I’ve often used @TheMarckoGuy’s #Month Of Spooks as a chance to catch up on classic horror movie’s I’ve never seen before but this year, I decided to revisit a film which freaked me all the way out when I first saw it at probably far too young an age.
John Verney (Richard Widmark) is an American occult novelist, stying in Europe. When Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), the daughter of his close friend Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott) comes to stay with him, he finds himself in a battle to save her soul from a group of Satanists, led by Father Michael (Christopher Lee). The excommunicated priest and his followers plan to use Catherine in a ritual which will turn her into a vessel for the devil on Earth.
In a way, The Bible is the original compendium of creepypasta so it’s no surprise its fertile ground for horror stories and movies. Black magic and bringing forth the Devil’s representative on Earth wasn’t exactly a (heh) revelatory new concept, even when Denis Wheatley wrote the novel from which this film is adapted and although the most famous cinematic treatment of the myth would be in “The Omen” trilogy, “To The Devil A Daughter” would inadvertently be this young cinephile’s first encounter with the Anti-Christ.
I discovered this film at the tender age of 11 or 12 in a time-honoured and tragically extinct way: it was on the end of an e-180 video cassette, unintentionally recorded by parents who couldn’t figure out how to programme the VCR so would press record and just leave it running while they went to bed. The identity of the intended recording has been lost to history, but it lasted less than an hour because ITV’s late night movie that night was an obscure Hammer Horror from the mid-seventies.
It’s a sexually charged and lascivious interpretation of Wheatley’s novel, and after it was made he forbade Hammer from ever adapting his work again. This would put it on a par with “The Cat In The Hat” – which similarly provoked the Dr Seuss estate to forbid any further live-action adaptations – showing just how evil and wrong “To The Devil A Daughter” is. Admittedly, the reason it was changed so much is because Wheatley’s original novel wasn’t all that good but the original screenwriter who was so dismissive of Wheatley’s work, Christopher Wicking, saw his work heavily rewritten and changed during shooting and eventually disowned the movie too. It’s not clear anyone involved actually liked this film. Star Richard Widmark had to be talked out of quitting on a regular basis throughout the shoot and Christopher Lee wouldn’t make another Hammer film for 35 years after this.
Of course, I was blissfully unaware of all this behind the scenes malarkey, as I sat, agog, watching as Scaramanga brooded and plotted to impregnate the young and beautiful Nastassja Kinski with the seed of Astaroth. The film is notorious for a surprisingly explicit orgy sequence which is part hallucination, part rape, part twisted fantasy but it’s the full frontal nudity of its young star and a gratuitously horrific ‘reverse birth’ scene featuring a demon baby which seared itself on my young eyeballs.
Rewatching it now, the nudity and sexual content feels deeply, uncomfortably exploitative and unnecessarily explicit, especially considering that Kinski at the time could have been no older than fifteen and was likely fourteen when filming took place. Its sleazy, salacious production ethics aside, it’s a adequate, if somewhat pedestrian, supernatural thriller with occasional moments of shocking darkness and a cast far better than it deserves: Honor Blackman, Frances De La Tour and Anthony Valentine join Lee, Elliott and Widmark in cashing their pay cheques and moving on as quickly as possible.
They say you should never meet your heroes and they should probably also say you should never revisit the legendary half-forgotten movies of your youth. Dragging “To The Devil A Daughter” into the present day light has robbed it of any nostalgic mystique it had in my memory and replaced it with the knowledge of a satanic potboiler so clichéd that even Beelzebub himself would probably want a paternity test.