The seventies were rough on Hammer Films; horror tastes were passing them by, as audiences became enamored with grittier gutter grue and moved away from ripped bodices and cobwebbed halls. With the success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), it only made sense for the company to grasp for the popular straw in an effort to compete in the marketplace. To The Devil…A Daughter (1976) saw that straw burst into flames to the point that it became Hammer’s last horror film before initially shuttering the place in ’79. But my god, is it a spectacular pyre to behold.
Released in March in the UK and other parts of Europe before hitting North America in July, To The Devil did poor business to match its mostly abysmal reviews. This is understandable when one considers some of the lurid behavior on display; there are images conjured here that are closer to Fulci than Fisher. To The Devil…A Daughter is either a garish flameout or a glorious Viking funeral, depending on one’s disposition and view. Whatever your vantage point, it’s nothing if not memorable.
We open in a Roman Catholic Church; Father Michael (Christopher Lee – The Wicker Man) has clearly had enough of their stuffy ways, and sets out to start his new order, the Children of the Lord. Membership includes such groovy perks as worshipping Astaroth, one of the Big Three in demonology (the other two being Satan and Alan Thicke), plus witnessing the bloody birth of Catherine, who on her 18th birthday will become the resurrected embodiment of the big A himself. Flash forward 18 years, and grown Catherine (Nastassja Kinski – Cat People) is on her way from Bavaria to London where she is to reunite with her dad (Denholm Elliott – Trading Places) and celebrate her rebirth.
But before she arrives, her dad corners occult writer John Verney (Richard Widmark – Kiss of Death) and convinces John to pick up Catherine at the airport instead of him, as Satanists are on his trail. Always looking for another juicy story, Verney complies and steals Catherine away from her escort. Unsure at first of her whereabouts, Father Michael begins a search for the promised child, so he can fulfill the coming of Astaroth before the expiry runs out or something. Will Verney be able to stop his return in time?
To The Devil…A Daughter finds Hammer still playing catch up with the mores of the time, and by turn, the changing horrorscape. When Hammer’s popularity exploded in the mid-‘50s with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (’58) they were seen as trailblazers, injecting moldy material with visceral shocks and lascivious bon mots. After the Bar O’ Lurid was raised by the likes of Friedkin, they had no choice but to go all in to survive.
And lord help us, they certainly do – in moments. The problem is, in their efforts to keep up they completely overshoot the runway and end up on a tarmac reserved more for Italian perversities than English sensibilities. For instance, did you know that Kinski was 14 years old when she made this, and that it contains full frontal nudity of her? I didn’t until after watching the film, and I’m sure your bile is rising just reading this as did mine upon finding out; there’s simply no cultural context where this is appropriate. (Or maybe you think there is. Hey, I’m not your dad.)
There are other moments, however, that are delightfully gaudy and much more in line with horror tastes of today, but perhaps not then (and most certainly not from the usual Hammer stable); in particular there is a deformed baby creature that looks exactly like the punch line of the “Kermit in a blender” joke, and he returns to places from whence he came, and I can only imagine audiences reactions at the time.
It’s wild to watch, because without these moments, To The Devil is a fairly standard (albeit well shot and performed) British horror, with a plot not unlike Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (1968); no coincidence since the author Dennis Wheatley was thrilled with that adaptation of his book, and let them adapt any of his other works for free. They chose this. Needless to say he was not a fan, and forbid them from adapting any further of his writings.
And while I can see his point – it’s tasteless, bordering on profane for those with more delicate sensibilities – it’s a Debbil movie, and they have to swim with the obscene to get a reaction from the righteously religious and a pious public. Shock and awe was not Hammer’s bread and butter however, at least not to this extent.
But director Peter Sykes (Demons of the Mind), along with writers Chris Wicking (Scream and Scream Again) and John Peacock (School for Unclaimed Girls), manage to massage more reasonable material into the outré stuff, including hallucinations, a lot of paranoia, and a dash of immolation; mix and match is their motto, with spy thriller bumping up against Omen outtakes in an attempt at cohesiveness.
Whether they achieve that or not is up to you to decide; personally I think Hammer’s willingness to go all in out distances any shortcomings to story, structure (the truncated and underwhelming ending is sad to watch), and narrative lapses.
The norm of the time was to attract big names to horror, and To The Devil managed to score Widmark and Honor Blackman; Lee and Elliott were more attuned and accustomed to the Hammer vibe, so naturally they come off the best with the material. Widmark looks miserable as usual, but Blackman has fun as his friend, and Elliott is great as Catherine’s dad, always looking over his shoulder while trying to cling to his sanity. Kinski is okay if a little tentative in one of her very first roles.
So we’re left with Lee, and not surprisingly, he delivers. Father Michael is one of his best characters; hiding behind a mask of love and sincerity, when he smiles during a birthing scene the chills rise in a way that is unexpected and thrilling. It’s just a pity the filmmakers ran out of money to give him the sendoff he deserved.
Hammer would rise again in the late 2000’s, and they continue to operate if not at the level of glory they once held. No matter. The fact that they’re still here and that To The Devil…A Daughter didn’t leave the company as eternal ash in the wind is some kind of miracle even Astaroth could endorse.
To The Devil…A Daughter is available on DVD from Starz/Anchor Bay and will be released at the end of January on Region 2 Blu-ray from StudioCanal.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SCARAB (1983)