Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Devil Rides Out (1968) - Blu-Ray

Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out is one of the most lavish of the horror movies made by Hammer Films, and certainly one of the best. I’ve seen it before but its release on Blu-Ray makes it worth a revisit.

This is a tale, based on a terrific Dennis Wheatley pot-boiler, of the dangers of meddling with Dark Forces. Christopher Lee knew Wheatley quite well and was keen to do a film based on one of his books. He persuaded Hammer to obtain the rights to Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. The result is a movie that differs quite a bit from Hammer’s other gothic horror outings. in this case Lee’s judgment proved to be right on the money.

With Hammer’s usual array of talent behind the camera, with their ace director Terence Fisher at the helm, a fine cast headed by Christopher Lee and a script by Richard Matheson nothing was left to chance.

Christopher Lee plays the slightly arrogant but charismatic Duc de Richleau, and this time Lee is definitely one of the good guys, battling the Forces of Darkness. While de Richleau is something of as control freak that proves to be an asset, given the strength of the evil forces with which he must do battle. He is assisted by Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) who provides the brawn to match de Richleau’s brains.

Their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has landed himself in a good deal of trouble. He has been dabbling in black magic and he’s in much deeper than he realises. He has become part of a coven controlled by the powerful magician Mocata (Charles Gray). It is obvious to de Richleau that drastic means will have to be taken, with or without Simon’s co-operation. The situation is complicated by the presence within the coven of a young woman named Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi). Mocata uses her as a medium but now Rex is falling in love with her so de Richleau is going to have to rescue her as well as Simon from Mocata’s clutches.

Mocata is not averse to using strongarm tactics but for the most part he prefers to attack the heroes with the weapon with which he is most comfortable - magic. It will come down to a show of strength between Mocata’s black magic and de Richleau’s equally formidable knowledge of the occult, and to a classic battle between good and evil.

It can be a very effective tactic to suggest the supernatural elements rather than showing them overtly. That tactic would not have worked in this case. It is essential to the story that there should be no ambiguity - that the audience should know that the powers of darkness called upon by Mocata are very real. Director Terence Fisher therefore had to make the supernatural elements absolutely explicit and we had to see them at work. Given Hammer’s budgetary constraints and the technology of the day that was a bold move but in general the effects are carried off successfully. The car chase in which Mocata aids Tanith from afar is a nice touch and it’s executed flawlessly.

Dennis Wheatley was a writer of occult thrillers rather than horror novels. The distinction is subtle but important. It means that this film could not be approached in the manner of Hammer’s horror films and it meant that an outright gothic style would have been inappropriate. To their credit the people at Hammer realised this and made the necessary adjustments. Terence Fisher was aware that he was making a thriller and he adjusts the pacing accordingly - a thriller needs to move faster than a gothic horror movie.

Hammer’s genius production designer Bernard Robinson (described quite accurately by Christopher Lee as Hammer’s real star) was no doubt delighted by the chance to get away from central European settings and to create sets that evoked the moneyed classes of the interwar years. The sets aren’t gothic but there is a definite hint of decadence. It’s a world of power and money and of people who sometimes have more power and money than is good for them. Robinson’s sets are superb. The observatory in Simon Aron’s house is a particular highlight - it exudes both luxury and evil.

A movie such as this needs the right actors and this movie is well served in this department. Charles Gray makes a wonderfully sinister villain, oozing sinister charm from every pore. Patrick Mower was very good at playing abrasive characters but Simon Aron isn’t like that at all. He’s a well-meaning young man but inexperienced in the ways of the world and desperately anxious to prove himself. He’s not a fool - if he was de Richleau would have left him to his fate. Mower makes Simon sympathetic without being excessively irritating in his naïvety.

Most all such a movie needs the right lead actor and Christopher Lee is perfect. The Duc de Richleau is slightly pompous and has more than a touch of arrogance but he is a very serious adversary for the powers of darkness. He takes the occult very seriously indeed. It is no joking matter, which is why it is so dangerous for people like Simon Aron to meddle in it. Lee’s performance has the gravitas and the absolute sincerity required, and the larger-than-life quality to convince us that victory is possible despite the odds.

