What’s your earliest horror memory, the moment you were irreversibly scarred yet knew you had to see and know more? Which one imprinted on you at a stupidly impressionable age? Do you remember? Because I never could; save for one indelible image burned on my psyche at the age of five, I have searched, asked, and pleaded with so many people what possible movie could have done this to me as a child. Until last night that is, when I stumbled upon The Devil’s Daughter (1973), an ABC TV movie that finally put a name to the image, even if I did somewhat misremember it. Time plus kindertrauma equals new memories, I guess? Yay to ongoing decrepitude!
Originally airing on January 9th as an ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week, The Devil’s Daughter was up against Hawaii Five-O over on CBS while NBC rolled out their own Tuesday Night at the Movies. (Seeing the imaginative naming of these programs never fails to bring me back to Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front bit.) ABC was usually where you went for horror though, and The Devil’s Daughter is a wry take on one of my favorite sub-genres, Satanic Panic, ‘70s Division.
Open your faux TV Guide to page 66 to find out Lucifer’s intentions:
THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A young woman fights against her demonic heritage. Belinda Montgomery, Shelley Winters star.
Our telefilm opens with a woman named Alice (Diane Ladd – Carnosaur) praying in a church. When she returns to her residence, she’s confronted by two imposing men who inform her that the time has come for her to settle her debt. You see, Alice had relations with Satan and bore him a child 21 years prior, at which point she went into hiding. We see the legs of a man on crutches as he stands in her doorway and tells her he’s come to collect, and that he wants to reclaim what is his – their child. When she pulls the trigger on her gun at the man in the doorway, it leaves a hole in her chest and the men leave.
Cut to Alice’s funeral, as her 21 year old daughter Diane (Belinda Montgomery – Silent Madness) comes to town to settle matters and perhaps settle down. A wealthy local and old friend of her mom’s, Lilith (Shelley Winters – The Tenant), insists that Diane stay with her until she finds other accommodations and settles her estate, which is handled by kindly Judge Weatherby (Joseph Cotten – Soylent Green). After she finds a roommate her own age, Susan (Barbara Sammeth – Foul Play), Diane attends a party at Lilith’s in her honor; Lilith and her friends (including Abe Vigoda, fer christsakes!) you see are Satanists and inform Diane that she is The Princess of Darkness (don’t throw tomatoes at me – that’s what they call her), destined to marry The Demon of Endor. Well, she doesn’t take to the news too well (finding out who your birth parents are can be traumatic for some), and retreats to her life even though Lilith et al keep pestering her.
While Lilith tries to remove everything normal from Diane’s life, Diane gets cozy with her new neighbor Steve Stone (Robert Foxworth – Damien: Omen II); after a whirlwind montage of romantic music and seashore strolls, they decide to tie the knot. Even though Diane has accepted who she is, she wants nothing to do with her dad and doesn’t invite him to the wedding. Do you think he’ll show up anyway, or will Diane and Steve continue to live in wedded bliss?
If you’ve watched 73% of all horror from the ‘70s (these are scientific figures, thank you very much), you already know the answer. The Devil’s Daughter, like many others of the time, is cut from Rosemary’s cloth and is happy to do so. I have to believe that writer Colin Higgins – yes, Harold and Maude, Foul Play, 9 to 5 – was, as the British say, taking the piss when he wrote this because it’s all a bit ridiculous, don’t you think? There’s no way to offer eternal despair watching Dark Shadows (oh did I mention Jonathan Frid plays a mute butler?) and Love, American Style actors thesp in between commercials for Mr. Clean and Dr. Pepper. Somehow, the depths of hell seem a little shallower when you’ve got Standards and Practices and only 73 minutes to sell your soul.
Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2) has fun with his cast, and gives the film a polish with some Paramount coin; Winters is never less than entertaining, Montgomery as always has a pleasant presence, and if you’re not onboard with Vigoda as a Satanist, we’re probably not picking out robes together anytime soon. Chanting to the Dark Lord is fun if you hang with the right crowd.
Higgins’ script seems to revel in those satanic stereotypes while leading you towards a climax good enough for a Tales from the Crypt comic. You’ll definitely see it coming, but that doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable. Wisely putting the revelation of her parentage out there early (I mean, the title), he offers a little misdirection that seasoned horror fans will spot, but those newer to the genre may not.
This would have been me at the age of five. The image that followed me around for the next *indecipherable* years was this: The Devil as an old man comes crashing through a church window, and his legs are in casts. Is that a bizarre vision? You bet. As I watched the opening of The Devil’s Daughter last night, when the man with crutches showed up in Alice’s doorway, I started to get butterflies in the pit of my stomach. As the film careened towards the inevitable conclusion of Diane’s wedding, I became anxious, which turned out to be well founded - the ending is creepier than I remembered. I can see now how my still forming mind captured, simplified, and twisted the events back in the day. And as you watch The Devil’s Daughter, I hope you’ll smile when you see how a five year old was traumatized, and how a much older horror fan was able to finally put his original nightmare to rest.