November 26, 2008

TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER (1976) - hard-hitting Hammer horror


TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER
(1976, UK)

Unfortunately, the first Hammer film I ever saw in the cinema was also the last Hammer horror film that was produced. I saw it only a couple of years after its release in an all-night horror show at a local suburban cinema in Ewell. I’d gotten used to the Hammer style of lush-looking gothic dramas on TV, and was rather surprised by the ultra-modern looking psycho-logical satanism that is To The Devil... A Daughter. Through the years, it’s endured as a unique and earnest attempt to visualise the modern practice of black magic.

Through the early 1970s, Hammer Studios were continuing to move forward and experiment with the genre, but not quite fast enough for the plunge into gore and sensationalism. The wide-angle cinematography borders on experimental and the subtle, cold lighting makes for a gritty and realistic look. The far-from-stagey acting is helped enormously by the star, Richard Widmark’s performance. The nudity and violence is still eye-opening today. It’s not wall-to-wall, but when it happens it doesn’t pull any punches. For instance, the birthing scene isn't explicit, but it is painfully nasty.


The unusual story structure initially presents a string of unexplained events. For once, the baddies are one step ahead of the goodies, as well as the audience. We have to be patient as the plot gradually takes shape. Widmark plays John Verney, an occult expert called on to look after a young nun, by her father (Denholm Elliott), who hasn't told him the whole story about her value to an underground band of satanists. The depiction of various black magic rituals and their effects look very real, and the story starts to convince that it might all actually work...

Hammer regular Christopher Lee is for once a very human monster - posing as a priest. Lee is in his prime here, desperate to do his beloved author Dennis Wheatley justice. The mainly British cast includes Anthony Valentine (Tower of Evil) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger, The Avengers) as a normal couple,dragged into extraordinary circumstances, much the same as Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson's characters did in The Devil Rides Out (1968), Hammer’s earlier excursion into Dennis Wheatley’s satanic novels. Denholm Elliott (The House That Dripped Blood) is the rightfully paranoid informant, mirroring David Warner’s frightened retreat inside the pages of the bible in The Omen, the same year.


And of course Nastassia Kinski, in an early role, plays the nun at the centre of the deadly chess game. Her full-frontal scenes, at only aged seventeen, mirror the sexuality at the heart of the decade's wave of sexual explicitness in horror films. Using those stills as publicity for thje film shows a huge lapse of taste, only possible in that very different time. I also can’t remember whether she was dubbed for this role by another actress. While German actors were no doubt part of the deal, in this a German co-production, Kinski is perfect in the role.

The only drawbacks to the solid and gripping story, are towards the finale, as an unconvincing demon animatronic effect intrudes poorly into two scenes, and the ending is a famous anticlimax, thankfully discussed in the extra documentaries on the recent Optimum DVD in the UK. The film is also part of the massive 21-movie Hammer Horror boxset/cube.


There are filming locations in Germany and around London, indeed the whole film looks like it was shot outside of studios and sets. Widmark’s flat and several scenes take place just next to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge - the site is now now a huge, boring block of offices, but back then a maze of locks and canals.

The Optimum DVD extras include several interesting and frank interviews including Christopher Lee himself. The late veteran stuntman Eddie Powell also describes the danger of his main stunt, the first British 'full body burn', as well as an unusual assignment doubling for Lee…

There's a trailer here on the revived Hammer Studio's new website.

2 comments:

  1. Its refreshing to see a positive review of this film - I've only ever seen this one trashed and vilified, and so I never cared too much to see it (I own the Hammer box featured in the post). I really should dig this one out...

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  2. steve prefontaine29 January, 2014 02:53

    Its still amazing how nauseating this film is in comparison to the relatively cosy stuff that Hammer was making only 8 or 9 years earlier in 1967 and 1968. Actually even their famous 5 from 1971 seem cosy when compared to the bleakness of this movie.

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