To the Devil a Daughter was the final film of Hammer Film Productions1. The studio rose to prominence with films such as Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Unlike those staged, period pieces, this film is set in contemporary times and shot on location. It represented a big departure for Hammer, but it was too little too late.
The story—ah, well, you’ll have to bear with me here. I’ve seen the movie twice and I’m still not sure about some of the details. According the featurette on Anchor Bay’s DVD, the filmmaker’s were writing the script as they went along. It shows in the final product.
As near as I can tell, Father Michael, played by Christopher Lee, is a priest who commits the heresy of putting his faith in man over God. To that end—and here’s where things get fuzzy—he retreats to a compound in Bavaria where he forms his own Satanic religion which masquerades as Catholicism. One of his acolytes dies during childbirth and Father Michael baptizes the baby, a girl, in her dead mother’s blood. The girl, Catherine, grows up as a nun in Father Michael’s compound. On her eighteenth birthday she travels to London. There, Father Michael will baptize her in the blood of a demon creature birthed by another of Father Michael’s acolytes2.
But, fortunately for humanity, Catherine’s father, Henry, has a change of heart. Henry appeals to occult novelist John Verney, played by Richard Widmark. Verney intercepts Catherine at Heathrow airport. Verney had hoped to get a book out of Henry’s story, but soon realizes the stakes are much higher.
Father Michael attempts to reclaim Catherine by possessing her. Verney tries to keep her safe. During the tug-of-war we’re presented with a couple of disturbing scenes.
The first concerns the birth of the demon creature. Picture a staged, antiseptic facsimile of a young girl's bedroom. On the bed, a woman prepares to give birth. Strips of white cloth bind her wrists to the headboard and clamp her knees and ankles shut, giving the baby no escape. Arms spread, knees clenched, she lays crucified. Her face glistens with sweat as her back arches and her body spasms from another contraction. Her belly swells. Beside her, Father Michael stands waiting, smiling with eager eyes.
And later, we see one of Catherine’s visions/dreams. We’re looking through her eyes. She’s pregnant and laying on her back. We see her bulging womb. Her legs are open, knees up, in the traditional birthing position. Still through her eyes, we see something crawling up from between her legs. At first glimpse it seems to be a baby, but no, it's a horrid combination of baby and beast with a monstrous jaw and reptilian eyes. Covered in blood, it writhes between her legs, smearing her thighs and stomach with gore. She reaches down and strokes the creature's grotesque head. Now her midsection is awash in thick, almost syrupy, blood as she gently pushes the thing back down, between her legs. Still through her eyes, we hear her moan in a mixture of agony and ecstasy as she forces the monstrosity back up into her womb.
The quality of the creature effects in this scene is laughable. And what’s worse the scene has little to do with the story. Instead, it feels like something tacked on as a reaction to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).
And it’s when you compare this film to those, that one realizes how far Hammer had fallen.
This was a studio that, nineteen years prior, had revived the horror genre by injecting a liberal dose of gore and sex into the monster movie. The resulting films were edgy and fresh.
But time passed. Those kids who flocked theaters for Hammer’s earlier films now had kids of their own. To this new generation, Hammer’s period monster movies were passé. They were your parent’s horror movies. Even this wave of satanic themed films was on it’s nadir. Two years later Halloween (1978) would usher in the slasher genre that would dominate horror for the next decade.
By the time Hammer woke up and tried to tap into the mainstream horror pulse, it lacked the resources to pull off a competent film. Christopher Lee does his best, but Richard Widmark looks tired and annoyed. He’s just cashing a paycheck.
The worst part is the ending. Remember how I said they were writing the script as they went along? As it turns out, they ran out of money by the time they got to the end. After an hour and a half of buildup, Verney and Father Michael square off in a mausoleum. Father Michael stands in a large circle made of blood.
Says Verney, “You really think this circle will protect you, don’t you? It won’t.”
“But it will,” says Father Michael. “Because this circle stands upon a hill of flint, and flint is the sacred stone of Astaroth.”
Verney holds up a rock he literally just picked up five minutes earlier and used to club one of Father Michael’s henchman. “But this sacred stone of Astaroth has the blood of your disciple on it. Now, the demons will protect me.”
Verney steps into the circle and throws the rock at Father Michael, hitting him on the head. Father Michael falls to the ground and disappears. Movie over. That’s the ending. A mumbo-jumbo bit of rock-paper-scissors involving flint and the blood of a disciple. Two bits of information never mentioned in the film before.
If this was the best Hammer could do, then the studio’s death was a mercy killing3.
Until the studio was resurrected in 2008. ↩
I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt and assume Father Michael wasn’t doing this for Satan, but for his own gain. That he’s somehow brought about the birth of a demon and by baptizing Catherine in its blood, he could control its power. I know that’s reaching, but I’ve got a soft spot for Hammer. ↩
Okay, so the studio didn’t die, it just produced television instead of movies. ↩