This is the first in a recurring series I will be doing highlighting obscure, unknown, forgotten and underrated horror movies. The goal is to bring to light great horror of yesterday and today that just is not on most people’s radar. Just assume spoilers will be included. Enjoy.
It had to have been 1996 or so, I had just gone to the local record store for my weekly browsing when I picked up the latest White Zombie release, Astro Creep 2000. To say front man Rob Zombie is a horror fan is an understatement, but before he was making horror movies he was in a band named after a horror movie, making songs that sampled horror movies. One of my all-time favorites is the song Super Charger Heaven which opens with a sample from the 1963 classic The Haunting.
Look, I know the supernatural is something that isn't supposed to happen, but it does happen
But that is far from the best sample in that song. The best sample comes during a bridge in the middle of the song where there is some super creepy Latin.
Insipientia corde suo, non es deus. Non est vita qui adorem, non es usque ad unum. Es excommunicatus, ex unione fidelium
Which roughly translates to:
Foolish of heart, thou art not a god. There is no life for those who do not adore, and to a man thou hast not. Thou art excommunicated from the union of the faithful.
Heavy shit! Extremely intrigued I had to find out what movie this was from so I blocked up the telephone line, jumped on AOL and Asked Jeeves where this sample came from. After hours of waiting for webpages to load on the early web I found an Angelfire page that informed me that the sample came from the 1976 classic. To the Devil a Daughter.
Have you ever watched To the Devil a Daughter? No? OMG, let me tell you about it!
To the Devil a Daughter is the final horror film released by the legendary British production house Hammer who gave us some of the most memorable horror films of the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Their remakes of the Universal Monsters with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are highly debated whether they are better than the originals. By the time the 1970’s came around the quality of the films started to diminish. They were on their 9th Dracula film an odd pairing of Hammer and the Shaw Brothers titled The Legend of 7 Golden Vampires, a Kung Fu vampire movie. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Couple that with the rise of a new wave of horror, no longer restricted by the Hayes Code, which saw the rise of Satan in the horror genre. Movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were big in the cinema, the public was no longer interested in Hammer’s traditional gothic horror. They wanted Satan, live in your living room and not Dracula in a creepy old castle. To the Devil a Daughter was Hammer’s last shot at relevancy.
The first act of To the Devil a Daughter is really a slow burn. Setting up the details and delivering backstory it opens with the infamous White Zombie sample and Christopher Lee being excommunicated from the church. For as secular as our modern culture has become, there is always something interesting and mysterious about the ritualistic nature of the Catholic Church, especially when they speak in Latin, it would be hard to count how many horror films have used this imagery, with church bells ringing in the background to terrify movie goers. Flash forward some years later and we are in Bavaria at a monastery and we meet the heroin Katherine, played by a very young Nastassja Kinski, who is a nun returning to England to visit her father for her 18th birthday. We see Christopher Lee, longingly looking at the cross. One of the best parts of this movie is Christopher Lee’s looks and facial expressions which pushed this films creep factor into the stratosphere.
We are also introduced to the main protagonist, John Verney, an author and aficionado on the occult, which is convenient. Verney intercepts Katherine from some ominous looking people at the airport and takes her back to his house for safe keeping. Things start to get very suspicious from here on out. Enter Denholm Elliot who plays Katherine’s father who is really the star of this movie. His frantic behavior, his fear and his dread are truly believable. He really looks freaked out. We learn that Katherine’s father unwittingly gave up his daughter to Christopher Lee to be used for his nefarious purposes. He’s signed a pact, sealed an oath in blood and now he’d doubling back on it to protect his daughter.
Denholm Elliot is certainly a familiar face. You may remember him from the Indiana Jones movies as Indy’s college buddy. You may also remember him as the butler from Trading Places. What’s interesting is that you don’t know him from too much more than that. His acting in this film is top notch. He steals every scene he is in including the ones with creepy Christopher Lee.
Cut to my favorite scene. Set in Katherine’s bedroom, decorated as a young girl would with teddy bears and frilly lace bedding. They bring in a pregnant lady who is prepared to give birth in some bizarre ritual where Christopher Lee, with this creepy fucking look on his face, wraps the woman’s legs closed with white silk and burns some herbs on a plate with the devil on it. Plates are a reoccurring theme in this movie. As the woman moans in pain giving birth to a hideous monstrosity through her bound legs and without anesthesia, Christopher Lee smiles in the evilest way possible while the other Satanists look away. They put the baby into an incubator and put it on a plane destined for England.
One of the coolest things about this movie is the rituals, they seem so authentic. Most movies have a circle of salt, a pentagram and some sage, maybe a few candles. To the Devil a Daughter has numerous bizarre rituals like the woman giving birth with legs bound, the telekinesis through golden plates with Satan on them, a circle of blood and a stone altar and turning ropes into snakes via the phone.
