Monday, 11 July 2011

To the Devil a Daughter (1976) - Peter Sykes

There's only a handful of Hammer films that I could really claim as firm favourites, and even fewer that I'd say were beautiful to watch. To the Devil a Daughter manages to tick both of those boxes for me though. After all, just like The Devil Rides Out (which if push comes to shove I'd say is my favourite Hammer flick), it's Christopher Lee in an adaptation of a story by Dennis Wheatley. It's not only that though, the cast is eclectic enough to make my mouth water. There's Richard Widmark proving that even in his twilight years he had a menace about him, and could slap people about with the best of them, Nastassja Kinski making up for what she lacks in acting chops by giving mid seventies Britain some full frontal nudity and Denholm Elliott giving a wonderfully nervous performance, as Denholm at his best always did. Then there's a gaggle of smaller roles filled by such actors as Honor Blackman and Frances de la Tour all of whom have little to do, but do it well.

Plot wise, Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) has been raised as a nun since childbirth by Father Michael (Christopher Lee). However it soon becomes apparent that things aren't quite what they seem, Lee for starters has set up a church that looks Catholic to the outside world but is actually worshiping a demon called Astaroth. For some reason or other Catherine's dad (Denholm Elliott) has agreed for her to give up her body on her eighteenth birthday so that Astaroth may walk the earth. You know like you do. As the day approaches Denholm bottles it and backs out of the deal, persuading occult writer John Verney (Richard Widmark) to take care of her while he tries to sort everything out.

Most of the above makes sense as you're watching it, but after that things start to get a little odd, and to be honest I normally struggle to keep up with some of the logic in the film. Lee is great as Father Michael, leering into the camera at every opportunity, he was a big star by now and this would end up being his last Hammer role. It's funny to think that two men in their sixties can be so entertaining when pitted against each other, but Widmark and Lee battling it out for Kinski's soul are the real high points of the film.

It's almost inevitable that the The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter will always be intertwined despite being made some eight years apart, since they share the same studio, star and source novelist. But whereas The Devil Rides Out is the better film by an absolute country mile, To the Devil a Daughter is the better looking, thanks to Sykes really being able to frame shots well whilst still telling the story. Splitting the screen into four with a crucifix for example at the start, or that gorgeous tracking shot up Christ's body in the same section. Great locations scenes too, with loads of the film being set in St Katharine Docks in London.

Something that works less well, and might have been better if Sykes had a bit more clout is the wrinkly embryo devil thing, which looks pretty naff. Watch the scenes it's in with the sound off and you'll think of The Muppets.  Now that can't be good for a horror can it? But that pales next to the biggest problem the film has, the end scene. It's all really abrupt and has the feel of studio interference all over it. Still it's not enough to ruin the film, it's not like Lee breaks out in song, although I'm sure he would have if given the chance.

The Exorcist really changed the horror landscape forever, overnight Hammer films looked incredibly passe and it became obvious that they were either going to have to up their game or become a relic of the past. To the Devil a Daughter feels to me that they did too little too late. Only one more Hammer film dribbled out of the studio after this - '79's remake of The Lady Vanishes. It flopped and the studio folded. It's a shame since if To the Devil a Daughter had been made just a few years earlier, Hammer's fortunes might have been totally different. If you're a Hammer head then you've seen this multiple times, if you're not but like your British horror then you could do far worse than seeing this.

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