Reproduced by kind permisson of the author from The Cult Films of Christopher Lee by Jonathan Sothcott, Eaton Books, September 2000;

chapter 26; pp 259-265

Text copyright © 2000 Jonathan Sothcott


chapter 26

Mysteries of the Occult

To the Devil... a Daughter

Cast & Credits

Richard Widmark – John Verney; Christopher Lee – Father Michael; Honor Blackman – Anna; Denholm Elliot – Henry Beddows; Michael Goodliffe – George De Grass; Nastassja Kinski – Catherine; Eva Maria Meineke – Eveline De Grass; Anthony Valentine – David; Derek Francis – Bishop; Isabella Telezynska – Margaret; Constantin De Go(d)guel – Kollde; Anna Bentinck – Isabel; Irene Prador – German Matron; Brian Wilde – Black Room Attendant; Petra Peters – Sister Elle; William Ridoutt – Airport Porter; Howard Goorney – Critic; Frances De La Tour – Salvation Army Major; Zoe Hendry – Girl; Lindy Benson – Girl; Jo Peters – Girl; Bobby Sparrow – Girl, Ed Devereaux – Reporter; Bill Horsley – Curator.

Director – Peter Sykes, Producer – Roy Skeggs, Executive Producer – Michael Carreras, Production Manager – Ron Jackson, Script – Chris Wickings (Based on the Novel by Dennis Wheatley), Adaptation – John Peacock, Photography – David Watkin, Assistant Director – Barry Langley, Editor – John Trumper, Music – Paul Glass, Music Supervisor – Philip Martell, Art Director – Don Picton, Production Design – Don Picton, Make-Up – Eric Allwright, George Blackler, Special Effects – Les Bowie.

THE STORY

Excommunicated priest ‘Father’ Michael Rayner engineers his godchild Catherine’s journey from Germany to England to celebrate her 18th birthday on All-Hallows Eve. Catherine’s father, Henry, begs famed occult writer John Verney to look after and protect his daughter. Verney reluctantly agrees, thinking he might get some unique material for his next book.

Verney enlists his best friends David and Anna to help look after Catherine, but the de Grasses – members of Catherine’s German ‘convent’ contact her telepathically and will her to kill Anna, which she does with a needle. Verney meanwhile, is at the British museum, where he discovers that Rayner was excommunicated for attempting to bring the demon Astaroth to earth via a human host. It becomes clear that he means to try again, with Catherine.

With Anna dead and Catherine missing, Verney and David track down Henry Beddows to a chalk pentagram in his house, and he tells them that if they bring him his satanic pact, he will tell Verney how to save Catherine. They find the pact in the church, but David, the first to touch it, bursts into flames. Verney returns it to Beddows, who tells him of Rayner’s evil plans.

Verney confronts Rayner as he prepares to sacrifice Catherine. Rayner is protected by a circle of blood, but a well aimed stone takes care of the satanist and Verney rescues Catherine from the satanic altar.

***

After ‘The Devil Rides Out’, Dennis Wheatley’s most famous and popular novel was probably ‘To The Devil - A Daughter’. With its fast moving complex plot, pitting thriller writer Molly Fountain and Secret Service man C.B. Verney against Satanic homunculi grower Canon Copely-Syle, it was an instant hit, and was one of the 3 Wheatleys Hammer optioned in 1963.

In 1968, The Devil Rides Out bombed in America, and Hammer returned to the more lucrative prospect of Dracula rising from his grave. Had the film been a huge global success on the scale of Hammer’s Dracula films or One Million Years B.C., To The Devil A Daughter could have been a viable and immediate sequel. As The Devil Rides Out was broadly deemed a failure, the prospect of a costly special effects-based sequel was soon vetoed (despite the fact that Wheatley’s books were selling in excess of a million copies a year in Britain alone). Despite this, Dennis Wheatley and the film’s star; Christopher Lee (the two had become friends and neighbours in the mid Sixties) hoped to sequel the film in some way, but Hammer demurred, also knocking back an enthusiastic Terence Fisher’s proposal to adapt Wheatley’s The Haunting of Toby Jugg. As such, Wheatley presented Lee with the rights to film 8 of his novels gratis, and this generous gesture was one of the primary reasons for the formation of Lee’s production company Charlemagne.

When Hammer dabbled with television in the early Seventies, they announced a series of 12 60 minute Wheatley stories, titled The Devil & All His Works (after the author’s lavish factual history of Satanism), which was to have included To The Devil - A Daughter, but this project got little beyond the inception stage.

