Monday, October 22, 2012

To the Devil...a Daughter (1976)

There are few things I love more than classic Hammer Horror.  For those who aren't familiar with Hammer Film Productions, it is a British production company founded in 1934 that flourished from the late 1950s through the middle 70s.  Hammer made all sorts of films, but specialized in the fantastic and sensational genres ranging from swashbucklers and prehistoric epics to opulent period pieces, literary adaptations and supernatural thrillers.  

"Hammer Horror" productions are legendary for their Gothic pageantry, moody and macabre set pieces, lavish costumes, theatrical ambiance and colorful dramatic palette.  The studio is probably best known for its stable of remakes and reworkings of classic horror stories, most notably those first popularized by Universal Studios in the 1930s such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.  A great many British actors who later came to be known outside the U.K. got their start with Hammer, including Sir Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing (the latter having gone on to depict Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars film).

I won't turn this post into a precis on Hammer, but I might do a Hammer series in the near future.  Maybe this post will be the first in that series.

My friend Andee was recently looking for something to watch that's fun and scary but not a slasher flick.  I'm fond of some slasher stuff, but my primary interests in the horror genre lie elsewhere.  Slasher films are essentially high-dollar exploitation films.  Like a lot of horror, they're very formulaic, but the slasher formula isn't as fun for me.  I love exploitation movies, but I prefer the earlier stuff that was made on a pitiful budget and was not so self-consciously directed at a massive audience.  There's something naive and refreshing about the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ted V. Mikels that's lost in any of Wes Craven's or John Carpenter's franchise films.  So I thought a Hammer flick might be of interest to my friend.  One of her friends suggested something with satanic themes.  So I suggested Hammer's 1976 occult thriller, To the Devil...a Daughter.  

To the Devil... is pretty notorious and there are a number of reasons why.  The biggest reason is that, since it was a critical flop and a commercial disaster, the film is widely credited with ruining Hammer studios.  The film was an adaptation of a popular novel by occult writer Dennis Wheatley.  It was the second of Wheatley's novels to receive the Hammer treatment, and it was to be the last.  Wheatley had been pleased with Hammer's handling of his work in 1968 with the success of their film The Devil Rides Out, based on his novel of the same name.  But he was outraged by the script of To the Devil...  He felt that it departed too much from his story, whereas he attributed the success of The Devil Rides Out to the film's faithfulness to the letter of the novel.  Indeed, the climactic scene in the film version of To the Devil... is rather awkward and was the result of a last-minute compromise over disagreement within Hammer about how to conclude the movie.  Wheatley refused to allow Hammer to adapt any more of his stories after To the Devil...'s critical and commercial failure.  It ended up being the final horror film Hammer made until the late 2000s when they finally began clawing their way out of financial oblivion. 

Nevertheless, Christopher Lee turns in a fabulous performance as Father Michael Rayner, a demented priest-turned-occult Svengali-figure in service to Satan.  An aging Richard Widmark plays John Verney, an occult writer (and Wheatley's obvious alter ego) who is drawn into the web of treachery, heresy and demonic machinations set in motion by Father Michael.  Widmark's Verney becomes the reluctant protector of a fifteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski, who plays Catherine Beddows, a cloistered, nubile lady of the cloth in thrall to Lee's Father Michael, whose dread purpose is to transform the unsuspecting girl into the Canaanite avatar of hubris, Astaroth.  

To the Devil... was Hammer's misguided attempt to cash in on the occult trend in movies that had worked so well for Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) It can't hold a candle to its competitors, but it's not a worthless effort.  Its greatest strengths are the performances of Widmark and Lee.  These are fine actors doing their best with what they were given, which was a half-baked turd.  For instance, the script was still being reworked throughout the making of the movie.  Widmark was given his revised lines during makeup at the beginning of each day.  He threatened to walk off the set and fly home to the U.S. during shootingScreenplay co-writer Roy Skeggs sat on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night several times, persuading Widmark to stay the course, before finally giving up and ignoring his threats to take the first flight back to L.A.  

Beyond the lead performances, there's some implicit conservative commentary on the spiritually rudderless youth of the day, lots of frontal nudity and plenty of fucked up visuals during the several scenes depicting bizarre and grotesquely eroticized Satanic rituals.  Perhaps the film's greatest perversity is that you're made to think you get to see Christopher Lee's finely sculpted derriere.  But alas, it's a bare-assed body double.  

For all its faults, To the Devil... is classic nunsploitation schlock.  It's comfort food for fans of kinky occult mumbo-jumbo and shameless shock cinema, and well worth the time of anyone with a well-developed taste for the tasteless in film.

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