If Hammer’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ gave Dennis Wheatley his finest cinematic outing (although the ratio of his prolific and entertaining output to film adaptations is still woefully out of kilter), then the Hammer production of ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ presents a thornier prospect for the reviewer.
It’s a film of two halves, that’s for sure.
The first half shapes up quite nicely. The opening sequence has Father Michael (Christopher Lee) excommunicated; “it is not heresy,” he muses as the rite is stonily intoned, “and I will not recant.” A title card transports us to Bavaria, twenty years hence, and Father Michael oversees nun Catherine (Nastassja Kinski)’s departure to Britain in the care of George and Eveline de Grass (Michael Goodliffe and Eva Maria Meineke).
Next thing, we’re at a book launch for a title on the occult by London-based American writer John Verney (Richard Widmark), who is approached by the decidedly twitchy Henry Beddowes (Denholm Elliott). Against the advice of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her partner David (Anthony Valentine), he agrees to help Beddowes – the reasons aren’t revealed until almost the halfway point – thinking there might be a new book in it.
Although the title is an effective pointer as to where the whole cryptic plot is headed, director Peter Sykes (in his second film for Hammer after ‘Demons of the Mind’) keeps the dynamics sufficiently mysterious to create at least 40 minutes’ worth of genuine tension, particularly when Beddowes – who turns out to be Catherine’s father – dismisses his servants and holes up in abject terror at his manor house, as if waiting for the end to come.
Meanwhile, Verney meets Catherine at the airport and extricates her from the grasp of her guardians. Installed at Verney’s swank apartment overlooking the Thames (high quality real estate porn, here), Catherine suffers nightmares while Verney, unable to contact Beddowes, starts putting together the pieces of the puzzle and realizes that not only has he got himself involved in Satanic shenanigans, but he’s put Anna and David’s lives at risk, as well.
So far, so good. The pace is decent, the production values as high as in any Hammer film and the mythology is intriguing. Rather the roll out the usual devil-worshipping clichés, the filmmakers have Father Michael and his minions as members of a sect devoted to Astaroth, one of the crowned princes of Hell, a creature usually depicted as a naked man holding a serpent (Sykes incorporates the male nudity in a clinically observed ritual and the snake in one of the film’s most effective scenes, where Michael uses the dark arts against Beddowes). The expositional scenes where Verney researches Michael’s background and his connection with the cult of Astaroth are played seriously.
Additionally, the performances are generally commendable. Lee is chilling, Widmark strikes the right note of pragmatism, Kinski is sultry and enigmatic, Elliott reins in his usual scenery chewing, and Blackman dependable in a role that, unfortunately, never quite lets her show just how charismatic an actress she is. On the minus said, though, Valentine is stilted and the presence of Frances de la Tour and Brian Wilde in pointless cameos imports the baggage of their sitcom personas. Still, no problems thus far that threaten to scupper things.
Sad to report, then, that come the second half things go – to use the kind of literary bon mot that inexplicably keeps me out of the pages of Sight and Sound – tits up. Michael’s ceremony to invoke Astaroth veers into sexploitation territory with a nude scene from Kinski (fifteen at the time of filming) …
… plus there’s some business with a demonic foetus that, while conceptually disturbing, is so obviously a finger-puppet that it becomes an object of unintentional comedy once it remains onscreen for longer than a split-second. Verney’s ability to interrupt of the ceremony, albeit theoretically explained, is laughable – particularly given Sykes’s decision to shoot the climactic moments in negative. Most lamentably, though, by this point all traces of tension, mystery and terror have dissipated.
For all its flaws, however, ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ was sampled in a White Zombie song – and that’s cool.