Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Devil Is In The Details

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out), the film version of To The Devil A Daughter (1976) bears little resemblance to its source material. It’s little more than a hodgepodge of supernatural claptrap, further hampered by a jumbled storyline, but it is entertaining nonetheless to die-hard classic horror fans like me. 

Here’s a thumbnail of the plot: An occult novelist is called upon by a desperate man to rescue his daughter who has been brainwashed in a Bavarian monastery by a pseudo-Catholic cult as part of a Faustian pact he now regrets. (That’s complicated enough, but there are about a dozen other subplots to contend with here as well.)  

Directly influenced by that bankable genre starting with Rosemary’s Baby and continuing through The Exorcist and The Omen, this contemporary rather than gothic Hammer Film borrows heavily from them all. Its overstuffed storyline is crammed full of black magic, voodoo and various and sundry occult mumbo jumbo, replete with an obligatory Black Mass/Hieros Gamos ritual sex scene.

The cast is first-rate, proving the old adage that even the greatest collection of actors can’t save a movie from a bad (or nonexistent) script.

A properly clothed Lee and Kinski

Hammer veteran Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Wicker Man, The Man With the Golden Gun) headlines the proceedings with a solid and dignified performance despite all the messy twists and turns of the story, sailing through with his signature unruffled panache. Though he had high hopes for this follow-up to his marvelous performance in the classic Devil Rides Out, this film can’t hold a candle to the previous Wheatley adaptation.

As the novelist, the legendary Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, Judgment at Nuremberg, Coma) has little to do except spout pages of exposition to attempt to explain the incomprehensible and convoluted plot points that never quite come together. (Widmark was found to be difficult and uncooperative on the set, loudly cursing the quality of the script, which changed every day. Viewers will find he was displeased for good reason.)

Sister Nastassia and a peevish Richard Widmark

Widmark’s character does have one good line retained from the Wheatley novel when he explains the appeal of Satanism as an excuse for “dancing naked in churchyards and using the devil as an excuse to get sex.” 

Nastassia Kinski, daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski (who was originally cast in the Widmark role and got a better offer!), is the beleaguered heroine of the piece, the young virgin who must be consort to the demon her cult wishes to invoke. She spends most of her screen time either dressed in a nun’s habit or totally naked, surrounded by chanting devil-worshippers.  

(Incidentally, the film also distinguishes itself by giving us Sir Christopher Lee’s only cinematic nude scene, though reportedly some angles were filmed with a body double. He’s in great shape here, though, for a man of 54!)

Young Nastassia would soon become the protege of director Roman Polanski and star as Thomas Hardy’s ill-fated heroine in his film version of Tess, though she’s probably best remembered from that sex-charged, 1980s Cat People remake.


Denholm Elliott emotes as Honor Blackman models scarves

As Kinski’s tortured father, a wild-eyed Denholm Elliott (Maurice, Raiders of the Lost Ark) chews the scenery using the masterful RADA training that made him such a reliable and fine character actor in countless British films.

The talented Frances De La Tour has a small role as a toothsome Salvation Army worker who moves the plot forward an inch or two—presumably for comic relief, as she never appears again. Honor Blackman, forever known as Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, swans around in fashionable head scarves until she suffers a particularly gruesome death.

There are some effective horror set pieces— a ghost with a crescent shape amulet who is never explained, a terrifying tableau of of a man on fire—every horror trope but the metaphysical kitchen sink is thrown in for good or bad measure. If you don’t think and just watch, you might enjoy some of the spectacle!

The obligatory worship of golden idols

A demon named Astaroth is the idol of worship by the Bavarian cult, depicted as a spread-eagled figure on an upside down cross (the Hanged Man tarot symbol) in a vulgar parody of Christ's crucifixion.

The monstrous little demon baby evoked through a bloody birth ritual is reminiscent of both Lovecraft lore and a shocker made the previous year called It’s Alive. The scene with the bloody baby crawling between Kinski’s legs and salivating blood all over her unclad body is an image you can’t unsee.

This last Hammer horror film does pay homage to its colorful past with the liberal use of bright red blood so beloved to Hammer gore aficionados. In a few key scenes including the film’s climax, bowlsful of the signature fake blood are used, cartoonishly bright red “Kensington Gore” achieved with a mixture of corn syrup, paraben, food coloring and Kodak Photo-Flo fluid. 

If the film had built to a rousing climax and tied up some of its many loose ends, one may be able to forgive its transgressions, but apparently the production ran out of money and the producers were forced to fashion a hasty, tacked-on and underwhelming ending.

Sir Christopher going a little over the top

Ironically, Father Michael Raynor is one of Lee’s most subtle performances, though he does go over the top when called upon! He cuts a handsome figure in his long black cassock and white collar, his manner gentlemanly and enigmatic and understated. With his diabolically charming smile and famously smoldering eyes, Christopher Lee is here, as always, the personification of elegant evil. He emerges from this not-so-great picture completely unscathed.