The slow burn of the 1st act stops abruptly and turns into fantasy with two phone calls. The first, when John Varney is called by some random couple where he explains exactly what is going on. There is a group of Satanists looking to harm Katherine. The second phone call is from Christopher Lee to Katherine’s father. He calls for a disciple to give him some rope which he wraps around the phone which turns into a snake in the hands of Katherine’s father on the other end of the phone, displaying his power for all to see.
We then cut to another weird scene where Christopher Lee and his followers use a collection of golden plates to call to Katherine by flipping them over, they lure her out of the house, but Varney tracks her down and brings her back home, ripping the inverted cross from her neck. We get a satanic orgy flashback scene with naked Christopher Lee impregnating a woman on top of a pentagram. We get another weird telepathy ritual by Lee who calls to Katherine, commanding her to murder the woman from that random couple who has come to help Varney. He then travels to the local church to get more information about his new-found adversary and to read from the Grimoire of Astaroth. Which honestly, this is not a book you want to be reading.
The Grimoire of Astaroth is a real thing and Astaroth is a fallen angel and the treasurer of Hell. When you think of Hell, and those in league with Satan who rule hell you don’t really think of someone running the treasury department. Astaroth may be the evilest accountant in history. Apparently Astaroth is blamed for a 16th century possession of some nuns caused by a priest, which means someone was doing their research when they wrote this movie.
The third act begins! John Varney and that random guy, now hellbent on avenging his girlfriend, go to Katherine’s father’s house. This scene is another of my favorites, I know, I say that a lot. We find her father hiding away in the attic, sitting in a lazy boy with a pentagram drawn on the ground. He obviously hasn’t slept in days and his is clearly terrified. The dude in the attic scene is so amazing because it feels so real. They try to get information from the father who tells them he only will if they retrieve “The Pact” a weird golden necklace that earlier in the film Christopher Lee tied to the father’s life. Meanwhile, a disciple of Lee willingly drains all her blood in another weird ritual. It is explained that Katherine was baptized in the blood of her mother and now she will be baptized again as the devil himself. And now, the church scene.
The church scene is so raw and gritty, I love it. It’s natural and authentic in a way I simply cannot put into words. Varney and that random dude enter the church to retrieve the pact. There is a great gust of wind inside the church, cut to whispers surrounding Katherine’s father in attic. An apparition of Katherine’s mother covered in blood after giving birth appears to them and tries to deceive them by handing them the pact. Varney, unphased by this goes to the altar to retrieve the pact which the random guy grabs for some reason. He then bursts into flames, stumbling down the aisle between the pews until he finally crashes to the ground in a pile of ashes. John Varney lashes out emotionally “DAMN YOU”, he screams as a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder brings upon the appearance of Christopher Lee and his creepy ass stare.
I’ve said a few scenes are my favorite, but the fetch the pact, church/attic scene is just so damned amazing.
Varney finds the information about where Katherine is which is in a courtyard somewhere on a stone altar. Surrounding her is a circle of blood laid down by Christopher Lee. The ugly little goblin baby climbs up the altar and towards young Katherine who graciously puts the baby back inside of her.
Yeah. Its some creepy gross stuff. Like what is that nasty little booger and why is she stuffing it inside of her vagina?! Better yet, why are they showing full frontal nudity of a 14-year-old actress? The 1970’s were a very different time.
The final scene and showdown between Varney and Lee is one of the best in horror history. The circle of blood, the scenery, their interaction, the dialogue, the cinematography, all of it. I’m not one to get into details like cinematography and dialogue, a bit too high brow for my horror tastes but there is something to be said about what is done in this final scene. The main characters debate the fate of Katherine and try to outwit each other about the power of demons and the protection of the circle of blood. Varney finally enters the circle and the film turns into some weird Instagram filtered mess. Varney throws a rock, hits Lee, he grabs Katherine, the wind blows as he crosses back over the circle of blood where the Instagram filter turns off and….the end?
Ok, so the movie ends super abruptly. And you’re left with a quote from Dennis Wheatly, who famously hated the movie, he called it obscene and told Hammer they were not to adapt any more of his films.
In light all things thrive and bear fruit…
In darkness they decay and die. That is why we must follow the teachings of the lords of light
The trailer for To the Devil a Daughter says, “First Rosemary’s Baby, then The Exorcist and now To the Devil a Daughter” And they weren’t lying. This movie ranks right up there with those horror classics. It’s truly one of the best occult themed horror movies of all time. Well-acted, a somewhat convoluted story line that doesn’t make too much sense but still works. The look, the feel, the grimness of it really hooks you in. All those years ago I scoured the early internet to find this movie, and I am glad I did. This is on my top 10 list of all time and for good reason. This is probably the best performance in the career of Christopher Lee, and if not it’s the creepiest. Not only is this the final horror film from Hammer, it’s the second to last movie they made for over 40 years.
Panned by critics, buried in obscurity by the crushing weight of the 1980’s horror avalanche. To the Devil a Daughter is a must see and hopefully this internet article will direct new fans to it, just like that Angelfire site did for me over 20 years ago.
Want more horror goodies? Just search below: