TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976) Reviews and overview

 

To the Devil a Daughter was released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory in North America on December 17th 2019 with special features:

New Audio commentary with film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr
Dark Arts: Inside To the Devil a Daughter
To the Devil – The Death of Hammer
Theatrical trailer

Meanwhile, here is our previous coverage of the film:

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To the Devil a Daughter – aka To the Devil… a Daughter and Die Braut des Satans – is a 1976 British-German supernatural horror film, directed by Peter Sykes (Venom; Demons of the Mind; The House in Nightmare Park) and produced by Hammer Film Productions and Terra-Filmkunst.

Based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley, it was promoted as To the Devil… a Daughter and released on VHS in the US with the alternate title Child of Satan. The film’s score was by American Paul Glass (Lady in a Cage; TV series Night Gallery).

The movie stars Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman (FrightTale of the Mummy), Nastassja Kinski (Cat People; Blind Terror (2001) and Denholm Elliott (The House That Dripped Blood; The Vault of Horror; Supernatural: ‘Lady Sybil).

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Timid Henry Beddows (Elliott) approaches writer and expert on the occult John Verney (Widmark) to look after his daughter, Catherine (Kinski), who visits England once a year from her remote Bavarian convent.

It is Catherine’s 18th birthday, though she appears even more innocent than her young years suggest, holed away as she has been by the Order of the Children of the Lord and it soon appears than someone other than Beddows and Verney is keen to have her close to them.

Cue ex-communicated priest Father Michael Rayner (Lee), who it transpires is in charge of the weird cult and is actively seeking Catherine to become the avatar (incarnation) of one of the crowned princes of Hell, Astaroth. Battling against black magic, ancient rituals and a bunch of sombre Satanists, Verney battles to save the young girl from a diabolical fate…

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Review:

To the Devil a Daughter was Hammer’s final foray into horror until the lengthy hiatus was broken in 2010. The film followed Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and shows the production company fast running out of both ideas and budget. Rather more of the budget than anticipated was spent on securing American actor Richard Widmark for one of the lead roles (an obvious attempt to mimic Gregory Peck’s role in The Omen) – although he plays the part with a straight face and carefully delivered lines, it seems an unnecessary expense, as he was many years past his heyday.

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Christopher Lee‘s connections to the film stretch back to an earlier forged friendship with the author Dennis Wheatley, who wrote many books on subjects involving the occult. Lee offered the option of 1953 novel To the Devil a Daughter to Hammer with Christopher Wicking (Scream and Scream Again; The Oblong Box; Demons of the Mind) and John Peacock tasked with bringing the page to the screen.

The previous attempt by Hammer to adapt Wheatley’s works, The Devil Rides Out (1968) was both successful and highly thought of. Wheatley went to great efforts to ensure the accuracies of his references to Satanism and black magic, even going as far as to meet with practitioners, so the film had a significant amount riding on it for various parties.

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Alas, the film is something of a mess. Denholm Elliott acted much in the same manner as he did in Hammer House of Horror, with ham very firmly on the menu. It’s not that Elliott isn’t a capable actor, only that his performance is completely out of kilter with Lee’s. And Widmark’s.

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Indeed, every cast member gives the impression that they are wandering into each other’s films with characters disappearing (what became of all the other Satanists at the convent is not considered), plot lines being ill-thought-out and some crash-bang sequences sitting uncomfortably alongside what could politely be called structural padding.

The film dispenses with much of Wheatley’s novel in terms of plot, action and with some main characters all but being written out – the author was apparently incensed and insisted Hammer never touch his work again.

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Lee is in imperious form, clearly relishing the source material (“It is not heresy, and I will not recant!”), if not the script he’d been given. This line was sampled by Rob Zombie’s metal band White Zombie for the song “Super-Charger Heaven“. The movie’s title was also referenced by White Zombie in the song “Black Sunshine” (“To the devil, a daughter comes…”).

Widmark adds stability but yawns his way through – he does get some of the best lines though: “98 percent of so-called Satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing churchyards, and use the Devil as an excuse for getting some sex. But then there’s that other two percent. I’m not so sure about them.”

The ‘two percent’ line is delivered with great deliberation… though questions exactly how much of an expert in devil worship he is if he hasn’t considered this once or twice.

Hammer Horror Collection DVD Box Set

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And then there’s Nastassja Kinski. The daughter of acting genius/absolute mentalist Klaus (whom she was terrified of as a child and hated), she had had little on-screen experience, her only performance of note being in Wim Wender’s The Wrong Move. 

