Swiping bits from Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist while leaving a “Why the hell am I watching this again?” aftertaste, To The Devil… A Daughter manages to be a pretty bizarre and somewhat unintentionally 1976 funny horror film from Hammer Studios. From what I understand by poking around a few books and online, the UK film industry was in a bit of a mess when this mess was made and it shows in a few key areas. Granted, you do get Christopher Lee in a scenery-chewing performance for the ages (including a brief nude scene performed by a double!) and Richard Widmark making a payday and playing an occult writer turned cranky old action hero long before Liam Neeson.
Yes, you also get a too young Nastassia Kinski flailing about and screaming as if possessed (well, she kind of is) in her part as a fallen “nun” and trying too hard to keep up with the other more experienced cast doing their own screaming and flailing about. Yes, the film is also notorious for the infamous bloody baby demon hand puppet molestation and a shot near the finale of her fully nude. While some genre fans may groove on that little detail, for some new viewers those elements will just come off as creepy central.. and not in a good way, either.
Even Dennis Wheatley (the writer of the 1953 book this is based on) hated the film and I’d gather it’s because of the mean-spirited tone coupled with a really bad “Hey, we ran out of money and/or film!” ending. Granted, the mean-spirited stuff definitely fits the stereotypical cinematic devil worshiper template you’d expect. But some of the best horror films only imply what’s shown here or at least if they do show disturbing stuff, it’s done a lot better. Yeah, yeah, you gore-hounds love this sort of thing and yes, I know some of the cooler genre flicks work because of the gore and guts quotient. Hey, I’ll watch Twitch of the Death Nerve, Suspiria and other genre classics on a loop all day. But this film just hits all the wrong notes with me because it tries too hard to be over the top and just ends up mostly laughable.
Widmark plays John Verney, an expert occult scribe charged with retrieving Kinski’s nun Catherine from the airport and she ends up staying at his home despite the two not quite getting along. It turns out her daddy-o (Denholm Elliot) is counting on Verney to protect Catherine from the clutches of Father Michael Rayner (Lee), the evil excommunicated priest who has some not so nice plans for the young nun. What sort of plans? Well, thanks to some interestingly weird bits with white-robed ladies behaving badly as having not so nice stuff happen to them, we see what’s in store for Catherine. Anyway, a bunch of weird dream and not dream sequences and some murders later, it’s Verney going up against Ranyer in what should have been a more climatic battle than you end up with and an ending that may leave you wanting that 95 minutes back.
As noted, Lee is great here, mugging it up in closeups and delivering his lines with the proper fervor. Widmark seems as if he’s in a different film sometimes, but he (or his stunt double) gets to beat up a few of Rayner’s minions as the latter part of the film plays out. In his scenes with Kinski, he seems mostly annoyed, but this works in the character’s favor. Who wants to suddenly be thrust into the position of taking care of a weird teenager who thrashes around in her sleep and hides a secret that causes crazed satanists to want to steal her away? Damn kids were nothing but trouble back in the 70’s with their demonic cult memberships and terrifying nightmares, grrrr! Anyway, this is one of those films where if you pay close attention, you see some things that don’t make much sense covered up by cutaways to stuff that doesn’t make much more sense. But genre fans that don’t mind the warts will certainly get their money’s worth (and then some).
As for the bloody baby demon hand puppet stuff, it’s a case where less should have been the rule of the day. You see way too much of the ugly rubber thing crawling around in fake blood, including a long scene where poor Catherine (or, hopefully a body double) has it crawl up and between her legs before disappearing inside her. Eeek and yuck, folks. Or more precisely, you’ll be cringing and laughing simultaneously. Granted, some of the hallucination sequences are effectively shot and edited. But it’s clear that the producers were trying to give The Exorcist and other more (and less) sophisticated horror films a run for their money. Given that the film disappointed at the box office and was the final horror film made by Hammer until the studio rose from the grave about 30 years later.
Amusingly enough, To The Devil… A Daughter is out of print on DVD and other than popping up on TCM from time to time, unless you know someone with a copy of this flick, you probably won’t see it at all. I’d actually recommend the MUCH better 1968 film based on Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, but that’s another one that’s out of print. Well, one could always just read the original novels both films are based on and have their fill. Sometimes, ones imagination and the words filling up a good book are better than what any directer can come up with…