You can’t play Dennis Wheatley in a tongue-in-cheek manner. If you try to do so the whole thing will simply collapse and in any case Wheatley’s plots are so outlandish that such an approach would be counter-productive. You just don’t need to add any outrageousness to a Wheatley story.

Visually this movie is a feast. Vintage cars, vintage aircraft, gorgeous clothes, sumptuous settings, Black Masses, satanic manifestations, car chases and all awash in the most magnificent colours.

The old Anchor Bay DVD was very good but the Studiocanal Blu-Ray/DVD combo is well worth upgrading to. Extras include the old audio commentary from the earlier DVD release (with Christopher Lee in fine fettle and displaying immense enthusiasm for a movie he is clearly still very proud of) plus a couple of documentaries. All in all a fine release for one of the Hammer’s greatest movies. Very highly recommended. 

Screencaps are from the DVD, not the Blu-Ray.

This was one of two Dennis Wheatley adaptations Hammer made in 1968, the other being the not entirely successful but still rather interesting science fiction movie The Lost Continent.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds is one of producer George Pal’s celebrated science fiction opuses and remains the best cinematic version of the story.

Paramount had purchased the film rights in the 1920s, apparently at the instigation of the studio’s co-founder Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille would act as executive producer of the film when it finally when into production.

The original H.G. Wells story was of course the first of the great alien invasion stories. The decision to update the story to a contemporary American setting for the movie works surprisingly well.

A meteor crashes to Earth. Astrophysicist Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) happens to be nearby on a fishing trip and is called in to have a look. He realises immediately that there is something decidedly odd about this meteor. In fact everything about it seems wrong and it’s also highly radioactive. The local sheriff posts men to stand watch over the meteor and that turns out to be a fatal assignment when the meteor opens up and a huge mechanical eye appears and promptly zaps them.

The meteor is of course a spaceship, the first of an invading fleet from Mars. The invaders seem unstoppable. The military are called in but nothing seems to be able to do the slightest damage to the hovering machines of the Martians. Dr Forrester has teamed up with a local school teacher, Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson), and while he’s still keen to try to find some way to combat the Martians it’s all he can do to keep himself and Sylvia alive.

More Martian war machines have been lading all over the world and the same story is repeated everywhere. Nothing can stop them. Only a miracle can save humanity. But will there be a miracle?

It’s a good story but making it a success on the screen obviously depended on getting the special effects right. Fortunately getting the special effects right was one of the things George Pal was good at. Pal hired the right people and he got the results. Much of the success of this particular movie was due to art director Al Nozaki who designed the Martian war machines. Wells had envisaged them as tripod machines but Nozaki gave them a 1950s Space Age look. They looked mightily impressive in 1953 and they still look superb today.

Having Oscar-winning cinematographer George Barnes on board certainly helps as well. He makes full use of the abilities of Technicolor film to give the movie the right kind of brilliantly vibrant up-to-date look while still managing to give plenty of atmosphere to the scenes of destruction. Director Byron Haskin would go on to make several classic movies in the sci-fi and fantasy genres and he handles things here to perfection.

Paramount spent some serious money on this film and it pays dividends. It looks impressive and it looks convincing.

Barré Lyndon’s screenplay makes plenty of changes to the novel but it keeps most of the essential elements.

Gene Barry makes a splendid hero. Dr Forrester is heroic, but not too heroic. He’s not a larger-than-life scientist hero who can overcome all obstacles. He’s really just an ordinary guy doing what he has to do to ensure his own survival and that of the woman he loves. Barry’s easy-going charm makes him a protagonist we can empathise with. Ann Robinson provides good support and they have enough chemistry to carry off the romantic sub-plot without any difficulties.

Paramount’s Region 2 DVD provides a superb transfer. There are no extras apart from some brief liner notes.

