic horrors in the years earlier. It's controversial not so much in the regular gore and nudity stakes but in the subversive religious imagery and Satanic elements, which would clearly cause offense to certain groups. There's a demon foetus crawling inside a woman's vagina, scenes of Satanic orgies (Christopher Lee even getting a body double to do his nude scene!) and a woman being forced to give birth with her legs tied together.


Religious iconography and connotations aside, To the Devil a Daughter is slow, plodding and dull for the most part, only really enlivened by a couple of decent performances and definitely not thanks to the script. Just like the studio itself, the script seems to have run out of ideas. To the Devil a Daughter began filming without a finished script and rewrites were completed daily, telling the cast and crew what was to filmed the following day, much to the annoyance of star man Widmark who called it a Mickey Mouse production and was disgusted with the level of unprofessionalism at the studio. Knowing this makes a lot of what happens (or doesn't happen on-screen) perfectly understandable, as the film veers in different directions in any attempt to find success. There’s an underlying sense of incoherence throughout the film, right from its muddled opening, through poor build-up and then towards a really flat finale. Separate plot threads are started but never manage to converge later on. Many scenes involve characters just talking to each and delivering exposition, presumably because the script had only been written a few hours earlier and there wasn't enough time to design any elaborate set pieces. The final confrontation between good and evil is a huge let down and the film ends abruptly, almost as if the film stock suddenly ran out. Its a senseless end to what had been slow, plodding but at least genuinely eerie build-up and gives me the impression that the studio got cold feet over how to end it - give me the apocalyptic ending where Verney's efforts were in vain and Astragoth still arrived on Earth any day of the week. It sure as hell beats Father Michael being dispatched by a small rock and Verney walking off with Catherine.



Hammer knew they needed some star power - its aging stars were no longer the draw they once were and its younger generation of talent had failed to click with audiences. So the studio hired acclaimed American Richard Widmark, nowhere near the level of draw he once was but still internationally recognisable as someone who could command a decent audience, as its star man. Widmark isn't bad in the role, fairly bland and low key for the most (though given his constant complaining off-camera, this pent-up frustration comes across in his performance). He makes for a perfect foil to the towering theatricality of Christopher Lee, giving audiences one of his most intense performances for years (and arguably one of his best roles ever) as the sinister and snarling Father Michael - the thought of returning to one of his favourite authors, Dennis Wheatley, must have spurred something inside Lee to get out of his comfort zone.


There's a very good supporting cast with Denholm Elliot acting all neurotic as the father who signed his daughter over to the Devil and Natassja Kinski giving a nice doe-eyed innocence to the role of Catherine - Kinski was allegedly signed to the role, which involves full frontal nudity, as the studio thought she was seventeen when in fact she was fourteen. Oh dear. Where To the Devil a Daughter really utilises this cast well is in its contemporary setting. Extensive location shooting was used in London and Bavaria and allowed Hammer to break free from the shackles of the studio-based productions it had become so reliant on. Therefore the characters we see on the screen are not Medieval villagers or Victorian moralists but every day folk from the 70s, living and walking in the same world as it's then-contemporary audience. The fact that all of this Biblical drama is going on in secret gives the story a nice realistic feel to make it relevant to the audience.

 

Final Verdict

To the Devil a Daughter is a historically important film as it signalled the end of an amazing era in not only horror but British filmmaking. With the death of Hammer, the British filmmaking industry lost one of its biggest exports and horror in this country would die a slow death until the Noughties when Lottery funding started to allow a proliferation of talent the opportunity to make films in this country. To the Devil a Daughter is a massively flawed, but highly ambitious horror film which was too little, too late for the studio. It is nowhere near as bad as its reputation precedes it and is very much a case of "what if?" There are too many variables at play to wonder whether this would have been the dawning of a new era for the studio if the stars had aligned.



 

To the Devil a Daughter


Director(s): Peter Sykes


Writer(s): Christopher Wicking (screenplay by), John Peacock (adaptation), Dennis Wheatley (from the novel by)


Actor(s): Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliot, Michael Goodliffe, Nastassja Kinski, Eva Marie Meineke


Duration: 95 mins