While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.
In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.
By the mid 1970’s, Hammer Studios was struggling to find relevance and purpose in a dramatically changing entertainment industry. Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Exorcist (1973) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) had established a fresh, raw and palpably visceral style of horror filmmaking, while Hammer’s gothic, classical sensibilities had grown decidedly stale in the eyes of the average moviegoer.
Less costly, safer avenues like television series became the studio’s focus, Hammer proposing an anthology titled The Devil and all His Works based on the novels of best selling British horror writer Dennis Wheatley. Having acquired access to his vast library some years prior due to a combination of the author’s longtime friendship with Hammer staple Christopher Lee and the success of Hammer’s previous adaptation of his novel The Devil Rides Out (1968), the series would have featured short adaptations of his Satanic works in an effort to capitalize on the subject’s popularity in the wake of the success of The Exorcist.
The series fell through, but one particular episode emerged as a standout effort that both the studio and Christopher Lee felt passionate about bringing to life: To the Devil… a Daughter. A dark, enigmatic look at the occult through Hammer’s heady lens, the script deviated dramatically from the novel while maintaining its spirit. It was to be Hammer’s attempt at a more modern horror film, an unflinching look at the violent, sexual and uncontrollable nature of the dark arts and the dangers that lie within for those who come in contact with it.
The film was a commercial success. Despite attacks from critics regarding its tastefulness, the film emerged as Hammer’s most profitable effort from the 1970s. Still, the British film industry was failing. The majority of the budget had come from German investors and, as a result, the bulk of the film’s profits were sapped from Hammer’s bottom line.
In the end, To the Devil… A Daughter would emerge as one of Hammer’s final feature length films. A flawed attempt to make a forward looking picture that honored their past. Had it paid off and the British film industry been in a healthier place, the film would have lead to a new decade and a new face for Hammer Studios. As it was, what was intended as the start of something new became one of the final nails in Hammer’s coffin; and over 20 years of horror cinema dominance came to a close.
“98 percent of so called Satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks, who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing church yards and use the devil as an excuse for getting some sex. But then there is that other 2 percent…”
Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) is preparing a young nun named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) for a journey to London. Theirs is a particular sect known as the Children of the Lord and their church resembles most Catholic churches with one, glaring omission: no cross bares the image of Christ.
At the same time, an American occult writer named John Verney (Richard Widmark) receives a phone call from a man named Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott). The man asks John to pick up Catherine at the airport, insisting that she stay with him instead of her religious order. Confused but enticed at the promise of fodder for a future cultist novel, John agrees and enters into a dark world of black magic and danger that he failed to anticipate.
To the Devil… A Daughter is a movie that feels like the culmination of 70’s occult exploitation cinema. It’s the sort of film that offers just as many long, plot-based conversations involving men drinking scotch as they pace around their studies as it does orgies, demon fetuses and trippy spells of hypnotic POV tracking shots. It’s messy at times and downright offensive at others but there’s no denying it’s a powerful and effective entry in Satanic, cultist horror and one of Hammer’s better installments post-1970.
Most of the film concerns Richard Widmark’s character’s attempt to decipher the level of danger young Catherine is in. Widmark, apparently a nightmare on set due to his low-pay and the marred, poorly executed production, turns in a detailed and nuanced performance. He’s intense and empathetic, allowing the character to go through a real change as he transitions from an atheist leaning opportunist to a cursed true believer.
Opposite Widmark is Christopher Lee’s Father Michael Rayner, excommunicated Roman Catholic Priest and leader of the Children of the Lord. Lee is phenomenal in the role, this feeling like a better conclusion to his seven movie Hammer Dracula stretch than The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) did. It’s an ethereal character, relishing in evil, believing in it, and there are many times where his form feels more akin to a true extension of the darkness than an actual human being.
Then there’s Nastassja Kinski’s Catherine, a quiet, polite nun waiting patiently to fulfill her purpose in the Children of the Lord’s master plan to resurrect a demon named Astaroth. An obvious combination of Regan from The Exorcist (1973) and Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Kinksi does well enough, however the whole affair is damaged significantly knowing that the girl was only 14 when she took the role (despite signing on as 17). Given that she appears nude toward the end, this fact marks a deplorable oversight that damages the film in irreparable ways.
The plot is convoluted and often confusing, building toward a conclusion for Catherine’s character that seems to shift constantly during the last act. Worse, most changes seem to occur for shock value, shoehorning in grotesque imagery that fails to elicit fear and instead generates off-putting disgust. These issues are most apparent in the film’s abrupt ending, which discards original footage in lieu of a hastily explained conclusion due to a dispute between producers.
As with many films of its time, determining its worth is a complicated venture. On the one hand, director Peter Sykes made an expertly crafted film that feels raw, intense and visceral— visually distinct amongst Hammer’s milieu. On the other, the plot-heavy proceedings bog down the characters and leave viewers scratching their heads more often than engaging with the narrative.
