To The Devil A Daughter (1976)
Directed by: Peter Sykes
Written by: Christopher Wicking, Dennis Wheatley, Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, John Peacock
Starring: Christopher Lee, Denholm Elliott, Honor Blackman, Nastassja Kinski, Richard Widmark
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)
Directed by Peter Sykes
A young woman returns home to England for her 18th birthday after growing up as a nun at a convent in Germany. However, it seems her church have other plans to celebrate her transition into womanhood and only American occult novelist John Verney has the power and knowledge to stop them.
One of Hammer Horror’s late entries, another adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel following 1968’s The Devil Rides Out which also starred Christopher Lee, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER follows the exploits of an excommunicated priest Father Michael Rayner (Lee) who has plans for young Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) as she comes of age. Bringing her up at his church in Germany, Father Michael has long groomed Catherine for the role he intends her to play and with her father a willing accomplice, all shall be complete come her 18th birthday. However, back in England, Catherine’s father Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott) has changed his mind about his arrangement with Father Michael and his church and attempts to protect his daughter in the only way he knows how – by employing the help of occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark). With Catherine indoctrinated by her church, of which she has spent her entire life at, she is clueless as to what her former guardians Father Michael and Sister Margaret have lined up for her but fortunately for Verney, he knows a little bit about what these kind of people want.
Though I’ve not seen as many Hammer Horrors as I’d like to, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is one of those I’ve been yearning to watch for years with Wheatley’s book adorning the family bookshelf my entire life. Employing the services of Hammer icon Christopher Lee as the wicked priest who’s leaning towards the dark teachings, the movie plays out like a drama with sinister, satanic undertones. On one side of the film we have author John Verney doing his best guarding the attractive youngster Catherine who he’s voluntarily agreed to look after and protect from the wicked priest whilst on the other side said priest is preparing for his crowning achievement to deliver true change to the world. Whilst the film could have focused far too much on the satanism angle, it thankfully prefers to plant its flag on the side of Verney, an outlook which fully represents that of the viewer – innocent and initially clueless but with a bloody good idea what’s about to come next.
Forced to hide young Catherine, Verney has the troublesome task of keeping an eye on her at all times but fortunately has a couple of friends who’re more than happy to help out whilst he does some digging. Despite their cheery faces and good intentions, no amount of mollycoddling can protect the young nun from Father Michael and the power he’s capable of utilising.
Whilst there’s very little blood on show in this film, I found TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER to be quite chilling and frightening with a subtle menace reminiscent to that of Polanski’s overlooked tour-de-force The Ninth Gate. It’s terrifying without doing much but it’s the little things cleverly placed within the journey-like pace of the movie that send chills down your spine. For a movie about satanism, the set-piece debauchery and demonic powers are used sparingly and are injected at just the right moments with each slither of ritual terror more disturbing than the last.
After thoroughly enjoying the bulk of the movie, if a little unnerved by its wicked storyline, I feel TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER stumbles at the final hurdle and rushes the ending in which it has carefully built up to. The coy approach it maintained for the majority of the running time appears to go out of the window for a more stereotypical, pantomime-esque ending it thinks its viewers want. Granted, I’ve not read the source material despite having acknowledged its presence for the last few decades, however I feel the culmination of the storyline could have been dealt with in a more suitable way as to match the chilling vibe of its previous defining moments.
As Hammer Horror films go, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is quite an unusual entry that itself isn’t without controversy. Unlike the gothic films before it, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is reported to have been a troubled production, one which saw multiple rewrites, its star Richard Widmark almost walk on multiple occasions and young starlet Nastassja Kinski in a full frontal nudity scene at the age of 14. Fans across the board have slammed the film, particularly due to it butchering the source material, but I have to say, despite the disappointing ending, this film really made me sit up and take notice and for its 95 minute running time it did a bloody good job of unnerving me with its satanic undertones.
Whilst it’s not without its flaws, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER feels like a unique entry from Hammer that you’ll either enjoy or despise. It’ll never go down as one of Hammer’s greats but it certainly pushes a lot of the right horror buttons for this film fan.