All Hallow’s Lee: To the Devil a Daughter
Hammer films was in dire straits by 1976. Their brand of period Gothic horror was decidedly out of favor with the rise of films like ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE EXORCIST, and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Terence Fisher was retired, Peter Cushing was old and frail, and the many of the talented craftsman that had worked on their best pictures had left the company. To their credit, they had a reasonable plan to stay relevant. They hired older big name star Richard Widmark, they teamed him with Christopher Lee, and they adapted a Dennis Wheatley thriller which tapped into the same satanic horror fears that ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST tapped into quite successfully into TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER.
However, things didn’t work out as planned.
The plot of the film, as much as can be deciphered, finds excommunicated priest Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) leading a heretical religious order and sending Catherine (14 year old Natassja Kinski) for a visit with her father (Denholm Elliott) on the eve of her 18th birthday. Catherine’s father is having second thoughts about his deal with the virtual devil that is Lee and contacts writer John Verney (Richard Widmark), a writer of supernatural thrillers like Dennis Wheatley, for help in spiriting Catherine away from the satanists. Verney consents, with the promise that Denholm Elliott’s information will be the basis for a best seller, and then finds himself in a deadly battle with the dark arts conjured up by Michael Rayner as Verney is the only thing that stands in the way of making Catherine the living manifestation of the devil Astaroth and ushering in an age of chaos. A plan that involves satanic orgies, demonic babies, and rechristening Catherine in demonic baby blood.
Or something like that, anyways. The script is more than a bit of a mess and director Peter Sykes doesn’t do much to make the material interesting. It’s hard to believe that a character burning to death in demonic hellfire could possibly be boring, but this is proof of that. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER has much more adult material than Hammer’s other adaptation of a Wheatley novel, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, but it does nothing to really build up tension and John Verney and friends are pretty flat and uninteresting which contrasts sharply with the earlier adaptation which excels at those aspects. It has some memorably weird moments in the last third, and if naked 14-year old Natassja Kinski is your thing, this film delivers on that, but the journey isn’t worth the reward.
The primary culprit with the film, besides a dull script, is Richard Widmark. The idea was that this would be a big comeback for him. Instead, he looks utterly lost and uninterested in the material. Christopher Lee took a similar character in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and crafted one of his very best performances. Richard Widmark looks like he’s waiting for the breakfast special at Denny’s.
Arguably, the only person on set that knew precisely what they were doing is Christopher Lee whose professionalism and presence elevates everything he touches. It helps that he has some of the juiciest material and lines like “It is not heresy, and I will not recant!” Lee plays his heretic priest as a true believer and seems to be getting great joy out of completing his lord’s work. It’s just that his lord happens to be Satan in this case.
Unfortunately, Christoper Lee alone and some of the odd effects (did I mention demonic babies?), aren’t enough to save a meandering, listless, low energy film. It was the end of the line for Christopher Lee and the studio that made each other famous. Hammer had a few more films to make before shuttering their doors, but this was the end of the line for the Gothic horror tradition started by THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
The ironic thing is that Hammer was very close to hitting on a formula that would have revived the studio. Less than 3 months after TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was released, another film regarding a Satanic conspiracy, with black magic inspired setpieces, and an old Hollywood star looking to revive his career hit the big screens and made a bundle. Watching THE OMEN in contrast TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER reveals every single misstep. THE OMEN has the right star in Gregory Peck, who is clearly engaged in what is happening and has a clear character arc, the setpieces are excellent, with Hammer regular Patrick Troughton being the star of a particularly memorable sequence, and the plot is straightforward with clear stakes that never stands still or gets muddled.
Perhaps a stronger director or producer, or someone in a position in power with a clear vision, could have salvaged TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. No one with real vision and authority was apparently present in Hammer at that time, which perhaps makes the end of the line for the studio an inevitability. Christopher Lee showed he still had the chops that launched him and was still going strong as an actor or presence, but the without the likes of Anthony Hinds, Peter Cushing, or Terence Fisher to support him the studio had nothing left to give back. Like the climax, the studio’s day as a horror studio ended with a whimper.