Peter Sykes, 1976
Starring: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Nastassja Kinski
"It is not heresy and I will not recant!”
While on a book tour, American writer John Verney is met with a very strange request. A man named Henry Beddows pleads with Verney to pick up his teenage daughter, Catherine, from the airport and to make sure no harm — physical or spiritual — should come to her. Verney specializes in occult topics and is mystified by Beddows’ request, but is even more baffled when Catherine turns out to be a nun in a strange, heretical order. The head of her church, called Children of the Lord, is a former Roman Catholic priest, Michael Rayner, who was excommunicated. Rayner is determined to take Catherine back to the order, while Verney’s task of protecting Catherine becomes increasingly dangerous.
Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name, this is essentially the opposite of Hammer’s first Wheatley adaptation, the excellent The Devil Rides Out. Panned by fans and critics for the last few decades, the film is a misguided mess that apparently enraged Wheatley so much that he swore never to be involved with Hammer again. But I’m going to throw out a controversial opinion: I actually really like this movie. Is it good? No, not really. But is it entertaining? Absolutely. It’s a little baffling to me that while England was a major producer of what’s generally known as Satanic/folk horror, the country’s largest horror studio, Hammer, all but neglected this genre, really only contributing three films: The Witches, The Devil Rides Out, and this disaster.
But it has a certain undeniable appeal for fans of trash cinema. For instance, there’s some choice dialogue, including lines like, "98% of so called satanist are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing church yards and use the devil as an excuse for getting some sex, but then there is that other 2%, I'm not so sure about them” (!!!). The film’s attempt to take itself seriously and strip away any of the camp present in The Witches or the romance of The Devil Rides Out that provides some emotional depth and lightheartedness results in a lot of unintentional humor. And overall, this is a pretty mean spirited affair with some nasty scenes of gore and loads of unsympathetic characters. If you can divorce this from Hammer’s classic output and instead consider this as a last gasp British response to films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, you might be surprised at how much you actually enjoy it.
Obviously the shining light is Sir Christopher Lee’s performance as the diabolical Father Michael Rayner, the excommunicated priest with some very sinister intentions. Lee delivers a performance full of vim and vigor and suitably menacing enough to pretty much carry the film himself — though he’s joined by one of my favorite film noir actors, the great Richard Widmark. Widmark is admittedly not performing at his personal best here and instead ranges from bored to confused, and irate for no apparent reason, but he does have some fantastic moments of scenery chewing that must be seen to be believed — nearly all of these occur during the showdowns between Widmark and Rayner, or even just Widmark against supernatural forces.
Lee and Widmark are supported by a delightfully raving Denholm Elliott and a wholesome-looking, teenage Nastassja Kinski. Her appearance is a bit controversial because she has several nude scenes, which were filmed when she was a teenager and thus underage. I’m not completely sure about how obscenity laws work — I can tell you from personal experience that that is a Google search you do not want to undertake — but I get why it was so shocking at the time. Though she seems a little vapid at times, she’s oddly perfect for the role as the clueless, naive Catherine, who has no idea that she’s about to become the vessel for Satan.
Of course, To the Devil a Daughter has a bad reputation for a reason and it’s chock full of issues. For example, the demon baby — yes, this is a thing that happens — is a flagrant new level of badness and the film would be better served to follow Val Lewton’s example and show as little of the supernatural as possible. Like Dracula A.D. 1972, the film has a contemporary feel and includes numerous exterior shots of London, but they only really serve to diffuse the sense of atmosphere. The main problem is the messy script that frequently loses steam and jumps around willy nilly from character to character. Richard Widmark was apparently very frustrated that the script was constantly re-written, often up to the day of shooting, and threaten to walk off the production several times. The characters are often given no clear motivations for their actions and things just sort of happen haphazardly. It would be much better with a smaller, more well developed cast of characters, but alas.
Peter Sykes, who also helmed Hammer’s Demons of the Mind, seems like a strange choice, but perhaps he was Hammer’s only option for what was to become their final horror film (at least until the recent revival). This was obviously trying to go bigger and better than The Devil Rides Out, but fails utterly, instead replacing that film’s class and restraint with gore, a confused plot, and some licentiousness. But, as I said, I still think it’s a really good time. Check it out on DVD, but if schlocky Satanic horror isn’t your thing, it’s probably more of a rental than a purchase.