10/22/11

The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It # 10: To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

In 1976, the most popular movie about the birth of Satan's spawn could have been called To the Devil a Son, but that seemed overly wordy. However wordiness didn't hinder #10 on the Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It (as it doesn't hinder me in naming events),Hammer Films' To the Devil a Daughter. This was the second time Hammer had paired with novelist Dennis Wheatley (The first I hope to include in the coming days if I can get my hands on it.), and it featured American actor Richard Widmark struggling with Hammer film regular Christopher Lee to stop the birth of The Devil. Or the birth of an aspect of The Devil, and not really a birth so much as a transference. Well, there's going to be plenty of time to quibble about the details. When it's time to stop Hell on Earth there's no time to waste. Well, except if you're Richard Widmark. Then you'll get around to it eventually.

Widmark plays supernatural author John Verney. When approached at an art gallery opening by Harry Beddows (Denholm Elliott), Verney agrees to pick up Harry's daughter from the airport in exchange for information on the Satanic Cult that Harry claims is trying to kill him. After picking up Harry's daughter, Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), who he is surprised to find out is a nun, John takes her back to his apartment to await her father. He never comes. The author soon realizes that the cult is not after Harry at all, their target is Catherine. The cult leader, Father Micheal (Christopher Lee), is a heretic priest excommunicated from the church for the worship of Astaroth, the Crowned Prince of Hell. He has already brought about the birth of the demon as a mutant baby, and now he needs Catherine as a human avatar for the lesser God of Hades.

There's one thing that you can be sure of. When the devil makes a son, it's a eerie affair full of school uniforms. When the devil gets a daughter, that means it's time to get it on. While on this strangely paced ride to potential Hell on Earth get ready to see way, way more of Chris "Count Duku" Lee's anatomy than you ever needed, and then stick around to get that creepy feeling during the full frontal nudity of fifteen year old Nastassja Kinski.. Then Richard Widmark puts on this rubber suit. Okay, that part is thankfully not true. While the irascible Widmark was apparently a nightmare on the set, he did keep his sweater vests in the full on position at all times. Hammer definitely wanted to stick a toe in Ken Russell territory, and strange visuals, sexual imagery, and demonic deities abound in this offering. Kinski's underage nudity made quite a scandal at the time, bit it's apparently been long forgotten or the Netflix people would be getting a visit from Chris Hanson and his new special "To Catch a Watch Instantly Predator".

As I mentioned earlier, Widmark's displeasure at the British way of film making during To the Devil a Daughter is a thing of legendary status. However, despite other critics who say this ill humor made it onto the screen, I feel that Widmark's reserved performance perfectly fits the character. He's supposed to be a writer about the occult, presumably considering his age, one that has been at it for some time. Much has been made of his flip attitude with the escalating supernatural elements, but I see him as a man prepared to accept the unexplained, like a dour Carl Kolchak. Widmark also has the most amazing quote of the film, and it perfectly encapsulates why so many Satanic themed films work. His character John Varney remarks, "98% of so called Satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing church yards and use the Devil as an excuse for getting some sex, but then there is that other 2%, I'm not so sure about them." Everyone's seen the 98% headbanging at a Crue concert somewhere, the 2% are normal looking people, cops, lawyers, and even priests.

Other than Kinski's nudity, there is little else to her performance. In fact, I think if you took all her lines from this movie and Cat People and write them all down, I'm still not sure you could fill up both sides of a sheet of paper. Nastassja is there to project innocence,and she does. Creepy, sleazy, slightly disturbing innocence. Also making an appearance in To the Devil are Honor Blackman, better known as James Bond's Pussy Galore,  Denholm Elliott, Indiana Jones' Dr. Marcus, and Peeping Tom's Michael Goodliffe. Making too much of an appearance, Chis Lee makes for a menacing priest, and his scenes liven up the slightly draggy story. Lee, as usual, has a way of being a larger than life evil character to the screen without going over the top. I can only thank whatever Gods might be listening that we only got a rear view of Mr. Lee's nudity so I didn't have to endure a face full of  Lil' Dracula.

To the Devil a Daughter fits in nicely with both Hammer films overall catalog, but also with a movement in '70's cinema toward both demonic themes and intense sexual situations. It presents a realistic world where the supernatural has rudely intruded itself. Director Peter Sykes, who helmed Hammer's 1972 film Demons of the Mind, and cinematographer David Watkin (Chariots of Fire, Moonstruck, Out of Africa) create a mood for the film that keeps the viewer on edge without crass shock thrills or exploitative blood. (They had to save the exploitative for the sex.) In the end, To the Devil a Daughter is hindered by traditional Hammer film pacing, some underwhelming effects, and an ending that leaves a lot to be desired. That's not to say there's not a lot to be admired as well (just apparently not as much as the next nine films). Let's just hope that the devil doesn't get around to having fraternal twins, then we'll really be in trouble.

Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. Wow! I have not seen To the Devil a Daughter since I was a kid. I kind of want to watch it again now! Great job

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  2. A like this movie—watched it again last year—but since it's the end of the Hammer Horrors (not counting the new resurrection) it always makes me feel pretty bummed.

    Apparently, Dennis Wheatley was less than thrilled with this adaptation. He was very supporting of The Devil Rides Out (and who wouldn't be? awesome, awesome film), but disliked this immensely.

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  3. It was actually the third Hammer Dennis Wheatley adaptation. The Lost Continent was the second.

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  4. @Lord of Filth- check it out, it's a interesting little gem.

    @Ryan - I wanted to include The Devil Rides Out, but I foolishly assumed Netflix would have it.... As no stores in my town do either, it may have to be left off because of operator error.

    @dfordoom- Thanks I did not know that. My research had only turned up the obvious two,

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