Wednesday, June 20, 2007
2. To The Devil A Daughter (1976)
Nastassja Kinski's second feature, the Peter Syke's directed TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, is a frustrating film in many respects, most notably in the fact that throughout it is so close to becoming a really great film. Unfortunately, even though it contains one of Christopher Lee's finest performances and several striking sequences, Syke's ambitious film finally falls very short.
By the mid seventies the famed Hammer studios was in serious trouble. The success of films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, ROSEMARY'S BABY, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE EXORCIST had really changed the landscape of the horror film. Compared to these multi layered, and subversive films made by young filmmakers often barely in their thirties (or younger), the once vital and fresh world of Hammer Horror appeared very tired and old hat to many contemporary horror fans in the seventies.
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was a project that Hammer had been kicking around for a very long time. Based very loosely on a Dennis Wheatley, author of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, novel from the fifties, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER would prove to be the final Hammer Horror film ever made, even though it actually did quite well for them at the box office. The film greatly benefits from the direction of Sykes, who had helmed the very effective and underrated DEMONS OF THE MIND for Hammer in the early seventies.
The film, which focuses on a group of defrocked priests and a secret coven looking to sacrifice a young nun in order to grant the devil entry to rule the earth, is a strangely plotted and at times dreamlike production that is lovely to look at but ultimately hard to watch. Part of the problem no doubt lay in the behind the scenes difficulties ranging from a lead actor (Richard Widmark) who hated the project completely, a script that was undergoing constant rewrites and a final few moments that needed to be spectacular but was one of the biggest fizzle jobs in seventies horror. It is actually a miracle that TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is as good as it is, in lesser hands it probably would have been a complete disaster but, in its first half at least, it manages to be a quite good and sometimes near great meditation on evil and the corruption of once good men. I think of particular importance is the contribution of writer Chrstopher Wicking who had infused evil, in the undervalued BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, with the same kind of dramatic and dark pull that TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER possesses.
Nastassja's age has been questioned in this film and I have seen some reports say that she was as young as 15 or as old as 17 when she shot it. Made just past a year after THE WRONG MOVE, it is most likely that she had just turned sixteen or was close to it. Her age is often brought up no doubt in part due to the full frontal nudity she has in the film as well as the infamous 'reverse birth' sequence that is still pretty jaw dropping.
Whatever age she was, she gives a very good performance in a role that had to be pretty demanding for such a young actor. Like Wenders, Sykes seemed to understand how effective she could be in silence and some of the films best moments with her just focus on her face. Even at this young age, she is very good at representing a seething internal conflict and this is most apparent in the great scene where she pulls the upside down cross out and the viewer realizes that this seemingly innocent young girl is indeed already a part of this dark coven.
Richard Widmark is okay in the role considering how miserable he reportedly was, although he slips completely over the top towards the end and compromises what is already a weak conclusion even further. Denholm Elliott offers his usual, sympathetic solid support and it is always a pleasure to see Honor Blackman. The film though completely belongs to Christopher Lee who gives one of the most chilling performances of his entire career. As the defrocked priest who exclaims near the beginning of the film, "It is not heresy and I will not recant", Lee gives a totally believable performance as a man who was perhaps once very good but has completely given himself over to the darkest of forces. It was a personal role to Lee and he had been trying to get Wheatley's novel to the screen for years. For all of it's shortcomings, Christopher Lee's work in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER makes it a fitting finale to Hammer's Horror empire.
The final moments of the film are among the most disappointing in any horror film of the seventies. While I don't agree with Lee's assertion that it completely ruins the film, it does seriously call into question much of the style and near greatness that came before it. It has been said that financial issues were a huge part as to why the ending wasn't more successful but to this day it bugs me that the time couldn't have been taken to improve it, even if just slightly.
There is much to praise in the film outside of Syke's mostly solid direction and accomplished acting by Lee, Kinski and Denholm. The Paul Glass composed score is very effective as is the sharp editing of John Trumper. The editing of this picture must have been a nightmare, especially in the first half hour with the alternating story lines and dreamlike sequences but Trumper handles it beautifully for the most part. The film would have been a lot more convoluted and confusing in lesser hands. The talented ITALIAN JOB and GET CARTER editor would sadly work on very few projects after TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER though. David Watkin's photography is nice and it is especially good at achieving a languidly creepy tone that is hard to argue with. Kinski's famous nude scene is photographed really beautifully and it's to Sykes and Watkins credit that, what could have been an unbearbly tasteless moment, plays out so well.
The talented Les Bowie, who had done special effects with Hammer since THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT, is let down by a lack of funds on the producers part. Still I don't think the affects are quite as bad as some critics and fans have mentioned, and the must have inspired ALIEN sequence is very well done.
As I stated before, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER actually did pretty well in its initial run and got a lot more attention than most Hammer films from the mid seventies. Ironically it achieved the updated feel that Hammer wanted, and had the company been able to afford to they might have remained viable players in the marketplace. As it was though, the film turned out to be not only the last Hammer horror film but the next to last feature they would ever produce. 1979's THE LADY VANISHES remake would shut the once mighty Hammer's doors completely with only two tv series coming afterwards.
Outside of getting her seen by many more people than WRONG MOVE, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER did little for Nastassja's budding film career. Her nude shots appeared in magazines all over the world and it led to a few years of work posing in, mostly German, men's magazines. The role did get her seen though, and that would prove vitally important to the young Kinski who would soon appear in a flurry of films that would lead to her triumphant role 4 years later in Polanski's TESS.
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER might not be a total success but it is well worth watching and the Anchor Bay dvd from a few years back features a very nice uncut transfer of it. Included is a near thirty minute documentary that is very interesting and features an honest interview with a still disappointed Christopher Lee. Nastassja was not sadly not featured in the documentary and the dvd would have been much more valuable with a commentary track.
While not of the standard of her first film, THE WRONG MOVE, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER remains a film in Nasatssja's canon well worth seeking out and watching. As the last horror film Hammer ever produced, historically it remains an important chapter in British film history.