To the Devil A Daughter (1976)
Dir. Peter Sykes
Starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliot, Natasha Kinski
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, adapted from the Dennis Wheatley book of the same name, is a serviceable if unexceptional Hammer film with a few touches which are undeniably awesome but not quite enough to make it great. That’s a hard truth to face about a film which features Richard Widmark facing off against Christopher Lee in a paranoia-drenched battle of wills over the not-insignificant issue of whether or not the antichrist should be brought to Earth, but there is it. You want it to be great, you sort of know better than to hope, but you think maybe, just this one time, your instincts are wrong and it’s actually going to be everything it ought to be. And then instead you get pretty good just like you knew you would. Hammer films are like that. They’re the asshole boyfriend that does the exact minimum it has to do to keep you from completely giving up on his ever being more than a lousy good for nothing layabout. He gets drunk and passes out on the couch with his stupid friends, and one of them throws up on your roommates’ weird fad diet DVD collection, but then just when you’re about to throw him to the curb he also casts Christopher Lee as a heretic priest who holds masked orgies in the name of resurrecting Satan and tricks you into thinking maybe there’s really something there, he just has to grow up a little.
But enough about my life. The pretty good here is obviously Lee, who, yes, plays a heretic priest who holds masked orgies in the name of bringing forth the antichrist (under the watchful gaze of a giant 20-foot-tall golden cloven-hoof devil idol being anally penetrated by an inverted cross. Tacky, but admittedly attention-grabbing). And man, bringing that fucker to Earth is a messy, convoluted business which requires all manner of confusing shenanigans over several decades, some of which I think are probably dreams but it’s a little hard to be sure. Figures Satan would make it some shit like that. With God, he arranged all that shit ahead of time, and all we had to take care of was the killing. But no, Satan’s gonna make you work for it. What an asshole. It’s fairly standard Satanic stuff for the most part, and made somewhat less threatening by the fact that there seem to be only two other elderly people assisting poor Christopher Lee in this endeavor. And one of them dies like 20 minutes in.
Still, Lee gamely steps up to the plate and turns in an unusually awesome performance, even for him. He seems a bit more awake than he seems in some of these Hammer Dracula films, and I’m thinking that might have something to do with the fact that he almost has to actually do some acting this time around. His character is a former Catholic priest who did a little too much reading in the forbidden book section (see, Harry Potter? This is why they lock that shit up) and came to the conclusion that this Satanism thing probably has something to it. But it’s kinda cool because he honestly doesn’t seem to see himself as a bad guy, I think he really believes that he’s actually the only good Catholic left (he still wears his priest collar thingy, for instance, and when we see him get excommunicated at the beginning, he belligerently tells the bishop:, "It is not heresy... and I will not recant!" (remember, from the beginning of that Rob Zombie song?). So while he’s not afraid to play rough, he comes across more as an intensely religious fanatic than the usual cheeseball movie Satanists, and that’s both scarier and more interesting. His followers, including the film’s McGuffin character, somehow seem to think they’re just an obscure sect of Christianity and get quite offended when other people suggest that it’s in any way evil to bring about the birth of the antichrist.
The McGuffin in this case is Natasha Kinski (yes, Klaus’ daughter), a nun raised by Lee who implausibly seems to have never noticed how obviously evil everything going on around her is, like my cousin who was raised by Republicans. It was only her second movie, and she was apparently only 15 when she shot it. Oh wait, you didn’t know that? Now you’re regretting that big smile you had during her full frontal scene. You sick fuck. Always ID first, champ.
Anyway, she has only a vague idea of how she fits into the plan, but Lee plans to have her end up the mother of the incoming antichrist. Fuckin’ Europeans, man. Always gettin ‘em when they’re young. Denholm Elliot plays her father, who somehow missed the fact that his wife was a Satanic cultist and got roped into the whole deal at the last minute, when he apparently happened to wander into the exact wrong illicit ceremony at the exact wrong time (note to Satanists: why not lock the door?). He’s her father and he’s the only one who knows what the stakes are, so naturally he frets about it, grabs a random American off the street who seems to have some background in the Satan stuff, and foists the whole thing off on him on his way to go cower in an attic. Way to represent, English. On the other hand, Elliot is pretty great here, cranking up his frenzied panic to 11 and really selling us on how worried we should be about this thing, even when his fellow cast members seems somewhat less interested.
Widmark is that American, an expert on Satanism so familiar with the subject that he can kind of sound bored when he talks about it. Like, really bored. He wears a floppy old man hat and sweater vest for almost the entire runtime, but he’s the only American, so I guess he’s the only one who can save the world. Widmark-- who in all honesty cannot fairly be accused of trying too hard here-- varies between mildly concerned and unabashedly bored throughout the whole thing, but he does have one truly splendid moment where some guy he seems like he kind of know gets burned to ashes next to him. He finally takes off his leather-elbowed jacket, covers his buddy, throws his arms to his side, cocks his head back, and howls in his thin, reedy old guy wail: “Daaaaammmmmmmmnnnn yyyyyyyooooooooOOOOOOOOUUUUUU!!!!” That's pretty rad. Then he awkwardly runs off to the big climax (where he achieves victory by throwing a rock at Christopher Lee and then walking away, probably about as much as he was up for at that point). Man, all those years of planning, and the one thing ol' Chris Lee never considered is that someone might throw a rock at him right at the end. That's gotta sting.
I’m making fun, but the movie does have some genuinely effective disturbing sequences. The big evil orgy is notable for its unexpectedly high volume of Christoper Lee ass (IMDB breaks my heart by suggesting it’s a stunt double, but I’ll never believe it). So it’s funny and a little cheesy, but it also gets genuinely transgressive in places. There’s some pretty crazy mixing of sex, violence, and Satanism which must have been at least a little shocking at the time. Kinski keeps having visions of the fetal antichrist, which looks hilariously like a sort of ground hog puppet turned inside out – but I bet you weren’t expecting it to crawl up onto her bed in a trail of blood, demonstrate its considerable oral sex prowess on her (yes, really) and then crawl up inside her womb. That’s admirably depraved, and even if a part of your brain will never be able to not laugh at bloody rodent puppets, you’ll also have to admit it kind of gets to you on some level.
It’s also helped by a nicely paranoid, atonal score which occasionally teams with a few tense scenes and an effective Christopher Lee to produce some commendable tension and repulsion. There’s a great sequence where Lee attempts some handy mind control via the medium of turning over plates, which would be completely ludicrous if not for the deadly serious way Lee, the music, and the cinematography sells it. Ditto a scene where Widmark goes to find Denholm Elliot, who is cowering in an attic surrounded by protective symbols and literally incoherent with fear. It’s a minor scene, but Elliot sells the character’s jibbering panic so effectively that it becomes unsettling. Scenes like that are the “I’m sorry” flowers and wine which will probably get remembered longer than the thing that needs apologizing for. That’s how these Hammer films role. Mostly pretty disappointing, but it’s the good bits that will end up sticking with you and making you dare to hope the next one will win you over.
There’s another Hammer adaptation of Wheatley’s work starring Lee called THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, which Lee actually cites as his favorite Hammer film. God damn it, that sounds awesome. Here we go again.