To the Devil… a Daughter/Child of Satan (1976) **˝
If ever a movie were a case of too little, too late, Hammer’s To the Devil… a Daughter is it. The studio’s last horror film, and second-to-last film in any genre, To the Devil… a Daughter had languished for ages in Hammer’s pile of “one of these days” projects, as studio boss Michael Carreras had been unable to secure either funding or censor-board approval since acquiring the screen rights from author Dennis Wheatley in 1964. Then came both The Exorcist and a major censorship relaxation, and within a couple of years, the long delayed film suddenly looked like the key to staving off the final extinction of the studio. Now not only was it possible for the movie to get made, but the runaway success of imported horror films premised on the infernal suggested that To the Devil… a Daughter could provide exactly the sort of revitalization for which Hammer had been searching mostly in vain since about 1971. It took a while, but Carreras eventually secured backing from both EMI and the German Terra Filmkunst, enabling him to put up the largest nominal budget in Hammer’s history (although adjusting for inflation would probably yield a real-pounds figure rather below the top of the scale from the mid-1960’s), and of greater importance, the creative team assigned to the project were freed to abandon any semblance of the traditional— and by 1976, hopelessly obsolete— Hammer style. There would be a daunting procession of headaches and hassles before all was said and done, and the completed film would bear the scars of many of them, but nevertheless, it seems fair to say that To the Devil… a Daughter represents approximately the direction Hammer should have gone in back in 1972, when there was still a realistic chance of reinvigorating the company. But by the middle of the decade, the financial picture was so bleak, and the terms on which Carreras got his outside funding were so unfavorable, that Hammer was doomed even despite the extraordinarily strong box-office performance of the new film. Much like American International’s later experience with The Amityville Horror, Hammer scored its biggest hit in years, and yet managed to go bust anyway.
We begin with a bunch of Catholic churchmen performing some sort of ceremony which, to judge from the empty pews ranged out behind them, is closed to the public. The text for the rite is in Latin, but Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) helpfully clues those of us who didn’t go to private school in to what’s going on by grumbling in voiceover, “Excommunication… It is not heresy, and I will not recant!” Years later, Rayner appears to be running a convent on an inaccessible island in the middle of a Bavarian lake— a convent which I’m sure does not enjoy the official sanction of the Roman Catholic Church. There are big doings at said convent this day, for Rayner has come to collect a teenage novice named Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski, from Boarding House and the Cat People remake)— who happens also to be his goddaughter— and to meet up with the girl’s adoptive parents, George and Eveline De Grass (Michael Goodliffe, of Peeping Tom and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and Eva Maria Meineke), to put the girl on a plane to London. Catherine is to be escorted on the flight by a nasty piece of work called Kollde (Enter the Ninja’s Constantin de Goguel), who will hand her over to her biological father, Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott, from The House that Dripped Blood and The Boys from Brazil), when they arrive at their destination.
Henry Beddows himself has other ideas, however. Rather than meet Kollde and his daughter at the airport, he crashes the book-release party at the Piccadilly Gallery where occult novelist John Verney (Richard Widmark, of Coma and The Swarm)— obviously a stand-in for Dennis Wheatley himself— is grudgingly hobnobbing with friends of his agent, Anna Fountain (Honor Blackman, from Jason and the Argonauts and The Cat and the Canary), and her boyfriend, David (Anthony Valentine, from Tower of Evil and These Are the Damned). Beddows snags Verney, and shows him a set of photos of Catherine. We aren’t privy to the two men’s conversation, but it will gradually come out that Beddows was once part of a Satanist (or, more properly, Astarothite) coven headed by Father Rayner, and that he had pledged his daughter to the sect for some unholy purpose when she was born. Now that purpose is about to be effected, and Beddows has come down with a case of cold feet. Because Verney has a reputation as an expert on devil-worship, and as someone who takes the subject totally seriously, Beddows has come to him for aid in rescuing Catherine from the cult. Thus it is that Verney rushes over to the airport and introduces himself to Catherine as a friend of her father’s while Kollde is busy with a telephone call. Before her bodyguard can react, Verney spirits the girl away to his car and drives off with her. Kollde’s subsequent efforts to extract from Beddows the location of the safe-house to which he has dispatched his daughter gains him nothing but a bullet in the gut from the apostate’s revolver.
