To The Devil A Daughter

It could be worse.  It could be Yoko Ono.

The Internet Movie Database lists under the Horror genre some 30,000 titles with more than half of them in the English language.  Granted this is counting individual episodes of TV shows like Tales from the Crypt and The Walking Dead as individual entries, which inflates the numbers slightly.  My point is that any way you slice it, there are a huge number of horror films out there, of which even the most dedicated fans will only sample a small number relative to the whole.  Yeah, a bunch of these titles are garbage which will only be watched by the people who made them and a few foolish souls with a bit too much free time and Netflix Instant. Mulva: Zombie Ass-Kicker, I’m looking at you!

Occasionally, though, a gem of a film will slip by.  Sorting the wheat from the chaff is one of the missions of the Midnight Monster Show.  The other day I felt like watching something decidedly un-Christmassy, something that would crawl up from the dankest depths of the human spirit, hack up a vile glob of something green and gross, hawrphing it right into the dewy-eyed face of Xmas, wiping the simpering, sugary smile right off its shiny plastic face.  What is this horrid gem of a film?  I give you To The Devil A Daughter.

Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) is booted out of the Catholic Church for sodomizing little boys . . . Wait!  No!  That’s wrong!  They’d have just moved him to a different church and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.  Let’s start over.  Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) is booted out of the Catholic Church for doctrinal error, granted, it’s a glaring sort of doctrinal error.  Father Michael is convinced that God is really Astaroth, also known as The Devil, and he openly preaches that message from his pulpit.  Like I said, it’s a rather large deviation from canon. Father Michael isn’t too bummed about the de-frocking.  In the tradition of St. Alastair Crowley, Father Michael simply takes his ministry and congregation and forges on, in this case to Bavaria and establishes a religious order  with chapel and cloister – complete with Satanic nuns! M’mmmmm, Satanic nuns!

Rather than withdrawing from the world in divine contemplation, this Church seeks to dominate it.  Father Michael has a cunning plan to bring Astaroth from whatever hellish netherworld it occupies and slip it into the body of Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), a young Satanic nun.  Now, you’d think this would be a straightforward affair involving incense, goat’s blood, a Stonehenge, a couple of fog machines, some eerie lighting and maybe a playing an old Led Zeppelin record backwards or something.  Yeah, you’d think that and you’d be wrong.    Stuffing the Devil into a doe-eyed teenage girl is way more challenging than you’d think and Father Michael has his work cut out for him (cut out! Ha!).

First, this teenage girl has to be conceived during a Black Mass.  Later, shortly after birth, she must be baptized in the blood of her own mother.  The baptism cannot be done in the dainty Catholic “spatter a few drops of water” kind of way  No, the baptism has to be a Deep South Bible Belt-style full submersion baptism — again — in the blood of her own mother.  Next, the girl has to be raised in the Satanic faith, so she’ll give herself over willingly when the time comes.  In this instance, on her eighteenth birthday.  This plan has a long tail.

Next, Father Michael has to bring Astaroth into the physical world for the transfer.  Again, a few gobs of burning hemp, a spatter of goat’s blood and an orgy will simply not cut the evil mustard.  Again, we get a Black Mass with Father Michael impregnating a woman, this time to make a temporary body for Astaroth to squirm about it before the big event.  Actually there is more to it than just that.  The birth and care of a baby devil have some very specific and horrible requirements.  The birth scene alone is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen, but not  because it’s gory and revolting in a Hostel-ish  gorenography sort way.  It the horrible contrasts.  Father Michael, like any priest attending the birth of a parishioner’s child is positively bubbling over with joy – only this is far from a normal birth.  Father Michael’s beaming smile stands in stark opposition to what is unfolding before him.  Christopher Lee really brings the goods here.  All I could do was blink in astonishment with my mouth partly opened in slack-jawed disbelief.

It wouldn’t be much of a movie if Father Michael was able to carry out his evil plan unopposed.  Enter John Verney (Richard Widmark), a tough as nails writer of exploitation literature involving Satanism, Bigfoot cults,  UFO conspiracies and the like.  He’s arrived in London to push his new book.  During a book launching party Verney is approached by Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott), a disordered, desperate looking middle-aged man.  Beddows has a problem and Verney is the only guy that might be able to help. You see, Beddows is Catherine’s father, and he’s not too hip on the idea of his only child being turned into a Satanic meat puppet.  Catherine is on her way home for her annual birthday visit with her father.  This year is the year that the ritual is going to take place, with Catherine becoming the avatar of Astaroth and Beddows wants Verney to get her before the coven does and hide her from Father Michael.   Verney, seeing this as an opportunity to explore a real Satanic cult rather than the “ninety-eight percent of so-called Satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing churchyards,” agrees to help.  Satanic cult mayhem ensues.

How did this movie escape me for so long?  To The Devil A Daughter was one of those films that I knew was out there but really didn’t know anything about. In 1976, The Omen and Carrie, were the two genre big dogs.  To The Devil A Daughter, a last desperate gamble by Hammer, when stacked against The Omen, was simply fighting way out of its weight class.  To The Devil A Daughter did respectable business (BoxOffice Dec 26, 1976) but it proved to be far too little, far too late for Hammer.

For me, it was one of those films that was on my “to watch” list but never seemed to get to the top – until a few weeks ago – which turned out to be a good thing.  If I’d seen this the way I first saw most Hammer films, on broadcast TV,  I can imagine all the cuts that would have been made so old ladies in the American Midwest could watch it and not get offended. It would have been a total mess. If I’d seen this on VHS as a teen, I’d have not appreciated the horror of it, preferring to focus entirely on the scenes where we get to see Nastassja Kinski’s boobs and more.

To The Devil A Daughter is a mix of atmospheric horror, sex, blood and violence put together in just the wrong way, by which I mean exactly the right way.  The violence is suggested rather than explicit but still just graphic enough to make me squirm.  The sexuality of the movie isn’t appealing; it’s uncomfortable.  The tension and horror are like a nightmare, surreal and disjointed. It’s like the Italian horror films of the 1970s and early 1980s, and like those films, To The Devil A Daughter feels a bit dated, lacking in the plot department and tad short on logic.  Whatever it’s failings, I will say this about To The Devil A Daughter, it’s the first time seen a film in a long while that made my skin crawl a bit.

Trivia Bits:

To The Devil A Daughter is loosely based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, whose book The Devil Rides Out was previously adapted by Hammer at the behest of Christopher Lee.  Wheatley was so stoked by The Devil Rides Out that he apparently gave Hammer the rights to adapt his other books free of charge.  This was a stroke of luck for Hammer, who unable to think of any more ways to milk Dracula, decided to update their offerings and go with the Satanic conspiracy trope, which also suited Lee.  The result was 1976’s To the Devil A Daughter, which Wheatley, it’s reported, totally hated.  The following year Wheatley died.  Well, done Hammer.

The ending of To The Devil A Daughter was cut short by the studio, who felt that it was too much like the finale of one of Hammer’s then recent Dracula outings.  The result is a slightly anticlimactic ending, which didn’t really bother me all that much but apparently has really steamed Christopher Lee.  The cut out bits of film have been lost, so there is no chance of it being restored in some director’s cut BluRay edition down the road.

Starring:

Richard Widmark
Christopher Lee
Honor Blackman
Denholm Elliott
Michael Goodliffe
Nastassja Kinski

Director:
Peter Sykes

Screenplay:
Christopher Wicking
John Peacock

Three and a half of five Vincents

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