To the Devil ... a Daughter Review
John Verny, during the launch of his new book, is approached by a distraught man, Henry Beddows, asking Verny to help save his daughter Catherine. It turns out that Catherine was raised in a cult of devil worshippers lead by the manic ex-minister Michael Rayner. Rayner wants to use Catherine to become the avatar of a powerful demon, Astaroth. Verny and Rayner battle using their knowledge of the occult for the soul of this young girl in an apparent epic showdown of light and dark.
While it may sound like To the Devil ... a Daughter has a story; it certainly doesn't come across that way. Instead, it feels like a jumbled mess of ideas thrown together without a compelling or justifying narrative. We have a writer coming across a satanist ex-priest and a strange and unexplained ritual that is there for a bit of seventies titillation. According to the special feature included in the disc, Dark Arts: Inside To the Devil … a Daughter, (the only extra to be included in the disc), the inclusion of more overt sexual content was a major draw and signalled a departure from the "family friendly" films Hammer was known for producing. At the time of release, this may have been conceived as a key selling point or rather an act of desperation as the critics savaged To the Devil ... a Daughter back in the day, and it was lost beneath the better satanic-themed films that came before it, like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.
It is not just the major plot elements that feel loosely related; the narrative feels structured around a group of writers in a room all pitching in ideas in a "yes and..." fashion with few discarded. We have a paranoid parent who just happens to be involved in the cult because his wife was, we have friends of our writer John Verney, who end up dead through some very contrived circumstances. In fact, everything feels contrived in the extreme, especially the end, which ramps up the unexplained and bizarre to 11, and the way that Rayner is defeated in the end? It’s entirely laughable and also irritating, to say the least, with our hero seemingly pulling something entirely out of his backside.
This is not helped by some bland performances from our leads. Richard Widmark as John Verney looks like he is going to fire his agent at several moments throughout the film, Honor Blackman and Michael Goodliffe are largely forgettable, as is most of the rest of the cast. Denholm Elliott as Henry Beddows is perhaps the only one who is really convincing, bringing a sense of Old Hammer to the proceedings with a weird Renfield-like performance that stands out in a movie of bland nothingness. However, before we leave off the acting, it is important to address Nastassja Kinski. While it would be some years before she made her name in Schrader’s Cat People or star in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, To the Devil ... a Daughter is only her second film. It is Catherine that truely dates the film, for me, not only in her performance but her constant state of undress and lack of agency. Together with the fact that Kinski was only 15 years-old at the time could well sour the film for any modern audience member.
Finally, I feel it would be remiss if I didn't mention our major antagonist, not Father Michael Rayner, but the supernatural patron Rayner worships, Astaroth. In demonology, Astaroth is a duke of Hell and part of the evil trinity with Beelzebub and Lucifer. Now is this mentioned during the movie’ run time? No. Are the details shared about why Rayner wants to make an avatar of Astaroth other than some vague explanation that he worships the potential of man? No. We just have a name thrown around that means nothing to those not already in the know, and then it doesn't even do anything with it. Astaroth’s actual appearance in the film, when it does show itself, looks more like a squashed muppet made out of beef mince. It is a laughable thing that only occasionally appears to detract from the atmosphere of the horror, pushing it into the arena of comedy.
Which is unfortunate because it was the last film made by Hammer Films (until its revival in 2008). As previously stated, this film followed Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, and was released the same year as The Omen, a film that has a more convincing story, better acting and greater production values. The one thing that raises To the Devil ... a Daughter out of a quagmire of mediocrity, like most projects he was involved in, is Christopher Lee, who lends his usual gravitas well to the absolutely bizarre goings-on.
Studiocanal has done a good job in restoring the film to its Technicolor glory, and the vibrant colour looks wonderful in 1080p. It is a shame then that the film itself is so bland and lifeless; a last croak from a once mighty horror film studio. Similarly, the audio is also well transferred into high definition. Apart from that, the user interface is satisfactory, and there is the option to have subtitles for the hard of hearing.
To the Devil ... a Daughter is the disappointing last gasp of a once prestigious movie studio during its peak. One that attempts to sit comfortably among the greats but ultimately fails to be taken seriously. It has a broken story, boring characters, even Christopher Lee and some nudity can't save it from the way it was relegated upon release. If there are plenty of extras on the disc, mediocre movies make for decent purchases, however, as it stands with just a single 20-minute featurette it’s probably best to leave this one alone.