By 1976, the once mighty Hammer Films was seemingly running on fumes after an existence that spanned over forty years, but after delivering a string of horror and sci-fi movies throughout the 50’s and 60’s that would go on to be a significant game changer for their respective genres, it seemed that flickering flame was about to die out.
However, when you compare their last horror venture, To The Devil A Daughter, before finally shutting up shop in 1979, to other, similar films released in the same decade, you can begrudgingly see why, because after once changing the face of horror cinema with their full bloodied innovations with colour, blood and sex, Hammer themselves had become stodgy and dated compared to the bold, new filmmakers that were challenging the conventions they helped build.
Occult novelist John Verney seems to have found himself in a bit of a satanic pickle as he’s inadvertently placed himself in the crosshairs of defrocked priest Michael Rayner, a man who has devoted his life to worshiping the demon Asteroth and has set up the order of the Children Of The Lord as a way to provide a willing avatar to allow the creature to walk the earth. The key to all this brimstone-smelling brouhaha is Catherine Beddows, a young girl who has grown up as a nun within the order due to her mother’s allegiance with Rayner and is set to become the form that the demon will inhabit once all the pinickety laws and rules have been dutifully followed and all the supernatural red tape has been cleared.
It’s here where Verney has unwittingly become the fly in the ointment, as Catherine’s father – a sniveling coward who got unwittingly roped up in proceedings after he stumbled in on his wife getting knocked up by satanic forces – had asked him to pick up Catherine from the airport where she was supposed to be delivered to Rayner for the big ceremony that he’s painstakingly been planning ever since the girl was born. Suddenly dumped with a strange, teenage nun in his care, Verney starts to notice some suspicious, conspiracy style shit start to happen as an insensed Rayner starts utilising black magic to try and retrieve his prize, but while our reluctant heroes trendy writer friends start paying the price, he starts to get to the bottom of this macabre mystery.
However, he’d better get a move on, because Catherine’s nightmarish visions of the demonic sex and traumatic birth that both her mother and other followers have endured has placed her under some form of trance and has her wandering through London and right into Rayner’s clutches.
In hindsight, you could see why Hammer would have thought that To The Devil A Daughter was a viable movie to make, mostly because of a small, culturally insignificant flick that was released in 1973 that was called… oh I don’t know… the freaking EXORCIST, that had gone on to change the very face of horror cinema and had inspired a wave of similarly satanic panic-themed movies to sweep across the landscape. However, on top of that, the studio had met with success back in 1968 with an adaption of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, a devilish classic on par Night Of The Demon and so they reasoned why not take advantage of the trend and adapt another of the author’s books.
However, you only have to compared To The Devil A Daughter with that other, devil-child movie releases in the same year, The Omen, to see how behind the times Hammer had gotten. Whereas Richard Donner’s epically cursed blockbuster moved with confidence and conviction of a heavyweight boxer, mixing gruesome show-stopping spectacle with an agonisingly subtle sense of skin crawling dread, To The Devil A Daughter is altogether a duller, meandering affair that invites unflattering comparisons with every other, devil-themed movie around. It’s cult-based antics isn’t anywhere near as insidious and haunting as the ones seen in Rosemary’s Baby and its efforts to collide ancient supernatural horrors with modern, contemporary, trendy people much like William Friedkin achieved so well in The Exorcist comes across as clumsy despite some obnoxious, upper-class writer types. Even taken purely on it’s own merits, the film seems rather uncertain as how to merge all of its elements into one cohesive whole as Peter Sykes’ direction lacks any real drive as the movie languidly ambles through it’s ticking clock plot until arriving at a unsatisfyingly abrupt finale.
It’s a shame, because the flick boasts quite a starry cast with Christopher Lee cutting a fine figure as the villain as he stalks around in a priest’s garb, giving various items of religious iconography the satanic stinkeye every chance he gets. Elsewhere there’s more than capable support in the form of Richard Widmark’s rumpled lead, Denholm Elliot memorably cowering from everyone who enters his orbit and Honor Blackman’s doomed, smug writer; but the most noticable spot of casting is that of Nastassja Kinski who delivers haunting, but typically clothes-optional performance and its here that the movie faces its other problem.
Now, while I fully understand that movies about demonic cults (especially ones made in the 70’s) are supposed to be unsettling in its images of sexual depravity and general weirdness and the ones featured here are no exception as they contain creepy gold masks and the illusion of Lee whipping his butt out (actually a body double) for a bout of some highly disturbing satan-sex. But the fact that Kinski was a mere 14 when the movie was shot gives her role a legitimately distasteful feel that goes far beyond responsible filmmaking and makes her inevitable final act nude scene nothing short of abhorrent.
It’s not like it was even necessary to the plot, as the movie contains enough trippy, devil shit to get by, be it the messy aftermath of the birthing ritual or numerous hallucinations of a gloopy, demon foetus that looks like someone’s skinned a Boris Johnson-faced Muppet alive, but the dazed pace and the blatantly exploitative use of its female lead quickly defuses many of the plus points.
By the time the poorly put together climax rolls around (Verney essentially defeats his nemesis by merely throwing a sodding rock at him), To The Devil A Daughter has dissolved whatever muddled scares it had managed to amass leaving its audience to simply announce: to hell with it.
An inauspicious end to a titan of horror cinema – Hammer time, was decidedly over.