By 1974, the commercial failure of Charlemagne’s Nothing But The Night had ensured the company’s ambitious plans had not amounted to much. When Rank backed out as Charlemagne’s potential backers, the property remained dormant. Eventually, Lee took To The Devil - A Daughter back to Hammer, and agreed a co-production deal, whereby Hammer would finance the film. Speaking to writer Sam Irvin on the Pinewood set of The Man With The Golden Gun on the 3rd of July, 1974 Christopher Lee said, “A script is being written [by John Peacock] and will be delivered to us in two weeks [it was started in March]. If the people [Hammer] who are financing us in this project like the script, we will begin shooting in October.” Despite Lee’s optimism, the project had stalled before crossing the starting line. After Brian Lawrence took EMI’s Nat Cohen to a preview screening of The Exorcist (1973) on 11th of March, 1974, Cohen readilly agreed to put up half of the budget for the Wheatley film. Without the backing of an American major, Hammer could not afford their 50% and begun looking around for a second partner. Lacking the capital to employ Anthony Nelson Keys as producer, Michael Carreras appointed Roy Skeggs as line producer, instructing him to knock the 430,000 budget down, as Nat Cohen requested. With a provisional 8 week schedule and a new minimalistic 360,000 budget, Carreras approached AIP to come in, but declaring the script as needing “a tremendous amount of work,” they declined. Carreras drafted in Chris Wicking to rewrite the script, and on Christopher Lee’s advice approached Don Sharp to direct.

By early 1975, Lee and Nelson Keys had wound up Charlemagne, turning over the rights for To The Devil - A Daughter to Hammer, with the proviso Lee play the Satanic priest, renamed Father Michael Rayner. With a myriad of potential partners to please, Carreras found selecting a suitable cast nigh on impossible, and amongst the crowd of thespians he suggested for the leads were: Andrew Keir, Patrick Magee, Donald Pleasance, Bradford Dillman and John Philip Law (for Verney), John Mills, Joss Ackland, George Cole (for Henry), Joan Collins, Mary Peach, Jane Lapotaire (for Margaret) and Jenny Agutter, Lesley Anne Down, Susan Penhaligon, Jane Seymour, Twiggy and Olivia Newton John (for Catherine). Even the supporting cast was to have been of a higher standard than the usual mix of unknown models and character actors, with Sylvia Syms, Barbara Murray, Virginia Wetherell, Jill Bennett, Janet Key and Carol Hawkins all suggested. Carreras was no less ambitious with his choices to direct, and Don Sharp’s departure from the project offered the chance for a rethink. Carreras notes are split into three distinct groups: ‘Not Available’ (Jack Cardiff, Freddie Francis, Ken Russell and Nicholas Roeg amongst them), ‘Suggested Directors’ (including both old hands such as Alan Gibson and Peter Sasdy and new talent, notably Michael Apted) and ‘Available Directors Whom We Recommend for Serious Consideration’ (such as Peter Collinson, Gordon Hessler and Kevin Connor, along with Michael Apted once again). EMI’s Richard Du Vivier had suggested Get Carter director Mike Hodges, but Michael Carreras was keen to have someone with at least a basic grounding in horror films - he eventually selected Peter Sykes.

With more and more people getting on board, Carreras intensified his search for a lead actor - Stacy Keach, Michael Sarrazin, John Philip Law and (unsurprisingly) Anthony Perkins were all rejected - and eventually, in the Spring of 1975, Carreras decided on Richard Widmark, but the actor agreed only when he was granted script approval. The role of Catherine Beddows eventually went to 15 year old Nastassja Kinski, daughter of Klaus, when a German company - Terra Filmkunst - put up the rest of the budget in June. In keeping with his original concept of a high-powered cast, Carreras dotted such thespians as Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliot and Anthony Valentine amongst the supporting actors.

When shooting finally commenced, on the 1st of September 1975, the problematic process continued: Roy Skeggs and Peter Sykes (together with uncredited writer Gerry Hughes) redrafted the screenplay almost nightly. If the script was something of a problem, Richard Widmark proved a veritable catastrophe, as Roy Skeggs recalled: “He called us Mickey Mouse Productions... In the second week of shooting he called me at 4am one morning and told me he was getting the first flight to Los Angeles. I managed to get to him by 6am, sat on the end of his bed and persuaded him to stay. He did the same the next week, and I went to him again. When it happenned again I ignored him.” Honor Blackman, offered a rather more diplomatic view of her co-star’s attitude: “Dick Widmark was another old mate - we’d worked together before - he was a bit of a difficult devil who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who’d blow up if things went wrong.” One person who found working with Widmark a more rewarding experience was Christopher Lee, who later claimed that Widmark was one of the main influences on his decision to move to America.