The War of the Worlds is one of the great science fiction movies of the 50s, or of any age for that matter. A true classic that stands the test of time with ease. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Werewolf (1956)

The 1956 release The Werewolf was another of producer Sam Katzman’s 1950s low-budget horror films, included in Sony’s terrific four-movie Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection. 

The Werewolf is an attempt to update the lycanthropy concept by throwing in some pseudoscience and some 1950s obsessions.

A stranger appears in a small American town somewhere in the mountains. Soon afterwards a grisly murder occurs - the victim’s throat appears to have been ripped out by an animal but a witness says it was a man. Things start to get really worrying when Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Clovey (Harry Lauter) is attacked. He describes his attacker as a kind of wolf-man. 

Pretty soon the town is close to panic and there are lots of guys with rifles running about the woods.

Then a woman turns up, looking for her missing husband. Duncan Marsh had been slightly injured in a minor road accident and treated by two doctors.

We soon discover that the two doctors, Dr Morgan Chambers (George Lynn) and Dr Emery Forrest (S. John Launer) are actually part-time mad scientists. Dr Chambers is convinced that the world is going to be destroyed by radioactive fallout. He and Dr Forrest have developed a vaccine for radiation but it seems to have side-effects. Like turning people into werewolves. In the 1950s radiation was responsible for just about everything from giant killer insects to dandruff, and in this case it is (indirectly at least) responsible for lycanthropy!

The town’s sheriff, Jack Haines (Don Megowan), is a pretty reasonable sort of fellow and he wants if possible to bring in werewolf Duncan Marsh alive. Unfortunately Drs Chambers and Forrest have now arrived in town and they are determined that Duncan Marsh must die so they can continue their vital work.

This is actually a pretty downbeat sort of movie. Poor Duncan Marsh was just some poor slob who was unlucky enough to have a car accident. Now he’s a monster and he’s being hunted down. He’s about as tragic a monster as could be imagined and Steven Ritch’s somewhat overwrought performance goes all out to engage our sympathies.

The fact that everybody in town owns a gun and is at home in the mountains makes this a movie where the monster really has the odds stacked against him big-time. That helps in making the monster even more sympathetic but it also tends to make the werewolf a lot less scary than he should be.

The two mad scientists are interesting, Dr Chambers being a typical idealistic scientist whose obsessions have rendered him totally deranged while Dr Forrest seems like a gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

While the movie tries to give werewolves an up-to-date scientific veneer it does add one amusing nod to the classic horror movies of the 30s - it actually includes a villagers with flaming torches scene.

The werewolf makeup looks reasonable and has the advantage of allowing Steven Ritch to show some emotion but the transformation scenes are decidedly dodgy.

There’s plenty of location shooting and the movie in general doesn’t suffer too severely from a low-budget look. Fred F. Sears was not a great director but he does fairly well here, and most importantly the movie is quite well-paced. The climactic scenes on the bridge are reasonably effective.

The transfer is 16x9 enhanced (the movie was shot widescreen) and image quality is excellent.

The Werewolf is a bit lacking in genuine chills but it does follow the pattern established in Universal’s classic The Wolfman in portraying werewolves as victims rather than mere monsters. It’s not a great horror movie but it’s enjoyable enough. Recommended.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

Creature with the Atom Brain is another delightful sci-fi/horror concoction from Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman boxed set.

This is a mad scientist movie written by Curt Siodmak. The mad scientist in question is Dr Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gay) and of course he’s working on ways to bring the dead back to life. The money for his experiments is provided by gangster Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger). Buchanan was sold down the river by his fellow mobsters and he wants revenge on them and on the District Attorney who got him deported from the United States.

