To The Devil A Daughter

To The Devil A Daughter

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

As many writers know, the trouble with publishing on controversial subjects is that it draws all sorts of dubious people out of the woodwork, and they often believe that you're the only person who can really understand them. In this case the writer is John Verney (Richard Widmark), his subject is the occult, and the man who gatecrashes his book launch to harangue him for half an hour is an alcoholic aristocrat (Denholm Elliot). But whilst Verney has found that 98 per cent of self-professed Satanists are "just freaks looking for an excuse to dance around naked", he has a creeping suspicion that this case may relate to the other two per cent. So he agrees to collect the aristocrat's daughter and steal her away from her minders at the airport; he agrees to hide her in his home; and he gets himself in still deeper trouble than he had anticipated.

There's one golden rule in Hammer horror films: don't mess with Christopher Lee. Though he may not always be right in the head, he is always dangerous. Here he's a former priest, excommunicated for heresy, who has overseen the birth of a devilish child and had her raised in seclusion as a strange sort of nun. Now it's almost Halloween, the day of her 18th birthday, and what he has planned for her could threaten the whole world.

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Based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, this is a sort of partner to The Devil Rides Out and is one of Hammer's stronger stories, with some genuinely scary moments. Lee is on top form as the wild-eyed, cold-hearted villain, approaching black magic with a steely rationality that almost makes it seem like science. Opposing him, Widmark is witty and laconic, his temper slow to rise, and their different approaches to key problems make this a more complex tale than it first seems. Verney's approach to his vulnerable charge is paternal, but he still finds her sexually alluring, just as he finds himself fascinated by the very practices he has committed himself to thwarting, leading to a morally complex conclusion. Scenes of Satanic child abuse are particularly creepy given the teenage Isabelle Adjani's curiously distanced performance as the nun, with her sudden bursts of passion making a considerable impact and creating an effective impression that there are two personalities inhabiting her delicate frame.

The supporting cast are likewise excellent, especially Honor Blackman as Verney's sleazy yet well-intentioned agent, and there's a terrific cameo from Frances de la Tour as an evangelical Christian. These performances help to create a sense of the uncanny even in the most mundane locations, and daylit London seems no safer than the Gothic vaults where Lee's rituals take place. Rather than relying on blood and gore (though there's a fair bit of that), this aims to horrify at an existential level. It doesn't always succeed but the attempt is intriguing throughout.

Reviewed on: 28 Dec 2009
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To The Devil A Daughter packshot
A writer of books on the occult finds himself guarding a young woman raised to become the embodiment of evil.
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Director: Peter Sykes

Writer: John Peacock, based on the book by Dennis Wheatley.

Starring: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Nastassja Kinski, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott, Michael Goodliffe

Year: 1976

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Germany

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If you like this, try:

The Devil Rides Out
Rosemary's Baby