Hammer Productions/ Terra-Filmkust Produkt
Directed by Peter Sykes
Reviewed by Anthony C. Francis
The British film production company Hammer Films has been responsible for many old style horror classics. From the Dracula films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to their versions of werewolf and mummy films, Hammer films have stood the test of time and given horror fanatics many fine films. Their films were always infused with more sex and blood than American productions dealing with the same subjects. From the 1950’s through the end of the 1960’s, Hammer ruled the international horror cinema.
By the 1970’s their films were becoming too “old fashioned” for audiences, as the horror game was changing. Films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, It’s Alive, and the game changer of them all The Exorcist were taking horror films to new levels of gore and scares. The “stuffy” old school filmmaking done by the Hammer filmmakers was no longer enough to satisfy hungry audiences in the early 1970’s.
In 1968 Hammer released one of their finest films, The Devil Rides Out starring their biggest actors, Christopher Lee. The film is an extremely terrifying and creative film about two friends trying to save a third from a Devil cult. It was a huge success for Hammer, and in the mid-seventies, as the studio was facing the fact they were becoming dinosaurs in the film industry, they decided to return to the occult theme and try to cash in on the current wave of successful films dealing with the occult.
The Devil Rides Out was based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley who wrote a very profitable series of novels surrounding Black Magic. Wheatley was pleased with the outcome of the film version of The Devil Rides Out and gave Hammer the go ahead to film another one of his books. The studio chose To the Devil a Daughter, a novel about a writer trying to save a young nun from being possessed by Satan.
It was late 1975 and by that time Hammer was having difficulty raising money for their productions. They found co-funding through German production company Terra-Filmkust and the pre-production began.
After hiring a fairly unknown director, Peter Sykes, casting came easy. Hammer studios mega star Christopher Lee was tapped to play the lead role of excommunicated, Devil worshiping priest Father Michael. Lee accepted the role, as he enjoyed his experience with the earlier Wheatley adaptation and he thought this new film could both entertain and show the evils of dealing in Satanism.
The supporting cast was filled with some of the finest character actors in Britain such as Denholm Elliott, Michael Goodlife, Anthony Valentine, and “Pussy Galore” herself, Honor Blackman.
Due to half of the production money being German, the filmmakers were forced to hire a German actress for the role of the young nun. Amazingly, before they were told to cast a German, Olivia Newton-John was the first choice for the role! Nastassja Kinski was hired on the basis of “her virginal charm mixed with an underlying sensuality” due to the fact that the later part of the role would require a twisted sexuality and a scene of full frontal nudity. Kinski’s nude moment caused a stir, as she was only fifteen at the time of filming. The director tried to get her father, madman extraordinaire Klaus Kinski, to take the role as the writer. When asked to do the role Klaus Kinski replied, “if it will not be more than ten days I can do it. Any more than that and you will get the insane man you read about in the papers.” Needless to say, Klaus was out and the production managed to snag film legend Richard Widmark.
The story, messy as it is, revolves around Christopher Lee’s Father Michael who is trying to track down the daughter of a man who, years earlier, tried to save his dying wife. He made a pact with the devil to turn over his daughter, once she comes of age, to allow Satan to inhabit her and walk the Earth.
Denholm Elliot plays the father of the girl and he gives a solid performance as a man at his most desperate trying to save his daughter, himself, and the world. He finds Widmark’s character, a writer who is a scholar on the occult, and persuades him to help.
Widmark hides Kinski in his apartment in London but Lee has a psychic connection with the girl and eventually locates her and begins to unleash evil on all who stand in the way.
The “set up” sequences at the beginning of the film are well written and acted and the cast plays off one another well. Widmark does stand out a bit surrounded by classically trained British actors, but he does well. He did not take to the working styles of the U.K. and was rumored to be a hard ass on the set, alienating everyone, insulting the Brit’s work ethics, and even coming to blows with the Director of Photography. The entire cast has said that Widmark was not well liked nor was he welcomed back to the British film world.
Christopher Lee is the standout as the demented priest. He is at his creepy best and has many moments where he gets to deliver quite horrific monologues, telling his followers to sacrifice all in the name of their Satanic God. His character stops at nothing to bring Kinski to his “dark lord” and there are good scenes of Lee casting spells on certain characters involving snakes and fire.
After a solid build up the film brings the satanic scares in the later half as Lee and his followers come after the girl. There is not a lot of blood, but the deaths that occur are frighteningly potent and the atmosphere is properly evil. We see pentagrams, blood sacrifices, the birth of demon babies, and a horrifyingly blasphemous crucifix where the cross is upside down and a demon stands on it allowing it to penetrate him.
The cinematography by David Watkin, who shot Ken Russell’s satanic cult masterpiece The Devils, is stunning. There are gorgeous shots of still lakes and ponds at the German locations where they filmed the convent scenes. There are moments at those locations where some shots look like paintings. When the film moves to London the look becomes sharper and then darker toward the finale. Watkins’s work in this film is truly artistic.
The screenplay process proved to be problematic. Christopher Wicking, who wrote Scream and Scream Again and Murders in the Rue Morgue for Hammer, did the first shooting script. The director then hired Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, who wrote Ridley Scott’s debut film The Duelists, to give the script a punch or two more. Wicking was said to have been surprised when he saw the dailies and found scenes that he did not write.
All of the elements eventually came together, for better or worse, and for three quarters of the film we have one of the finest satanic horror movies ever made.
It was the ending that would provide an obstacle for the filmmakers and ultimately the movie going public.
Hammer executives were not happy with the ending, as they felt it had too much religious symbolism. For some reason they had no problem with all of the satanic symbols but, I digress. The ending, as originally shot, showed Lee standing inside a circle of blood next to an altar where Kinski is ready to accept Satan into her womb. Lee feels he is safe, according to the satanic bible, due to the ritualistic circle being shielded by blood. Widmark has discovered an ancient rock with the blood of Satan’s angels on it and wants to use it to destroy Lee and send the Devil back to Hell. Widmark throws the rock and hits Lee. Grabbing Kinski, Widmark runs to safety and we are treated to a scene of Lee being killed by lightning and falling to the ground in the pose of a crucifixion; a proper ending to be sure.
Alas, the director was forced to change it and was out of time and money. One of the editors carved out a silly and stultifying dumb ending which, to be fair, I should not mention due to spoilers. I will say that it is so inept that it almost destroys what came before it, almost. Dennis Wheatley was appropriately appalled when first seeing the bastardized ending. He since disowned the film calling it “rubbish.”
To the Devil a Daughter was a hit in Europe but never found an audience in the U.S. and has mostly faded from filmgoer’s memories. Rob Zombie has sampled lines from the film in two of his songs, “Black Sunshine” and “Super Charger Heaven”. Zombie has also stated that the film was an influence on both his music and films.
The great Anchor Bay released a special DVD edition in the early 2000’s to not much fanfare, however there is a very good retrospective documentary on the making of the film where many of the actors and the filmmakers give frankly honest interviews about their involvement. I hope a special edition for Blu Ray is not far off. Although the DVD was a good print, this film deserves a proper transfer.
The film was brutally criticized by nearly everyone who saw it for being exploitative and incoherent. One cannot argue with these criticisms but, at the same time, it is an enjoyable film.
In the annals of satanic horror, To the Devil a Daughter, minus the terribly misguided ending, is an unsung classic. It has a terrific cast, classy production values, and some chilling moments. Despite its flaws, the film is a strange horror classic that does have a place in horror film history.
Sadly, it was the final Hammer horror film to be produced and I find it to be a fitting epitaph.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars