…and suddenly the screams of a baby born in hell!
Father Michael Rayner is excommunicated from the church for being a heretic, bent on bringing the Devil to life in human form. He organizes a cult that impregnates women in hopes that they will conceive the child who will lead Satan back to Earth. After witnessing the obscene, ritualistic birth of his daughter Catherine, Henry Beddows sells his soul to Rayner for protection. The mad priest plans to use Catherine when she turns eighteen in the plot to resurrect the Devil. As the day draws near, Beddows has second thoughts and decides to save his daughter, now a nun in Rayner's order. With the aid of a well-known occult author, John Verney, Catherine is temporarily freed. But Rayner's power infiltrates the life of Verney and those around him, resulting in death and destruction. It's not long before Catherine is back in the clutches of Rayner, and Verney must find a way of halting the Satanic ceremony and keeping the innocent young girl from becoming the bearer of Satan himself.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, while Hollywood glorified oversized bugs and made drive-in B picture horror fodder more silly than scary, the British were re-inventing the genre from the gothic ground up. Hammer and its erotic, exotic take on the legends of the macabre rejuvenated the dying monster movie and for decades, held the standard for sophisticated adult horror. But by 1976, Hollywood had caught up, and in more than one way surpassed the studio. Films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen brought terror up to date with realistic stories, mind blowing special effects, and decidedly mature themes. Once at the forefront, Hammer found itself in financial as well as artistic doldrums and needed a feature to challenge the current competition. Everything was gambled on To The Devil…A Daughter, an adaptation of a popular occult novel by famed British author Dennis Wheatley. The cast included Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee, who had been instrumental in bringing Wheatley's work to Hammer (and additionally had found great success with another adaptation, The Devil Rides Out). Rounding out the ensemble were Honor Goldfinger Blackman, Denholm Elliot, American star Richard Widmark, and then-unknown German actress Nastassja Kinski. Even with an incomplete script, filming commenced on Hammer's most ambitious and riskiest project ever. And it almost worked, both as a film and as a financial ploy. But success soon faded away as profits disappeared into foreign investors' pockets and the once mighty macabre maker closed its doors forever.
It's really too bad. To the Devil…a Daughter is a good indication that Hammer knew what to do in order to regain its prominence. While Hollywood continuously focused on fright as spectacle, the United Kingdom's notions of horror and suspense were draped in mythology and the sexual corruption of rite and rituals. There is genuinely disturbing imagery in To the Devil…a Daughter: sacrilegious crucifixes, graphic birthing scenes, and blood soaked infant demons. The acting is sublime, with Lee's profane gravitas balancing out Widmark's disconnected nonchalance nicely. Even Kinksi, not known as a gifted performer, is allowed to use her little girl lost in the big world of movie making naïveté to accent her damsel in demonic distress performance. Where the movie does stumble is in the scripting and narrative drive. The first 20 minutes seem disjointed and unconnected. Separate story lines are being explored and prepared for convergence, but waiting for them to interconnect is unsettling, but not in a good, dread-oriented way. Once it does gets going, the film builds a wonderful level of suspense and disquieting sick terror as blood flows, evil incantations and runes are revealed, and the psychotic world of fanatical Satanists is explored in all its detailed and deranged glory. Until the end that is, where we are again let down by the plotting as the cobbled-together conclusion flails without any of the pomp and circumstance the proceeding 90 minutes indicated would occur. To the Devil…a Daughter goes out with a psychedelic whimper, not an apocalyptic battle between good and evil.
Yet To the Devil…a Daughter is a very good film. It takes its subject matter and its presentation very seriously. In order to battle the American overkill mentality, Hammer ups the nudity and downplays the gore level, providing scenes of blasphemous sensuality and disturbing religious symbolism. Even though it bears little resemblance to the Wheatley novel (he was apparently so disgusted with the film he vowed Hammer would never make another of his literally hundreds of books into film), it still tells a fresh, frightening tale about devil worship and the power of black magic. The cast is pitch perfect, selling the pretense with natural and yet highly dramatic performances. It's too bad that To the Devil…a Daughter did not end up saving Hammer, but at least Anchor Bay offers a wonderful DVD presentation that is sure to win this title a number of new converts. Much of the information about the film and its effect on Hammer's fortunes comes from a marvelous documentary, co-produced by those champions of obscure cinematic extras Blue Underground, called To The Devil…the Death of Hammer. While short (it is only 23 minutes long), it does a thorough job of covering the circumstances that resulted in Hammer having to close its doors, even as To the Devil…a Daughter was breaking box office records. Anyone who is a Hammer fan or enjoys hearing backstage stories about troublesome actors (Richard Widmark, from cast and crew reminiscences, comes off as giving jerks a bad name) and project development will enjoy this material. Let's face it, any chance to hear Christopher Lee speak honestly about his career and performances is worth the price of the disc.
Anchor Bay ups the ante by presenting To the Devil…a Daughter in a stunning 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that literally brings the film back from the video dead. Preserving the aspect ratio is crucial to the film, as director Peter Sykes employs the camera and the frame to suggest and accentuate the themes and screams within the film. Aside from some inherent print defects, this is a beautiful image that lovingly pays its respects to the movie. Too bad the sound is only Dolby Digital Stereo, without any real use of the channels or surround advances. Standard Hammer soundtracks were dialogue, muted Foley effects, and the occasional symphonic underscoring, so nothing is horribly undermined in the underwhelming aural presentation. But several instances where hellacious hellspawn hurricanes confront our main characters would have benefited from a completely remastered and configured sonic palette. Otherwise, this is another lost jewel in Anchor Bay's Hammer Collection crown. To The Devil…a Daughter may be confusing, and occasionally undersell its subject with weak scripting, but overall it is an intense, impressive final offering from this once mighty movie studio. Fans of the occult and wicked works emphasizing the Nature of the Beast will find it to be a spine chilling, frighteningly realistic look at those who would sell their soul to serve the sour fallen angel in the perverted pursuit of personal pleasure and gain. It is a fascinating, final Hammer film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Featurette: To the Devil...The Death of Hammer
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