This movie hits the ground running with a splendid opening sequence in which a zombie-like heavy disposes of a gangster by snapping his spine like a twig and then escaping through an open window even though he’s been shot multiple times. When the police arrive on the scene they think they’ve struck it lucky - there are plenty of very clear fingerprints. The only problem is that the prints belong to a minor hoodlum who died twenty-four days earlier. Also puzzling for police scientist Dr Chet Walker (Richard Denning) is the fact that the fingerprints are luminous. And the blood found at the crime scene is not blood but a chemical compound. And sure enough (this being a 1950s sci-fi/horror movie) a Geiger counter reveals very high levels of radioactivity.

It doesn’t take Chet Walker (who is rather brighter than most sci-fi movie heroes) long to figure out that someone is using dead men as atomic-powered remote-controlled killers.

When a rather jumpy scientist-looking guy with a strong German accent leaves traces of radioactivity behind him in a bar Chet Walker is close to putting the pieces together. The guy in the bar was clearly a German mad scientist and he must be the man behind the terror that is now stalking the city.

Steigg and Buchanan also don’t take long to figure out that Walker is on their trail and must be stopped. Their anxiety to stop Walker becomes extreme when Walker calls in the military and has trucks cruising the streets equipped with radiation detectors. For good measure Walker has also persuaded the Air Force to have jet fighters overflying the city at low altitude. It’s never quite clear what purpose the jets serve but they do shake up the bad guys a bit.

The plot plays out pretty much as you’d expect with the bad guys hunting Dr Walker while he’s hunting them.

The acting is pretty basic. Gregory Gay makes a passable mad scientist although he doesn’t overact quite enough. Michael Granger’s performance as gangster Buchanan is serviceable enough and is suitably hard-boiled. Richard Denning is stunningly but amusingly condescending as Chet Walker although he seems a bit too bookish to be a police scientist. He does manage to come across as very professorial though. This is a movie that would have benefited greatly from the presence of at least one iconic horror star who could have added some real colour and menace to Dr Steigg but sadly the budget was too limited to stretch even to a second-rank star.

The necessary infodumps to explain the zombie killer are handled in typical 50s fashion with a professor showing a short film to Dr Walker. The technobabble is of a high standard; in other words it makes no sense at all but it sounds very scientific.

The secret to making this sort of film succeed is to utilise ideas that don’t require too much in the way of special effects and this movie gets away with virtually no special effects at all.  There is some reasonable cool-looking gadgetry and Steigg’s mad scientist laboratory is quite impressive. The tunnel connecting the main laboratory to the room where the zombies are kept is a nice touch and is a good example of the use of ideas that look good but cost almost nothing.

There’s very little in the way of makeup for the living dead men with the creepiness having to be supplied by having the actors shuffling around and acting even more woodenly than the rest of the cast. Considering the movie’s very low budget it’s a fairly effective if not very original technique.

The transfer is very good. The movie was shot in black-and-white and is presented fullframe which is perfectly correct. 

Creature with the Atom Brain does not reach any great heights but it provides pretty reasonable entertainment value. Recommended.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Colossus: The Forbin Project qualifies as both a science fiction movie of the “computers will one day turn against us” variety and a Cold War thriller. Released in 1970, this is a very fine movie whichever genre you assign it to.

Dr Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is the scientist responsible for designing and building Colossus. Colossus is a super-computer and it’s intended to take charge of the defence of the United States. With nuclear war being an ever-present danger the idea is to eliminate the possibility of human error inadvertently causing such a war. Colossus has no emotions and cannot make mistakes. Surely it would be much safer to leave any decision as to how to respond to a threat of war in the hands of an infallible machine rather than an all too fallible human being?

The idea of Colossus is one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” notions. Once Colossus is activated the President of the United States can relax knowing that nothing can go wrong. 

Of course you won’t be surprised to hear that in fact something does go wrong. In fact it goes wrong within minutes after Colossus is activated. Colossus announces that it has detected the existence of “another system” and that it wishes to make contact. What should have caused much greater concern is that Colossus is not so much making a request as issuing an order. The “other system” turns out to be a Soviet counterpart to Colossus, known as Guardian.

