Sunday, 28 October 2007

To the Devil…a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil…a Daughter, released in 1976, is best-known for being the last horror film made by Hammer Studios. It was a commercial success, but it came too late to save the studio. Hammer had been trying desperately to update their image and to get away from the gothic horrors that had been so successful for them but were now starting to feel a little tired, and were also starting to lose their commercial appeal. Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula were attempts to bring their Dracula franchise into the modern world. Unfortunately they tried too hard to be superficially contemporary, with pop music and kids in outrageous (and now embarrassingly dated early 70s fashions. At the same time they felt like the old gothic horrors transplanted uneasily into modern settings. They failed to give Hammer’s image a modern feel and the company teetered towards ruin. Ironically, To the Devil…a Daughter shows that they were quite capable of making the sorts of films that would have allowed them to compete very successful against the new-style horror movies of the 70s. They’ve abandoned the studio entirely, the movie is set partly in modern Germany and mostly in modern Hollywood. It has a very gritty realistic feel. There’s lots of gore, and the violence packs a real punch. There’s also lots of sex, but the sex doesn’t have that traditional Hammer feel. It feels real, rather than being simply naughty. And they’ve assembled the strongest cast ever seen in a Hammer movie. Christopher Lee gives the best performance I’ve ever seen from him, as a renegade Satanist priest. It’s a very restrained performance, and the restraint gives it real menace. Richard Widmark plays an author of books about the occult who tries to stop this renegade priest’s nefarious activities. Widmark hated every moment of the filming and apparently made himself generally disliked. In spite of this he gives a good performance. Nastassia Kinksi is a young nun who only slowly realises she’s been dedicated to the power of darkness. She has to project a mixture of innocence, corruption, and depraved and earthy sexuality, which she manages with no trouble at all. As you’d expect. Denholm Elliott plays her father, a man who is unravelling more and more by the moment, jumping at shadows and completely overpowered by his fears. He always does such parts well, and he does this one extremely well. I’m always surprised, after Callan, to see Anthony Valentine playing a non-evil character. He plays a friend of Widmark’s who gets drawn into this struggle, while Honor Blackman plays his slightly hippie-ish much older girlfriend. They both acquit themselves admirably. There are also some familiar faces from Hammer’s glory days, like Derek Francis as the bishop.

There’s not much to the plot, but there doesn’t really need to be. It simply requires Widmark to stop Christopher Lee from creating an incarnation of the evil Aztaroth, which he intends to do through the nun Catherine (Kinski). Peter Sykes directs the film with flair and imagination. It looks good. It looks modern, but without making the mistake of looking too much of its period. The acting is superb. It should have been an absolutely superb horror film. And mostly it is. The ending, though – to say the ending is anticlimactic would be putting it mildly. It’s as if they just got tired and decided to pack up and go home without bothering with a dramatic finale. Overall, though, this is a seriously underrated movie. If it didn’t save them, it at least allowed Hammer to bow out of horror on a high note.

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