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!