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Nastassja has lamented that during this period, she understandably felt exploited by the movie industry. In an interview with W magazine she said, “If I had had somebody to protect me or if I had felt more secure about myself, I would not have accepted certain things. Nudity things. And inside it was just tearing me apart.”

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In the film, Nastassja wheels out the lines she’s given with about as much belief as the audience accepts, it set her off on a successful acting career and gave Hammer the only thing, apart from Lee, with which to dangle a carrot to cinema audiences. Still, the film remains completely unwieldy.

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The ending is so abrupt you find yourself rewinding in case you missed something, the result of the lightning strike being just too similar to the finale to Scars of Dracula and a spent budget not allowing for anything more spectacular. It’s completely unsatisfactory but even divine intervention wouldn’t have saved the film from confusion and tedium.

Scenes of Satanic orgies, a wriggling newborn and Ms Kinski do not, admittedly, sound like tamer Hammer fare but their ability to spin a yarn had deserted them. The rise of far more shocking, realistic fare in America, from The Last House on the Left to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre left Hammer floundering in an attempt to keep up. Time has not assisted and the film exists now as a memento of the time and as a testament to how good much of their other work was in comparison.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA

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Other reviews:

“The staging of the murders, the occult manifestations and the climatic confrontation … are considerably enhanced by excellent camerawork and Bowie’s special effects, while Widmark and Lee – acting with more fervour than usual at this stage of his career – prove worthy opponents.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

“Sykes zooms all over the gloomy landscapes and the final results are pretty good if somewhat muddled.” John Stanley, Creature Features

” …Hammer’s willingness to go all in out distances any shortcomings to story, structure (the truncated and underwhelming ending is sad to watch), and narrative lapses. The norm of the time was to attract big names to horror, and To The Devil managed to score Widmark and Honor Blackman; Lee and Elliott were more attuned and accustomed to the Hammer vibe, so naturally they come off the best with the material.” Daily Dead

“Even Christopher Lee, who is used to appearing in spine-chillers beneath his dignity, seems uncomfortable … The film is not only painfully slow, it is also very nasty…” Daily Mail

“The original has been butchered by script and direction so that, despite excellent special effects, the movie emerges as second rate and a waste of its actors’ time and trouble.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

” … one of the most under-whelming “devil” movies made in the seventies and certainly a low-point for Hammer studios. Richard Widmark, a fine actor, is gravely miscast as the intrepid hero, and never registers much life, let alone personality. The move wastes time on peripheral characters (such as Honor Blackman’s) who amount to nothing…” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1970s

“The film’s unlikely trump card is Richard Widmark as a credibly sceptical supernatural investigator, who romps through the proceedings with a disarming stoicism … It’s a good deal more interesting than the rest of the possession cycle, but still a disappointment.” David Pirie, Time Out

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“Except for a hasty and unsatisfying climax, the movie isn’t really all that bad. It simply isn’t what fans had come to expect of Hammer.” Gary A. Smith, Uneasy Dreams

” …the finale registers well below socko climax standards.” Variety

To the Devil a Daughter Warner Terror Vision VHS

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Cast and characters:

Richard Widmark … John Verney
Christopher Lee … Father Michael Rayner
Honor Blackman … Anna Fountain
Denholm Elliott … Henry Beddows
Michael Goodliffe … George De Grass
Nastassja Kinski … Catherine Beddows
Eva Maria Meineke … Eveline de Grass
Anthony Valentine … David
Derek Francis … The Bishop
Constantine Gregory … Kollde
Brian Wilde … Black Room Attendant
Howard Goorney … Critic
Frances de la Tour … Salvation Army Major

Filming locations:

Munich, West Germany
Dashwood Mausoleum, West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire
Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire
Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
Heathrow Airport
Piccadilly Gallery, 32 Dover Street, Mayfair, London
St. Catharine’s Dock, Wapping
Tower Bridge, London

Offline reading:

English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby

The Facts About a Feature Film: Featuring Hammer Films by Marjorie Bilbow, was published somewhat belatedly, in 1978. It focused on the making of To the Devil a Daughter. Despite the Satanic subject matter, Bilbow’s ‘plain-speaking for beginners’ book was part of careers guide series intended for young people who might wish to join the ailing British film industry!

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio

The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films by Marcus Hearn

A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema by David Pirie

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