Director: Peter Sykes
Script: Chris Wicking
Cast: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Natassja Kinski, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliot, Derek Francis, Anthony Valentine, Petra Peters
Running time: 93 minutes
I first heard about the filmed version of Dennis Wheatley’s occult novel, from 1953, way back in 1981 when I picked up a book called The Facts about a Feature Film: Featuring Hammer Films from a book club I belonged to, through the school I was attending at the time. The book was specifically about the production and selling of Hammer Films’ version of To the Devil a Daughter. As a pimply young boy I’d already developed an obsession with horror films so just having such a book listed in a ‘recommended reading’ children’s book list was exciting enough, and I think I eventually managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me under the banner of it being an educational tome, hence I didn’t even have to hand over any of my very thin-on-the-ground pocket money – a win: win situation! Although, at the time, I did find the book a fairly dry read, it did make me want to track down the book that the film was based on and, of course, to watch the film at some point – probably via a late-night screening on television (this was before the days when I had access to a video player).
I did manage to purchase a copy of the book a few years later, which I read and quite enjoyed, although I much preferred some of Wheatley’s other occult-based novels, including The Devil Rides Out, Gateway to Hell and The Satanist. And then, many years later still, I did finally catch up with the Hammer film version on television, but due to the lateness of the hour, found it difficult to keep awake throughout, hence always fancied giving it a second look, which is where we are today…
To the Devil a Daughter was adapted from the book by John Peacock, but Chris Wicking later came on board the production and pretty much re-wrote Peacock’s version; this according to my aforementioned Scholastic tome. The film was originally to have been made in the autumn of 1974, but by the time the co-production deal with a German company was finally completed, the first day of shooting was tentatively fixed for early July 1975. However, by the time all the tweaks had been done to the script, and casting had been completed, the film actually started shooting during the second week of September of that year. And, due to scheduling issues with regard to the two main stars, most of the film had to be shot during a two-week window in late September 1975.
I think, although some of the film’s production problems do come through in the final product, and whilst it’s certainly not as bad as many critics have made out over the years, To the Devil a Daughter is still a deeply flawed viewing experience. I think this is primarily down to the script, which doesn’t do justice to the original book, and results in a weak and rushed ending – probably due to the tight shooting schedule. This is a shame really, since with such a great cast, and some solid locations, this could have been a top-ten contender for best satanic horror film of the seventies if more time had been spent finessing it.
So, what’s the film about, I hear you ask? Well, to summarise, the story goes something like this: Christopher Lee plays Father Michael, a defrocked priest, who has turned his back on God, and is now trying to bring about the birth of the Antichrist via the vessel that is one of his acolyte’s daughters, Catherine, played by the lovely Nastassja Kinski. However, said acolyte, Henry Beddows (played by the ever dependable Denholm Elliot), is a reluctant one and wants his daughter to be safe so he arranges for renowned writer and occult expert, John Verney (Richard Widmark), to intercept his daughter at a London airport and to take her back to his place to keep her safe until the window for the Antichrist’s birth (on All-Hallows Eve) has passed by.
However, things never ever go according to plan and, although Verney does pick up Bellow’s daughter, Bellows himself ends up revealing where she is when Father Michael uses his supernatural powers of suggestion to persuade Bellows to cough up all he knows during a very bizarre telephone conversation, which involves the telephone and its cord turning into a snake and almost killing poor batty Bellows! To cut a long-story short the Satanists finally get hold of the innocent Catherine and begin their unholy ritual on her, and Verney has to somehow stop it all getting out of hand and becoming the catalyst for the end of times.
To the Devil a Daughter is certainly entertaining and has a few great set-pieces including a great ‘man-on-fire’ stunt in a church that really does look very dangerous in those pre-CGI days. Plus Christopher Lee is on top form as the seductively evil Father Michael Rainer, a part he was surely born to play, and Honor Blackman and Anthony Valentine provide the film’s lighter moments as Verney’s English mates (Anne and Peter) who do what they can to help; oh, and Denholm Elliot is great to watch as the anxious father who’s rapidly losing the plot.
What lets the film down is its lead Richard Widmark, who comes across as being somewhat disinterested in the material, and is hard to root for, and Kinski, who was still very young at the time and looks completely out of her depth, although she is still very sweet, well, when she’s not in brain-washed ‘hail Satan’ mode! And then there’s the ending, which must be one of the most anti-climactic and dumb endings out there, up there with evil Damien’s demise in The Omen III: The Final Conflict.
However, all things said, if you enjoy occult-themed horror films, then you could still do a lot worse than To the Devil a Daughter. It was certainly better than I’d remembered it to have been in the past, and, besides a couple of incidents of muffled sound, StudioCanal have done a good job in re-releasing and restoring this shamefully over-looked Hammer horror.
StudioCanal are distributing To the Devil a Daughter on DVD and Blu-ray. The package includes:
Dark Arts: Inside To the Devil a Daughter (19 mins) – another talking heads mini-documentary where film experts, such as Kevin Lyons (editor at eofftv.com), John J. Johnston (a cultural historian), Alan Barnes (co-author of The Hammer Story) and Jonathan Rigby (author of English Gothic), all discuss the film, knowledgably, and revealing some interesting facts about the movie. For example, although I did know that Dennis Wheatley hated the finished film, I didn’t know that Hammer were planning on casting Britt Ekland in their intended adaptation of Wheatley’s The Satanist, which I still think would make a great film, at least if it was ever produced by the right people.
Trailer (2 mins) – a decent enough trailer.