What’s undeniable is, as a whole, the film works as a potent dive into the occult. It feels as dangerous as it should, built on performances that resonate and visuals that stick in the mind’s eye long after the credits complete their elegy.
To the Devil… A Daughter is a film that trades in subtlety almost as much as it deals in crass exploitation. A movie clearly torn between more modern, hyper-realistic filmmaking techniques and the reserved, tried-and-true methodologies that had helped Hammer Studios rise to the top decades before. While problematic to say the least, it’s a fascinating exploration of the vile, destructive forces that lie in evil’s shadow and one of the better entries in the era of post-Exorcist satanic spins.
Scream Factory’s Bonus Features
Previously released by Studiocanal in 2018 on Region B Blu-ray in the UK, this release comes equipped with the same studio master. Bolstering colors that pop and rich levels of contrast which maintain a fine level of grain, the transfer provides the proceedings with a distinctly cinematic quality. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is equally deserving of praise, offering clear sound and crisp distinction between voice, effects and the unsettling score which dominates the film’s runtime.
Audio Commentary by Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr (New)
Having previously recorded a commentary track for Hammer’s 1968 Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out, historians and filmmakers Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr return here to provide the disc with its only new special feature.
Their conversation is engaging and informative, running through a brief history of Dennis Wheatley’s work and his relationship with both Christopher Lee and Hammer Studios (including the author’s discontent with the finished picture). They cover the troubled production, the screenwriting process as it compares to previous Hammer films and films at the time and technical feats accomplished in the filmmaking process.
Interesting tidbits aside (at one point Richard Dreyfuss was courted for the John Verney character! Hammer reached out to Ken Russell to direct!), the two also don’t shy away from their issues with the film. They discuss the unforgivable problems associated with Nastassja Kinski’s casting, the confusing story elements and poorly executed ending, amongst other things, tying it all together as they discuss Hammer’s ultimate demise as a studio.
It’s a worthwhile discussion that broadens appreciation for the film as a whole, while providing deeper insight into all that went into its existence. Hammer enthusiasts and those new to the studio will both walk away with something to think about.
Dark Arts: Inside To the Devil… A Daughter (18:58)
(2017 UK documentary produced by Studiocanal)
A series of interviews between film historians Jonathan Rigby, Kevin Lyons and John J. Johnston as they discuss the troubled production of the film and how it relates to the end of Hammer’s horror run for some time. Amongst topics of note discussed are the works of Dennis Wheatley and his disgust with the film, the state of the British film industry at the time, the caliber of the performances and Paul Glass’ highly experimental score. It’s a brief, informative feature that quickly outlines many of the topics discussed in the commentary (and other features found on the disc) and serves as a Cliff-Notes rundown of the film’s creation and place in Hammer’s catalogue.
To the Devil… The Death of Hammer (23:52)
(2002 documentary produced by Blue Underground & Anchor Bay)
A more in depth making-of feature, with interviews from many of the cast and crew members including director Peter Sykes, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, producer Roy Skeggs and more. Similar to Dark Arts, the feature chronicles the creation of the film but in greater detail owing to the fact that many of the individuals who took part are present to recount their stories. While it certainly glosses over some of the messier elements (Nastassja Kinski’s casting, for example), those present are honest and open about what went right and what went wrong.
Filled with fun anecdotes (the attempted casting of Klaus Kinski and why it didn’t work out, for example) and meaningful insight, the feature is a worthwhile venture that provides substance to one’s understanding and appreciation of the film.
Theatrical Trailer (2:12)
The theatrical trailer, in HD, which begins by calling out Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist “and now THIS”.
A classic Hammer horror trailer that promises the world, regardless of whether it’s actually able to deliver it.
To the Devil… A Daughter speaks to the transparent issue regarding the turbulent nature of a film studio attempting to change with the times while holding tight to the past. Still, in retrospect, it is difficult to deny its uncanny effectiveness, the dread which penetrates every frame that holds Christopher Lee’s calculating visage and the urgency Richard Widmark carries into every scene.
Its legacy is as complicated as its production. Credited as being the film which killed Hammer, it was financially successful. Mauled by critics and the author of the novel it was based on, it stuck with audiences and played better and more profitably than any of Hammer’s known franchise titles at the time (including any of Christopher Lee’s Dracula outings post-1970).
All of that aside, Scream Factory delivers the disc with both previously released features and a new commentary that informs and entertains. The picture and audio quality is impressive and fans of Hammer and horror alike should be pleased with the treatment.
In a film that can be tasteless and silly in one scene and authoritatively compelling in the next, judging its overall merit is difficult. In the end, the film is an important part of Hammer’s history, showcasing much of what its best films are capable of as well as some of the opportunities present in its worst. What’s left is a disorienting, technically well-crafted excursion into the occult, and one of the better films in its chosen sub-genre at that.
Good, bad or indifferent, it’s a film worth seeking out and an interesting beginning to a new chapter of Hammer Horror that will always be left unfinished.