The President of the US and the Chairman of the USSR are not too happy about this but Dr Forbin persuades the that it would be best to agree to the request. Dr Forbin is not worried. He knows that nothing can go wrong, because he created Colossus. Despite its vast computing powers Colossus is incapable of independent thought, so there can’t really be any danger. At this point the alert viewer might be inclined to start doubting Dr Forbin’s judgment. After all he has been telling everyone about Colossus’s practically limitless learning capacities and its entirely limitless capacity for accumulating data. And Colossus has after all been designed to make decisions on its own initiative. You might think that a computer with limitless learning ability that has been designed to make decisions is already perilously close to being a machine that can think for itself and you might also think that perhaps it’s just a tiny bit rash giving such a machine control of the whole of the US nuclear arsenal. You might further ponder the wisdom of allowing said machine to establish direct contact with a similar computer that has control of the whole of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Dr Forbin however is still confident that Colossus poses no danger. Well, fairly confident. He does admit that Colossus might not actually be under human control any longer but he is still sure there’s nothing to worry about.

It doesn’t take very long before there is most certainly something to worry about, when Colossus and Guardian start launching missiles. They promise to abort the missile launches as soon as the US and Soviet governments agree to start taking their orders from the two computers.

Now even Dr Forbin is worried. Very worried. And things just get more and more worrying. Colossus-Guardian is no longer a super-computer. Now it’s a kind of a cross between a world dictator and a god. But it’s OK, because it’s all for our own good. Colossus-Guardian has realised humans cannot be trusted to run their own affairs, so it intends to run our affairs for us. As Dr Forbin soon discovers, running our affairs includes telling us when to go to sleep, when to exercise and how much to drink. Dr Forbin now finds he has created the ultimate Nanny, and Nanny most definitely knows what is best for us. Anyone who doesn’t wish to obey Nanny will be liquidated.

This movie is to a considerable extent another reworking of Frankenstein. The parallels to Mary Shelley’s great novel are in fact very close. Dr Forbin is very much like Dr Frankenstein, an idealistic scientist with a burning desire to help mankind but with rather poor judgment and a chronic inability to recognise the danger of his creation, combined with an inability to admit he may be mistaken until it is too late. Colossus is very much like Dr Frankenstein’s monster - not inherently evil but combining superhuman strength with a frighteningly childlike view of the world. And like a child being inclined to rage if thwarted.

There’s also an obvious anti-totalitarian message. A totalitarianism that is imposed upon us “for our own good” is every bit as unpleasant as any other kind of totalitarianism. Possibly even worse, since people (or machines) that know what is good for us are not content with mere power; they want to micro-manage every aspect of our lives.

This was a big-budget movie and it showcases some stunning sets combined with what were for the time some cutting-edge technical innovations such as filming scenes simultaneously on two different sets with the characters on the two sets communicating with each other on videophones. There are very few outdoor scenes, which could have resulted in a rather static and dull feel but director Joseph Sargent avoids those dangers with plenty of camera movement. In fact the enclosed feeling that results from most of the action taking place in a couple of sets contributes to the growing feeling of paranoia and entrapment.

Eric Braeden is impressive as the well-meaning Forbin who really is a decent kind of guy who just happens to have made an error of judgment that might spell the end of civilisation. He’s a very believable scientist, arrogant in a manner that in some ways makes him just as childlike as Colossus. Susan Clark plays is chief assistant but is sadly miscast and completely unconvincing as a scientist.

This movie dates from an age that was starting to view computers as a potential threat to human freedom and even human survival and can be compared to other science fiction movies of its era dealing with computers run amok, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Westworld and the somewhat notorious Demon Seed

A word of warning relating to DVD releases of this movie - the Region 1 is apparently a pan-and-scan version and should therefore be avoided. The Region 2 DVD from Medium Rare is in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and features a good anamorphic transfer. It also includes a director’s commentary track.