To The Devil A Daughter is a little known horror curiosity, a campy exploitation film that has developed a cult following for many obvious reasons. Too much is thrown at the wall in the service of entertainment —though a few things stick. If you’re anything like me, you’ll buy the DVD so you’ll be able to fast-forward to “the good parts”—again and again! 

This is my entry in the Christopher Lee Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. I look forward to reading all about one of my all-time favorite and most prolific stars!


24 comments:

  1. Okay, I MUST see this film, prepared as I am that it may be bad but still has its pleasures as you describe so well (what a sentence!). I honestly can't remember if I saw this film when it was released in theaters or not. I definitely have heard of it. I've no doubt I saw virtually every Hammer release and everything with Chris Lee, but I remember absolutely nothing about this movie. I will probably watch it on Amazon for a couple of bucks, maybe over the weekend (sadly it's not one of their free offerings).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Bill - I think you’ll definitely have fun with this one. If you’re a Christopher Lee fan, it is a must see!
    Thanks as always for stopping by! Let me know your thoughts on this when you see it!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
  3. I do like the sound of this so bad but well cast movie. I did spot this one and thought it would be a definite to watch film, know I know it is thanks to your fabulous review. Thanks for joining us Chris, as always!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Gill - thanks SO much for hosting, I am a huge Christopher Lee fan - he was so versatile and did so may movies during his long career. This is one of his lesser efforts, but his charisma and star quality are clearly on display here!
    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
  5. Interesting and entertaining review!
    I have not seen this film and at first I wasn't sure if I wanted to, but you had me at monstrous little demon baby. LOL

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi John! Thanks for stopping by. See it, you may just get a kick out of it!
    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
  7. You do an excellent job of taking a mess of a movie and offering a number of reasons why someone might want to watch it anyway. Plus there's the historical interest - the movie that ran Hammer into the ground (sort of). To the Devil is an object lesson in how important a good script is to the final product. Even a stellar cast couldn't save this one. Nice job!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Brian - thanks! Sometimes it’s more fun to write about the bad ones than the good ones, especially ones with great actors like these. Even rotten movies can be entertaining to watch over and over, deconstruct and analyse, for total movie freaks like us!! Cheers!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wonderful post on a train wreck of a film (but a kind of fascinating train wreck). You really highlighted its good points and it would have been interesting(!?) to see Klaus Kinski spout those lines instead of Widmark.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Dick - thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. You are right, the great Klaus Kinski could read the phone book and make it seem profound!
    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love your description of Lee as "the personification of elegant evil". Beautifully stated.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Silver Screenings! Thanks for stopping by! Loved your blog post on Beyond Mombasa!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
  13. Excellent review, about a heavily flawed Hammer film. It's too it didn't quite add up, because it seemed to have all the right elements, including a great cast. Thank you so much for joining our blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Barry, thanks so much for hosting this spectacular blogathon! I have learned so much about the incredible career of one of my favorite stars, and found a bunch of new movie blogs to follow!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
  15. I've wanted to see this for a while and I know your review should turn me away but, damn, if I don't want to see it all the more now. That cast is just to good to pass up. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi Michael - it’s definitely worth a look, you may enjoy parts of it and cringe at others! Thanks for stopping by!
    - C

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hi Chris
    Reading this brought back memories of how heavily-hyped it was on release in LA, and how my horror-fan best friend was unable to convince me to go with him to see it (he loved it). I think you've sparked my interest and now, all these years later I'm inspired to give it a look. I enjoyed the captions under your photos (particularly the Richard Widmark one) and even-handed treatment of the material. As a devotee of both Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, I guess I owe it to myself to check out another of the many films their popularity inspired. Hope all is well with you, Chris, and thanks for another terrific film review!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hi Ken!
    Don’t expect too much; it’s certainly no Rosemary’s Baby or even The Omen! But there’s a lot to look at, and Christopher Lee is wonderful as always. Horror fans like you will recognise every trope but it certainly doesn’t all fit together like a puzzle or add up to much except some escapist entertainment!
    Thanks as always for stopping by!!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chris
      Just a follow-up hello to say I did actually get around to seeing TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and indeed found it good escapist fare despite it never really coalescing into anything that had a point. Amazing what a talented cast can do. I thought they were all giving the material more legitimacy than it deserved. But it was appropriately bizarre and I love seeing Kinski (although in the copy I got her voice sounds dubbed). But I have you to thank for bringing it to my attention. Thanks Chris...and if you read this in time Happy Thanksgiving!

      Delete
    2. Hi Ken!! Thanks for reporting back! Too bad the movie isn't better. It is a curiosity, though. No Omen or Rosemary, of course!
      Happy Thanksgiving to you too!!
      -C

      Delete
  19. Christopher Lee did a nude scene? Wow, he really did do everything in movies. Well, almost everything. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hi Rebecca - yes, believe it or not! But as I mentioned, some angles in the scene reportedly feature a body double…
    Thank you as always for reading!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hi Chris, you are cordially invited to

    https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2021/07/06/blogathon-announcing-the-no-true-scotsman-blogathon/

    Love to have you there!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Love you to join this... https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2021/11/20/blogathon-announcing-the-odd-or-even-blogathon/

    ReplyDelete