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.