Colossus: The Forbin Project is an intelligent and thoughtful science fiction movie and it’s also a tense and gripping story. One of the best science fiction movies of its era. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

It was of course inevitable that having produced their own very successful versions of Frankenstein and Dracula Hammer would eventually turn their attentions to Universal’s other classic monster subject, the wolf-man. Rather than just remaking The Wolf Man they decided to do something a little bolder - adapting Guy Endore’s interesting and original 1934 novel The Werewolf of Paris. Unfortunately the themes of the book would probably not have lent themselves to Hammer’s approach to gothic horror and the screenplay by Anthony Hinds ended up having almost nothing in common with Endore’s novel.

The screenplay does however come up with a couple of reasonably effective twists on the werewolf idea. Director Terence Fisher was always attracted by stories that presented a conflict between good and evil and Hinds’ screenplay gives him plenty of scope to explore this conflict.

Universal's The Wolf Man established the werewolf as a tragic monster, doomed through no fault of his own. The Curse of the Werewolf follows the same pattern. A serving girl (played by Yvonne Romain) is raped by a beggar in prison. That’s bad enough, but the resulting child is born on Christmas Day, a circumstance that always involves the danger that the child will be exposed to evil influences (the idea being that a child born on the same day and at the same hour as Christ is an insult to Heaven).

The evil influences in this case go back before the conception of the child. It was the brutality and lust of the Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) that began the chain of unfortunate circumstances.

The child is adopted by the kindly Alfredo (Clifford Evans) who gradually becomes aware that there is something amiss with young Leon. A wise and sympathetic priest explains the workings of the curse - a werewolf is a man with a human soul and a wolf spirit constantly at war with each other. The outcome of the struggle is always uncertain, with both damnation and redemption being possible. This is an idea that allows Fisher to explore the good/evil dichotomy in a single individual.

To add to the tragedy, even as a boy Leon is not unaware of the struggle for dominance between good and evil being waged within him. As he grows up he, and everyone around him, tries to pretend that somehow the evil has been averted.

There are plenty of promising ideas here and Fisher makes the most of them.

Oliver Reed plays Leon as a man and of the various rôles he played for Hammer in the early 60s this is the most demanding, and the most rewarding. Reed could be menacing and he could be very dark indeed but he could also be very sympathetic and this part gives him the opportunity to show his full range as an actor. Most importantly Reed has that indefinable quality that makes a true star - the ability to dominate the screen.

While I don’t wish to take anything away from Lon Chaney Jr’s fine performance in The Wolf Man there’s no question that Oliver Reed was the better actor and he adds extra layers of complexity to the doomed hero. One cool thing about this movie is that to play Leon as a boy Hammer found a child actor who looks exactly like a child version of Oliver Reed!

Fisher knew that the problem with any werewolf movie is that even the best werewolf makeup can look a little silly so he wisely refrains from revealing the werewolf until very late in the picture. Most of the horror is portrayed indirectly and as so often this has the effect of making it all the more effective. Suggested rather than overt horror is always more frightening, especially when you’re dealing with a tragic monster. The fact that we don’t see Oliver Reed in the full werewolf makeup until the end helps us to regard Leon as a man and not a mere monster. The makeup effects aren’t spectacular but they do have the advantage of allowing Reed to express emotion. Fisher has enough sense to know that poorly executed transformation scenes have ruined many werewolf movies so he achieves the transformations in stages using cutaways rather than taking the risk of showing them directly.  

Fisher demonstrates his sure touch with the pacing of the film - it starts slowly but gradually accelerates until towards the end it becomes relentless. He also knows that some horror movie clichés should not be avoided - a villagers with flaming torches scene is not a cliché but a much-loved horror movie convention, so he includes one.

This movie was made by Hammer’s A-Team - Terence Fisher directing, Arthur Grant doing the cinematography and Bernard Robinson doing the production design. The result is a classy and stylish gothic horror movie with a fine sense of tragedy. Highly recommended.