Naturally, returning to his apartment in London with a teenage nun in tow leaves Verney with a fair amount of explaining to do the next time he meets up with Anna and David, especially since Verney hopes to enlist their help in keeping Catherine out of the cultists’ hands. Matters are further complicated by the open disbelief of Verney’s friends in the reality of supernatural evil, and yet again by the fact that Catherine herself, having spent her whole life in a Satanic spiritual context, will be unlikely to take Verney’s side if she ever gets wise to what’s really going on. Meanwhile, Rayner can be counted upon to use every means in his power— and with Astaroth providing that power, the range of available means is quite considerable— to get Catherine back. The evil priest aims at something far greater than the usual soul-selling or human sacrifice, you see. With the help of the De Grasses, he hopes to turn Catherine into a physical vessel for Astaroth himself and initiate thereby the reign of the Devil on Earth!
Don’t come into this movie expecting a conventional Hammer production; you’re not going to get it. Instead, To the Devil… a Daughter represents a mostly successful attempt by the studio to duplicate the feel of the American films which were then eating Hammer alive at the box office, and it is the one horror movie the studio made during the 1970’s that seems truly contemporary in retrospect. Alas, its success in resembling The Omen and The Exorcist does not equate to success on other fronts. The movie’s gestation period was exceedingly troubled; Hammer had a hell of a time finding a director who wanted to helm the picture, star Richard Widmark was forever threatening to walk off the set and fly back to Los Angeles, and then of course there was the small matter of the screenplay. Director Peter Sykes considered the script he was given by credited screenwriter Chris Wicking to be completely unusable, and his first act upon taking over the project was to commission a new screenplay from Gerald Vaughn-Hughes. This was after the shooting schedule had been fixed, and consequently, Sykes found himself in the unenviable position of having to work without a completed script. Vaughn-Hughes would crank out about ten pages per day, and everyone else essentially just had to trust him to come up with something good. Astonishingly, this rather desperate approach worked fairly well for most of the movie’s duration, but things spiraled rather badly out of control during the final act. Vaughn-Hughes admits that he had little real idea of how his version of the story was going to end, and the conclusion he finally came up with, while it appears to have been suitably climactic and to have tied up all the threads of the story in a reasonably satisfactory manner, also bore an uncomfortably close resemblance to the ending of one of the later Dracula installments. The producers stepped in to insist that one Hammer horror film ending with Christopher Lee getting zapped by lightning was plenty, and there was evidently something of a mad scramble to come up with a substitute finale. The ending we actually got threatens to make a mockery of what had been up to then a perfectly respectable horror film, as the final face-off between Verney and Rayner proves nearly as underwhelming as the climax of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula— to which, incidentally, it bears at least as much resemblance as the original ending bore to that of Scars of Dracula or whatever it was! Other third-act miscalculations include a battle in a church between Verney and the ghost of Catherine’s mother (which gives Richard Widmark occasion for a display of overacting that would shame William Shatner) and a gratuitously sleazy scene meant to symbolize the entry of Astaroth into Catherine’s body (which is rendered as hilarious as it is filthy by the awesomely tacky rubber hand puppet that stands in for the arch-demon).
As for what makes To the Devil… a Daughter perfectly respectable for the first two thirds of its length, the most conspicuous strength, naturally, is Christopher Lee. The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably as well, however. Denholm Elliott is very convincing as a weak man who for once in his life has managed a legitimate act of bravery, only to have it bring catastrophe down upon him. Nastassja Kinski’s part isn’t terribly demanding, but she shows considerable ability for her age (she was sixteen when this movie was made— which, come to think of it, might make the newly released uncut DVD edition technically illegal under federal obscenity law), and she undoubtedly makes for the sexiest nun this side of the Convent St. Archangel. Even Richard Widmark makes a strong showing for himself, if we turn a blind eye to the unfortunate church scene. Finally, and of perhaps the greatest importance, To the Devil… a Daughter mostly resists the temptation to which most European Satanism movies succumb wholeheartedly— until that miserable, miserable demon-baby puppet shows up near the end, it steers clear of visible manifestations of diabolical power beyond the reach of its sorely limited special effects budget, and at no point does a man-in-a-suit Satan arrive on the scene to lay the audience low with uncontrollable laughter. For once, the Powers of Ultimate Darkness are permitted to maintain a little bit of dignity and self-respect.