The film’s most controversial sequence - surprisingly not the 15 year old Kinski’s full frontal exposure - was Lee’s death sequence. An early draft had called for Satan (apparently to have been played by Shane Briant!) to wrestle (naked) with the evil priest before dragging him down to Hell. The shooting script suggested; “Father Michael is killed by metamorphosis. He undergoes rapid magical transformation from creature to creature, becoming, in turn, a bear, a lizard, an ant, a maggot and finally, in death, himself again.” Christopher Lee described the rather tame version which was ultimately captured on celluloid: “He knocks me out by throwing a rock at me... in the ending we originally shot, I regained consciousness, and saw him carrying the girl out. I picked up a knife and, forgetting the penalty, charged after them. The moment my foot touched the circle of blood there was divine intervention. There was a terrific flash of lightning that enveloped me from head to foot and I was thrown onto the ground in a crucified position.” Despite publicity stills showing this sequence being widely distributed, in the final print, the demonic Father Michael was seemingly killed by no more than a flying pebble.

It has been suggested that EMI ordered the sequence recut because it bore too much of a similarity to the climax of Scars of Dracula. Whatever the case, when Michael Carreras returned from an attempt to raise finance in America (he had been absent throughout the bulk of filming), Nat Cohen denied him the funds to shoot a new end sequence. Following some brief location work in Germany, the film wrapped on the 24th of October. Dennis Wheatley - who had been hostile to the inexplicable bastardisation of his novel - had, by this time, lost interest, and publicly proclaimed that Hammer would never film another of his books.

To The Devil... A Daughter premiered in Birmingham and Nottingham on the 19th of February 1976, and opened in London on the 4th of March. In it’s first week at the Odeon Leicester Square, the film raked in a tremendous 13,375 and entered the London charts at number 3. Despite some less than positive reviews (“It reduces Dennis Wheatley’s Satanist novel to an obsession with gynecological deliveries, bloodstained wombs, and sacrificed babies” huffed The Evening Standard), the film kept up it’s success in the provinces and the estimated gross of the film’s general release was in the reason of 200,000. To The Devil... A Daughter was briefly rereleased later in the year, double-billed with Hammer’s earlier Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out. Despite this success, plans to film the novel’s sequel, The Satanist (with mooted stars Britt Ekland, Christopher Lee and Orson Welles) were still scuppered by Wheatley himself.

In America, the film was picked up by Cine/Artists and released in July. Once again the reviews were poor - “Sykes needs to take a crash course in Terence Fisher” declared Cinefantastique - but without the audiences’ conditioning to the Wheatley name (his books had never really caught on in the States), the film failed to find much of an audience, and was released in some areas as ‘Child of Satan’.

Hammer purists have for years regarded the company’s last horror film as their worst, because it breaks every cinematic Hammer convention. If anything, this is what makes the film stand out as the only serious example of a popular commercial Hammer horror post 1972. Something which must be considered, however, is the film’s resemblence to it’s source novel and - ultimately - it is nil. That said, Wheatley’s novel - with it’s colourful characters and varied geographical sweep could not have been filmed without an enormous budget and international stars (ideal casting for a true adaptation might have seen Donald Pleasence as the evil Canon, Susannah York as Molly, Roger Moore as Secret Service man Verney and Jane Seymour as the enigmatic Christina) and thus Hammer’s very loose adaptation also falls foul of Wheatley scholars. The script - literally a patchwork of different writers’ themes, ideas and dialogue - lends itself to the fragmented narrative Peter Sykes opts for (an ideal director would have been John Hough, but even Peter Collinson would have made a more cinematically daring picture) and the performances are very impressive. Though Christopher Lee had been too young to do Wheatley’s greatest fictional character The Duke de Richleau justice when Hammer filmed The Devil Rides Out, he makes amends with his stylish, calculated performance as Father Michael. Rayner is the ultimate screen Satanist and the scene in which he conjures a poisonous snake to terrify Denholm Elliot is extremely powerful. It’s also surprising to witness Lee’s first proper sex scene, though the actor retained his modesty and his stunt man Eddie Powell had a day’s work as a bum double. Richard Widmark is, perhaps, a little too old for his part (Andrew Keir would have been perfect), yet he powers through and easily matches the performances of Gregory Peck and William Holden in the first two episodes of the Omen series. The supporting cast are all impressive, with both Honor Blackman and Denholm Elliot excelling themselves.

The bloody, unflinching gore scenes are shockingly effective, and lend the film an ambience unique in the Hammer catalogue. Though in many respects a missed opportunity, To The Devil... A Daughter is a solid occult thriller - a true horror film - and ultimately a rawer, more powerful piece of cinema than Terence Fisher’s genteel The Devil Rides Out.

Text copyright © 2000 Jonathan Sothcott.  Web-page copyright © 2006 Bob Rothwell