Universal have done a good job with the DVD transfer (from their Franchise Collection Hammer Horror Series boxed set). The lack of extras is a little disappointing but the set is excellent value for money.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil a Daughter marked the end of the line for Hammer as far as horror movies are concerned. Rather ironic, given that the film was a major box-office hit. Many connoisseurs of Hammer’s movies consider this to be the worst of all their horror movies, and with good reason.

By the time this movie was made Hammer were certainly aware that the horror movie market had changed. To the Devil a Daughter was thus an attempt to make the sort of movie that audiences in the mid-70s seemed to crave. More specifically it’s an attempt to jump on the Exorcist bandwagon. Stylistically it marks an abandonment of everything that made Hammer’ films distinctive, and everything that made them good.

Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) is an excommunicated priest who has established his own church, the Children of the Lord, in Bavaria. Father Michael was excommunicated for heresy, although describing his views as heretical would be something of an understatement. The screenplay is a little obscure on the exact nature of his beliefs but his new church would appear to be a rather elaborate attempt to disguise out-and-out Satanism.

Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) is a nun in Father Michael’s church. She was adopted by two church members but once a year, on her birthday, she returns to England to see her biological father Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott). 

John Verney (Richard Widmark) is an American author who has achieved international success with his books on the occult. He is approached by a very agitated Henry Beddows with a request that Verney kidnap Catherine from the Children of the Lord in order to save her from a mysterious but very unpleasant fate. Verney, scenting a story that could provide material for a potential bestseller, agrees. With the assistance of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine) Verney succeeds in doing so but he seriously underestimates Father Michael’s powers. Verney is inclined to consider most Satanists as harmless if deluded eccentrics but he believes that a very small minority are truly dangerous. He realises too late that Father Michael belongs to that very small minority.

Of course we have no doubt right from the start that Father Michael intends Catherine to take part in some kind of forbidden ritual and we equally have no doubt that the ritual will be something rather nasty. Verney knows quite a lot about the occult but does he know enough to stop someone like Father Michael?

Hammer had had a major success with their 1968 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley had been delighted by the results and had given his friend Christopher Lee the rights to do film versions of several of his occult thrillers, free of charge. In fact Hammer’s version of To the Devil a Daughter has little to do with Wheatley’s novel and Wheatley was appalled by the film. Christopher Lee was equally appalled by the film, believing that many of the scenes added to the story were obscene and disgusting. I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Apart from being distasteful and crassly exploitative the screenplay is also garbled and worst of all the movie has an ending which is hurried and nonsensical.

This movie was an Anglo-German co-production (hence the choice of a German lead actress) and it seems to have made a lot of money for everyone except Hammer. Hammer were by this time having difficulties raising finances for their films and the financial deal they made on this occasion proved to be a very poor deal for the company.

The movie’s strong point is the superb cast. Richard Widmark hated every minute of the making of the film but he turns in a good performance. Christopher Lee is exceptionally sinister and malevolent. The young and very inexperienced Nastassja Kinski delivers a capable performance although her rôle requires very little of her. Denholm Elliott is excellent as the terrified and cowardly Henry Beddows. Honor Blackman and Anthony Valentine provide good support. It’s a dream cast but their efforts are largely wasted by the incoherent script (which gives the appearance that they were making it up as they went along which in fact was exactly what they were doing).

Director Peter Sykes had an undistinguished career and this movie suggests he was out of his depth.

Hammer were trying to match Hollywood with his movie and it does look quite expensive, with plenty of location shooting.

Hammer proved with this movie that they knew exactly what audiences wanted. It didn’t do them any good and to be honest if the company was going to have to make movies like this in order to survive it’s perhaps just as well that this turned out to be their final horror movie.

Anchor Bay’s DVD looks pretty good. Extras include a brief “making of” featurette that includes interviews with Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine (who has some amusing Richard Widmark anecdotes) and a rather embarrassed Christopher Lee.

To the Devil a Daughter marks a sad ending to the Hammer horror story. This one is best avoided unless you have a thing for crass Exorcist rip-offs.