To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

Christopher Lee, in the last Hammer Horror, based on a book by Dennis Wheatley. Optimum UK DVD, from the Ultimate Hammer boxset.

The Film

By 1976 Hammer Films were on their last legs. After the end of their lucrative Seven-Arts co-productions in the late 1960s, the budgets available were cut in half and their output was split between popular, but unexciting exploitation films, and their well written, but less popular horror-thrillers. In a last attempt to recapture the mainstream, Hammer even combined forces with the Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers to shoot Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) and Shatter (1974) hoping to capitalise on the newly popular martial arts genres, but neither film performed well. Meanwhile, the sucess of The Exorcist (1973) had sparked public interest in devil worship horror films, and with The Omen (1976) in production in Britian, the German producers Terra-Filmkunst saw a chance to make their own production, with the now dormant Hammer Films. For their source they chose to adapt the novel To the Devil a Daughter from popular horror writer Dennis Wheatley, the rights for which Hammer already owned.

Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) is returning to Britain from her German monastery to celebrate her birthday. Before she arrives, her father (Denholm Elliott) makes a deal with black magic author John Verney (Richard Widmark), that he would keep her safely hidden away for a few days. It soon becomes clear to Verney that he is delving into dangerous waters as Father Michael (Christopher Lee) starts to go to extreme lengths to get hold of Catherine, and they learn of his wicked plot...

Although the opening titles list Dennis Wheatley's book as the source of the film, this credit is as much a fantasy as the story. While
Wheatley's story is a gripping and well researched Satantic horror, with elements of spy thriller and socio-political commentary, the screenplay by John Peacock (later rewritten by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes) is a predictable, by-the-numbers "horror" full of gaping holes and completely lacking in tension or excitement. Presumably to ease his writing chores, Peacock turns Catherine (called Christina in the novel) into a nun in a demonic convent (although how much the staff there are involved we never find out as they mostly disappear for the rest of the film). She is sent home for a holiday, presumably so we can then have the typical "girl in peril" story; although why Father Michael would go to the risk of sending her home, then arranging to meet her for the ritual, when he could easily have taken her with him a day later, or held the ritual in Germany, and avoided all the fuss/risks, we never know. Catherine's father is largely unexplained in the film, his motives to renege on the deal with Father Michael are never explained, nor are his wife's links to the Satanic worshippers (again, these factors are carefully, and plausibly explained in the book). Anna and David Fountain (based on the book's lead characters) get to do very little and could easily have been written out of the film.

Further to the film's discredit, while Wheatley went to great lengths to study black magic for inclusion in his novels, even meeting with many famous satanists, Peacock seems to have decided to make up his own laughable religion based on the demon Astaroth (although it is clear that he has made but the most cursory study of the mythology behind this demon), and gives the devil worshippers a typical 'seeking power to rule the world' motive, compared to the far more plausible and achievable goal behind Wheatley's villains. The film's climax is simply bad - gone is the exciting chase, and massive rituals of the book, instead replaced with a horrible, rushed and poorly explained anti-climax that ruins what was left of the film. The only positive aspect of the script was the alteration of the ex-military Verney of the book into a Wheatley style author, although even this is not elaborated on as much as it should have been. In keeping with the film's exploitation roots, there are several completely gratuitous violence and sex scenes that do nothing to help the plot and are not in keeping with the book's tone at all.

Director Peter Sykes gives a decent directoral turn, especially considering that much of the film was shot very quicky with a limited budget, and without a finalised script. The camerawork is effective, if rather plain, and does work well with the limited special effects. The soundtrack is notably effective - some very strange dischordal choir music from little known composer Paul Glass (unrelated to modern classic composer Phillip Glass) that does help to create an effectively uneasy atmosphere and is well edited into the film.

Despite its low budget, the film is very well cast and generally well acted. In a return to the style of their 1950s films, Hammer were forced by their backers to import an American star to help sell the film, Western star Richard Widmark was sent over and immediately disliked the production - finding the haphazard scripting and production to be an unnecessary burden. Although he gives an acceptable performance, it is clear that he is unsuited to the role and uncommitted to it - it is easy to imagine that there were many other suitable candidates who could have performed better. Hammer's own star,
Christopher Lee, who helped secure the rights to the film, takes the lead villian role and performs very well - looking sinister and plausible throughout, with the best performance in the film. Denholm Elliott gives a wonderfully nervous performance as Catherine's father, while Bond babe Honor Blackman gives a good, but similarly underwritten performance as Anna Fountain. For the role of Catherine herself, the producers were forced to cast a German acress, part of the co-deal with Terra-Filmkunst. The young Nastassja Kinski, daughter of infamous actor Klaus Kinski, was chosen based on her only previous screen appearance, in Wim Wenders' The Wrong Move (1975) - she gives an admirable performance here, with many tough scenes, but never quite convinces.

Ultimately, To the Devil a Daughter (1976) proved sucessful with audiences, but author Dennis Wheatley was so shocked with its butchery of his novel, and distastefully gratuitous sex, that he instantly denied Hammer the rights to shoot any more films based on his books. To anyone who has read the novel, this film will doubtless prove similarly disappointing, for newcomers to the story, the film might prove more enjoyable, but is still heavily flawed and unoriginal - only the effective soundtrack and the good cast help to keep this film away from being an abject failure. Unsurprisingly, it was Hammer's last cinematic horror outing to date. Not recommended.

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Christopher Lee - Hammer's big name, star of the Dracula films, as well as a whole host of euro-cult cinema.
Richard Widmark - a lesser known American actor who starred in many Western, film-noir and war films.
Denholm Elliott - a well known British actor, best remembered for his roles in two of the Indiana Jones films.
Honor Blackman - best known as Pussy Galore in James Bond adventure Goldfinger (1964).
Nastassja Kinski - daughter of Klaus Kinski, and star of Paris, Texas (1984) and Cat People (1982)
Directed by anyone interesting? Peter Sykes - little known director, who also shot Hammer's late psychological thriller, Demons of the Mind (1972) and also shot The Jesus Film (1979), believed to be one of the most widely seen films ever made.
Is it scary?No.
Any violence/gore? Several bloody deaths and a lot of blood.
Any sex? Some sex and brief nude scenes.
Who is it for?
Not recommended. For Hammer and Christopher Lee completists only.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.66:1. Anamorphically Enhanced. Colour
The print quality is very strong with good detail and only mild grain and print damage.
Audio Original English mono - sounds fine for the most part, although a few short scenes are rather muffled which does rather distract from some important sequences. A similar problem was reported on the ABUS disc.
Subtitles None.
ExtrasThe disc includes:
  • To the Devil... the Death of Hammer an interesting mix of interviews and clips about this film and the situation in which it was made. As included on the ABUS disc. (24 minutes)
  • Interesting interview clip from a film festival with Christopher Lee's regular stuntman Eddie Powell about his work on this film. As included as an easter egg on the ABUS disc. (7 minutes)
  • Original British theatrical trailer.
AvailabilityAvailable in the Ultimate Hammer Collection, and on a single disc release.
Region Region 2 - PAL
Other regions? A now OOP ABUS disc includes the same bonus features plus a photo gallery.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. Print used is English language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 13th October 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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