Movie Review: TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)
By Michael Arruda
Welcome to the first ever SCREAMING STREAMING! movie review column, where I’ll be reviewing movies available on screaming— er, streaming video. I’ll cover a mix of old movies and new releases, as well as different genres, including horror, action, thriller, mystery, and comedies. Chick flicks?— no.
We begin with an oldie, the Christopher Lee/Hammer movie TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976), notable because it was Hammer Film’s last horror movie, that is, until its recent comeback film LET ME IN (2010). And that’s really all that’s notable about it. It was a flop back in 1976. I saw TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER several years after it was released, in the early 1980s on HBO, and I hated it. Other than Nastassja Kinski’s full- frontal nude scene, there was nothing memorable about it. In fact, as I sat down this week to watch the movie again, that’s the only thing I remembered about it!
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is a story about Satanists, which comes as no surprise, since it’s based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley, who also wrote the novel THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, also about Satanists, also filmed by Hammer in 1968, with the U.S. title THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, also starring Christopher Lee. Wheatley died in 1977 at age 80.
In TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, a distraught man, Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott) seeks out the help of an American occult novelist John Verney (Richard Widmark) to protect his daughter Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) from an evil Satanist, an excommunicated priest named Father Michael (Christopher Lee). It seems, years earlier, at Catherine’s birth, her parents made a “deal with the devil” promising the girl’s soul to Father Michael on her eighteenth birthday. Father Michael intends to hand over Catherine to Satan for reasons we can only imagine— let’s see, she’s 18 and beautiful, what do you think he wants her for? Sounds like a marriage made in Hell.
It also sounds like a plot I just saw in a movie a few years ago, THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008), as that film was also about parents who made a deal with Satanists to turn their daughter’s soul over to them when the girl turned 18, and in that movie the dad also changed his mind and tried to protect his daughter.
And that in a nutshell is the plot of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, as Verney vows to protect Catherine from Father Michael, and Father Michael vows to find Catherine and get her to the altar in time to make whoopee with Satan. Along the way there are some satanic goings-on by Father Michael and his cohorts, including the painful birth of a baby which they plan to sacrifice later. What is it about Satanists and babies, and why do they always want to sacrifice the little infants? I just finished watching DRIVE ANGRY (2011) on DVD starring Nicholas Cage, another movie about Satanists, and what did these folks want to do? Sacrifice a baby, only they picked the wrong baby, Cage’s granddaughter, and he’s not about to let that happen, which is why he’s driving angry.
Anyway, back to TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. In addition to the Satanic shenanigans, we also get to watch John Verney try to solve the mystery of what’ s up with Catherine, since her daddy wasn’t exactly truthful in his explanation of why he wanted Verney to watch over his daughter. Of course, Verney eventually figures everything out, being the intelligent occult novelist that he is, which sets us up for the final and dramatic confrontation between tough guy Richard Widmark and Dracula himself, Christopher Lee.
All of this sounds better than it actually is. Truth be told, age hasn’t really helped this movie. It’s still all rather dull.
A lot of the blame here falls on the shoulders of screenwriter Christopher Wicking, who wrote the screenplay. There really isn’t much of a story, which is why it’s so dull. Not much happens, and the little that does is painfully stretched out to fill the 90 minute running time.
The characters aren’t fleshed out. We know very little about the evil Father Michael. Christopher Lee is fun to watch, as he does evil as good as anybody, but Father Michael isn’t developed beyond being a bad guy. Lee looks like Dracula wearing a priest’s collar. Since Lee always looks good as Dracula, he looks good here, too, but other than being a straightforward evil baddie, he does little else. Compared to Lee’s Lord Summerisle in THE WICKER MAN (1973), a character who was chilling because he was an oddball who was difficult to gauge, Father Michael is a one-trick pony.
Richard Widmark’s occult author John Verney is dreadfully dull, about as boring a hero as you’re going to find in a horror movie. He has very little personality, and comes off as wooden as a fence post. Nastassja Kinski’s Catherine is also a bore. She hardly says two words, but she’s beautiful in this movie, and that’s probably all the filmmakers were going for here.
Some memorable dialogue would have helped this movie. Christopher Lee gets one of the best lines in the movie, and really, it’s memorable not so much because of the line, but because of the way Lee delivers it. After the woman has given birth to the Satanists sacrificial baby, Lee leans close to her and says with a smile, “You can die now.” It’s Lee at his evil best.
Christopher Wicking also wrote the screenplay for Hammer’s BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1971), Hammer’s final Mummy movie, and for the movie SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970), famous for the first-time triple teaming of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing, and also famous for being one of the most confusing horror movies ever made!) Storytelling with clarity doesn’t seem to be Wicking’s strong point.
Wicking died in 2008 at the age of 64.
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was directed by Peter Sykes, and he does an okay job at the helm. And, photography wise, the film looks good. It’s handsomely photographed and makes good use of some on-location filming in the German countryside. But in terms of memorable scenes, there’s nothing.
For a movie that compared itself in its original theatrical trailers to ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE EXORCIST (1973), it forgot one very important ingredient: it forgot to be scary, and that’s really the major problem with TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. It’s NOT scary. Not a good thing when you’re a horror movie about Satanists.
It’s no surprise then that Hammer struggled in the 1970s and eventually went out of business. Their style of movies couldn’t compare to the other horror movies of the 1970s. Just look at THE EXORCIST, for example. Besides the obvious, that THE EXORCIST is scary, it also has realistic and very memorable characters. Father Karras (Jason Miller), for instance, seems like a real person. The characters in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER don’t seem real at all.
If there’s a reason to watch TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, it’s the cast, which is the best part of the movie. Father Michael may be a one-dimensional character, but Christopher Lee at least makes that one dimension— evil— fun to watch. Over the years, nobody has done evil as well as Lee, and in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, he’s at his evil best. Plus at this point, pretty much anything Lee has done is required viewing. Just don’t expect THE WICKER MAN.
Richard Widmark runs hot and cold as American author John Verney. When he’s doing his “tough guy” routine, and he gets to be physical and fight, he looks more at home. When he’s talking about the occult and Satanists, he seems out of place. He also doesn’t really sound like an author. He sounds like a police detective. Widmark died in 2008 at 93.
Honor Blackman (Miss Pussy Galore herself from GOLDFINGER (1964), and from THE AVENGERS TV show (1961-69), is on hand as Verney’s agent Anna, and she adds style and class to the proceedings with a very good performance.
Denholm Elliott as scared daddy Henry Beddows gives the best performance in the movie, other than Christopher Lee. He seems scared to death throughout. Elliott died in 1992 at age 70.
And while Nastassja Kinski is beautiful in this movie, her performance is blah, and other than her beauty, she doesn’t stand out a bit.
But in spite of its strong cast, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is slow and dull. Hammer had much more success with their other Dennis Wheatley film, THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, but of course that one was directed by their best director, Terence Fisher, and Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER can’t boast of such talent.
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is a mixed bag, with very little to offer other than Christopher Lee’s demonic performance. Of course, there IS that Nastassja Kinski full-frontal nude scene.
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda