Looking Back At TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER

Tony dabbles in the occult. Has regrets.
The world has long been fascinated with avatars.

In some very important senses, one of the major faiths of the world is based on an avatar story. The idea of the Holy Trinity is three distinct personifications of a divine spirit acting as one, but different in form – so you could argue that Jesus is meant to be an avatar of Jehovah, a walking, talking vessel on Earth for a being otherwise mighty but incorporeal.

We know – pretty highbrow malarkey to introduce a 1976 Hammer horror film that even one of the people who adapted it from its original novel called “a complete mess.”

But here’s the thing – in the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve had a fascination with this particular faith and/or mythology (delete as you see fit on Hallowe’en!).

But in particular, we’ve had a fascination with the flipside of the faith’s coin.

The Devil.

There’s plenty of talk of the Devil, the Beast, the Dragon, and the Antichrist in Revelation, what comedian Bill Hicks described as the “wacky fire and brimstone ending” to the Bible. It’s handily meant to be a prophecy of times to come – so the idea of the Devil as a force in the world, a power with acolytes masquerading as upstanding members of society, seeking to bring about the birth of the Antichrist and throw our world into chaos and destruction is fertile soil for fiction.

“Fertile” being perhaps a little on the nose, because the three main films of the 20th century that deal specifically with these ideas of a Satanic avatar on Earth all revolve around the birth of a Hell-baby, and its potential for chaos and carnage.

They are of course Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and To The Devil…A Daughter

Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, is possibly the most sophisticated treatment of the subject, resolving around socialite Satanists, the breadcrumbs of advancement that could be laid in the path of anyone willing to conceive and raise the Devil’s child, and ultimately dropping the ghastly but very human notion into our minds that the love of a mother is stronger than the knowledge of what a monster her child will become. Adrian, the Devil’s son, remains an incoherent, unspeaking child at the end of the movie, his ‘family’ of acolytes and his innocent but adoring mother coming together to protect and raise him.

The Omen, by David Seltzer, takes a different tack – the network of upstanding Satanists is still in place, because that, after all, is very much the central fear of the ‘Devil’s child’ trope. Sure, the child is potentially evil, but it’s more the fact that people who seem ‘just like us’ but who believe things so manifestly opposite to what we see as good and right are out there that’s the real and immediate shock.

In a polarised world of (potentially) post-Trump America and post-Brexit Britain, this resonates with the pain of our divided societies. Whichever side of the arguments you’re on, the notion that people can think so opposite to you and still be out there, with an equal and opposite worldview and power, feels like that idea of the hidden army having made itself heard.

But where Roasemary’s Baby is a story with very woman-centred heartbeats – the power of sex, of creation, of nurture of a child – The Omen is a very much a film of the Devil’s avatar from a male perspective. Where Adrian is brought about through ritualistic sex with Rosemary, Damien in The Omen is a complete magpie, a replacement baby and an arguable avatar of his earthly father’s failure to ‘be a man’ and give his wife a surviving, healthy son. Damian is a boy-child in the traditions of Greek tragedy, who destroys his surrogate mother and ultimately his father too, because the father, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is determined to destroy the evil avatar of Satan before it can destroy the rest of the world. Parental nurture even in the knowledge of evil in Rosemary, parental murder once the evil is revealed in The Omen.

And then…

Well, then there’s To The Devil…A Daughter.
To The Devil…A Daughter is an odd affair right from the word go, but to the credit of the cast, you may not realise quite how odd it is for a while, because it’s paced as more of a slow descent from normality into histrionic horror than the Hammer horror schlockfest you suspect it wants to be. And it’s also ridiculously studded with serious acting talent.

In fact, it follows the unwritten rule of Devil-baby movies – if you’re going to make them believable, have serious actors giving their all in central roles. Rosemary has Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes front and centre. The Omen has Gregory Peck and Lee Remick (not to mention David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton and more). To The Devil…A Daughter has Richard Widmark and Christopher (the one and only) Lee going head to head for the body and soul of a young Natassja Kinski, but supported by Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine, Denholm Elliott, Brian Wilde, and in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, a young Frances De La Tour.

All of whom help disguise quite how fundamentally batty the plot is.

In fairness, To The Devil…A Daughter was based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, who had the sensibilities of an earlier generation when it came to gods, devils, social order and chaos, and how to write a gripping yarn. To The Devil…A Daughter was actually the first of the three 20th century Devil-baby stories written – Wheatley published the novel in 1953, where Levin didn’t write Rosemary until 1967. But Levin’s book was first to the screen in 1968, whereas Wheatley’s Devil-child hit cinemas eight years later – the same year as The Omen.

The Omen won awards.

To The Devil…A Daughter…didn’t.

There’s no sense in which that’s unfair, because the movie is messy all along the way. Beginning with the excommunication of Lee as a priest for initially-unspecified heresy, it follows the return of a young nun, Catherine (Kinski), from a Bavarian convent to London, two days before her 18th birthday on All Hallow’s Eve. Catherine is technically the daughter of Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott), but he’s a little busy fighting off rabid, gun-toting Satanists (Or Asterothists, if you want to be strictly accurate). As ya do.
Father Michael Rayner (Lee) has founded a counterfeit church in Bavaria, dedicated to the worship of Asteroth (the Devil in all but name), with convoluted blood and sex rituals that mock the sacraments of Catholicism. As you might expect for what turned out to be his last picture with Hammer studios until 2011 (an entirely different era for the studio), Lee is frequently the most watchable thing on the screen – in particular, his officiating at the birth of what is technically a second child of Asteroth is both shocking, compelling, and deeply disturbing, because Lee GRINS while the Satanic homunculus claws its way out of its mother’s belly, as her knees and ankles are tied together (again, mostly by Lee) with priestly vestments.

Beyond the notion of the church of Asteroth having the by-now familiar group of fine, upstanding community Satantists to advance its cause, even at the cost of their own lives (Izabella Telezynska as Margaret and Eva Maria Meineke as Eveline de Grass excelling in showing this dedication), there’s not a lot that passes for sense in the plot.

Catherine, the nun, was initially born and consecrated to Asteroth. She’s had dreams of ritual sex with Asteroth-Rayner (very similar to those of Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby), and believes in the mission of the church, to give the world a shake-up and something to believe in. Where Rosemary is an innocent corrupted, and Katherine Thorn in The Omen is innocent and destroyed, Catherine in the Hammer film is an innocent indoctrinated, to the point where she’s as good an avatar of extremist terrorism as she is of the Devil-child. She’s the most willing of all the potential ‘mothers of Satan’ – in fact, there’s a riff here on sexually sheltered children wanting more extreme experiences when they finally break free.

In any case, for reasons that are purely drawn from the hokum of Wheatley’s page-turning Satan-fear novels, now Catherine is turning 18, she has to be ‘re-baptised’ in the blood of Asteroth) – or rather, the blood of one of its followers, Eveline de Grass. Quite how this is supposed to work is garbled pretty much throughout the film, but the new child is a puppet homunculus, and in one of the most poorly judged sequences in the film, the homunculus at first seems to take the place of the vigorous Christopher Lee between the legs of Catherine in an odd sexual union, lubricated in blood, and then is pushed downwards, as if to climb inside her and properly ‘inhabit’ its avatar.

Yes, it’s Hammer, and mid-Seventies Hammer at that, so the movie can stand a little more shrill, intense what-the-hellery than either of the more serious and psychologically profound versions of Devil-baby fear that surround it.

But still, there’s no disguising the fact that To The Devil…A Daughter feels poor by whatever criteria you apply to it. It’s a poor translation of Wheatley’s original, which if it does nothing else, thumps along and keeps you interested right to the end. It’s a seriously poor contender up against the likes of the original Omen movie in 1976, despite some more than decent performances from Lee, from Kinski, and from Valentine at least.
It has the most ridiculous of endings, that cuts off anything like impending satisfaction and substitutes a gratuitous full frontal nude shot of Kinski and a well-thrown rock from Widmark. And above all, it leaves you wondering what the hell you’ve just watched. This is mostly down to disagreements during the writing and filming of the movie – the adapters had a much stronger, better ending in mind, but it was vetoed by the studio.

There are images that will stay with you (the rutting homunculus and Kinski’s shorthand for confused adolescent sexuality – a tongue against her lips - being one). But overall, it feels like an unfortunate, shrill, and cynical Satansploitation movie (Is that a word? It is now…) that wastes the talents of its stars, rather than anything that whets more than the most prurient appetites, even on Hallowee’n.

Still, it’s Christopher Lee’s last Hammer of the Seventies and certainly for his performance, it’s worth ticking off your Hallowe’en list. But probably, for To The Devil…A Daughter, once is quite enough.

Watch To The Devil... A Daughter today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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