To The Devil - A Daughter Review

To The Devil – A Daughter, released in early 1976, was the last Hammer horror film. That in itself would be enough to make it interesting. The fact that it’s such a fascinating mixture of incoherence and brilliance makes it even more fascinating. There are all manner of ways in which it doesn’t work but it’s got an atmosphere which is quite unlike anything else which Hammer produced and enough gruesome highlights to suggest how the company might have responded to the age of the gore movie.

This film, so different from any other Hammer movie, had its roots in an agreement between two distinguished gentlemen. Dennis Wheatley, born in 1897, was a hugely successful writer of thrillers and adventure novels who came to writing following a distinguished career in the army during the First World War. His popularity peaked during the 1950s and 1960s; his book sales during this period topped the one million mark. Although he wrote in a number of genres, he is still best known for his eight black magic novels and it was these which attracted the attention of Hammer. Their 1968 adaptation of Wheatley's novel The Devil Rides Out, with superb performances from Charles Gray and Christopher Lee and a literate script from Richard Matheson, was unsuccessful at the box office but is now regarded as one of the studio's finest moments. That's more than can be said for their other Wheatley adaptation of the same year, The Lost Continent, which could be generously described as misguided. In the 1970s, Christopher Lee became a friend of the writer and obtained the rights to some of these black magic novels with the aim of producing them through his own production company. When this fell through, Lee offered the rights for To The Devil - A Daughter to Hammer, who saw in the project a chance to compete with the recent success of The Exorcist.

The plot is reasonably simple. Catherine Beddows (Kinski) has been raised in Germany in what she believes to be a Christian order of nuns called “The Children of the Lord” and regards the leader of the order, Fr.Michael Rayner (Lee), with veneration. What she doesn’t realise is that the order is actually a Satanist coven devoted to worship of Astaroth and the aim of bringing him into bodily existence. Her father, Henry (Elliott), made a pact with Rayner when Catherine was born, agreeing to give her to Astaroth on her 18th birthday, but his determination to break the pact leads him to seek help from occult writer John Verney (Widmark). When she arrives in Britain, on an annual visit to her father, Catherine is waylaid by Verney who is determined to stop Rayner and his acolytes from achieving their sinister ends.

However, the screenwriter Christopher Wicking, veteran of two previous Hammer films - Demons of the Mind and Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb - seems determined to confuse the viewer by breaking up the story and deliberately confusing past and present and intermingling the two with dream sequences. This is one of the reasons why the film has such a clammy, unnerving atmosphere; it’s often hard to work out what’s happening and you’re forced to interpret things, often ending up with something far more sinister than what’s actually occurring. It’s a bit of a cheap trick but it’s entirely characteristic of Wicking’s writing style and it has to be said that it works rather well in this sort of film – rather better than it did in the generally incomprehensible Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. The confusion reflects that of Catherine adrift in a strange country and we are put in the same position as John Verney; working out the plot from hints and suggestions. It’s a method entirely alien to the narrative style of Dennis Wheatley – and he hated the film – but it does something to revivify what remains of his creaking plot.

The other reason it doesn’t seem like a Hammer film is that it’s so graphically unpleasant. I know that Hammer movies gained a reputation for being bloodier than most of their contemporaries but the relatively discreet bloodletting in The Curse of Frankenstein is a million miles away from Nastassja Kinski pushing a small puppet demon (complete with horribly realistic tongue) into her vagina. Although Hammer had been gory before - Scars of Dracula is packed with gratuitous stuff, most of it badly done – the level of realism here is surprising. The birth of the demon – the mother’s legs bound together so it has to burst through her abdomen – anticipates Alien, although there is a cutaway before the actual eruption. The aftermath is more than enough to indicate what’s happened. Perhaps the difference is that it’s all done with a straight face. The wobbly plastic knives and amateurish mugging of Scars has become very much post-Exorcist solemnity. The director, Peter Sykes, achieved something similar in his earlier Hammer film, the excellent Demons of the Mind, where cliches about vampirism and dark family secrets are brilliantly woven into a tragic melodrama which is surprisingly moving.

The film has often been criticised for being exploitative and incoherent, faults which it's hard to deny, but it's also well made and enjoyable. The performances help a lot. Christopher Lee is perfect as the sinister Fr.Michael and he has a worthy protagonist in the shape of Richard Widmark's believably harrassed John Verney. Widmark hated making the film and reportedly did everything he could to make the set an unpleasant place to be but his low-key acting style in this film contrasts well with Lee's theatricality. There's also a great bit from Denholm Elliott at his most befuddled. Nastassja Kinski was only 15 when the film was made and she does extremely well, already radiating the Mittel-European mystique that was used to such good effect in Cat People. Admittedly, some of the cast - notably Michael Goodliffe and Anthony Valentine - aren't up to the task of convincing you that what's happening has any great significance. But any fan of British comedy is bound to feel a warm glow of nostalgic affection when the Bishop who excommunicates Rayner is the great Derek Francis and the keeper of the Black Room - where the Grimoire of Astaroth is kept - turns out to be Brian Wilde, Mr Barraclough himself.

To The Devil - A Daughter is certainly a bit of a mess and the conclusion really does live down to its reputation as being one of the most ludicrous scenes in the history of British horror. But it's also slick and exciting and the palpably strange atmosphere does help you overlook some of the more obvious flaws. All in all, it's not a bad note for Hammer Horror to have gone out on and certainly a more fitting epitaph than their misbegotten 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes. The company struggled on for a few more years, producing the patchy TV series Hammer House of Horror and its even more inconsistent follow-up Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. Rumours abounded in the mid-1980s of a comeback for the company and, indeed, the suggestion of a real resurrection has never quite been laid to rest. But for the time being, we can look back on three decades of Hammer Horror with pride and affection, and To The Devil - A Daughter, for all its problems, is squarely in that great tradition.

The Disc

Not very much to say about this Warner DVD at all. It's only available as part of the Hammer Horror Resurrected boxset.

The film has been transferred in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. It's not a bad transfer on the whole. There is quite a lot of grain evident and there is some print damage on show throughout. But the colours are superb and the picture contains a good level of detail. Nor is there as much artifacting as is present on the Quatermass and the Pit disc.

The soundtrack is the original Mono track. Generally speaking this is fine but during the first half hour there a number of drop-outs where the sound is flat and muted for a minute or so at a time.

There are no extras or subtitles provided. The R0 Anchor Bay release contains a very good 24 minute documentary and a nice photo gallery along with the theatrical trailer.

There are 16 chapter stops provided.

The main bonus of this release for those of us living in the UK is that it appears to be uncut by the BBFC. The controversial scene with the demon being pushed inside Kinski has been restored in all its nauseating glory. Previously, a precut version was released with that scene edited. These 2 seconds have been restored.

Fans of the film will no doubt already own the superior Anchor Bay version. This release is adequate in terms of picture but the sound quality is very disappointing. As part of the boxset it's worth a look but it wouldn't be worth a purchase it on it's own

Film
6 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
3 out of 10
Extras
0 out of 10
Overall

4

out of 10

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