Continuing our Hammer Horror Halloween month with a look at the final horror film of the company’s Golden Age.
The 1970s had not been a good decade for British film. In some ways, the 1970s and the 2020s have a lot in common. Nowadays, many of us own rather large television sets. I, myself, own a responsively backlit 65” 4K TV accompanied with a 7.1 home theatre system. Neither are bleeding edge with all bells and whistles, but when the availability of content is taken into consideration, the proposition of a trip to the cinema is far less enticing than it once was.
The British film industry suffered a similar issue in the 1970s. While the notion of staying at home to watch your 14” colour TV with stereo speakers might seem quaint by today’s standards, back then, television still seemed new and exciting. Partly, because colour television was new and exciting, and partly because television sets had become much more affordable than they had been in the decades prior.
During the global economic crisis of 1973-1975 the UK’s GDP plummetted by around 3.9%, a three-day work week was introduced by then Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and the country experienced double-digit inflation of more than 20%. Snap elections, miner’s strikes, the near-destruction of the manufacturing sector – it’s not hard to see why many people figured a night in front of the telly was preferable to a more expensive night out at the pictures.
Put together, all of this was catastrophic enough for the British film industry. There was, however, a further concern. British films just weren’t cool anymore. So precarious was the position of the British film industry that the Rank Organisation, owner of Pinewood Studios, focused more on other commercial interests, such as the Xerox photocopier. By the end of the decade, even the mainstay of its production, the Carry On films, had died a death (bar a brief revival in the 1990s).
Hollywood, meanwhile, was having no such trouble. A new generation of actors and filmmakers brought something new, fresh, and exciting to the screen. Dubbed the ‘New Hollywood’ era, visionaries like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese helped redefine what cinema could be. Whereas the Brits clung too closely to old ideas, Hollywood embraced the social upheaval of the 1960s and entered the Seventies with a grittier, grounded, and more relatable series of motion pictures that would change the course of moviemaking for decades to come.
To their credit, Hammer had attempted to adapt. Quickly realising that only two types of British film could provide a reliable box office return – the bawdy sex comedy and the feature-length version of a TV show – Hammer opted for the latter, producing a film version of LWT’s On The Buses. It paid off, becoming the second highest-grossing film at the UK box office in 1971, returning a staggering 28 times its budget in revenues, and spawned two sequels. Hammer adapted several other shows to the big screen in the years that followed, with varying success.
Unfortunately, the horror side, for which Hammer was most famous, was in dire straits. American movies such as Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas and The Exorcist had forever altered the rules of the game. These films unashamedly presented graphic violence, unrelenting bleakness, grounded situations and characters, and a greater sense of relatability. Hammer films had always been quintessentially British films. Many had been period pieces, with characters drawn largely from the upper classes of society – well-spoken, affluent, educated. Definitely not a group of sorority girls, or teenagers in a van on a trip through rural Texas.
But audiences didn’t want gothic horror pieces involving unrelatable well-to-do characters in absurd situations. They wanted something raw and gritty. They wanted a possessed thirteen-year-old spouting obscenity and a sense of threat that could genuinely convince them that nobody was safe.
Hammer couldn’t quite get it right. They tried. They started abandoning their period pieces, upping the levels of nudity, and increasing the violence. In the process of trying to modernise, they even alienated long-time actor Christopher Lee who viewed The Satanic Rites of Dracula – particularly under the shooting title of Dracula is Dead… and Well and Living in London – as “fatuous” and refused to appear in another Dracula movie.
To the Devil – A Daughter was a final, desperate roll of the dice and one which would ultimately consign the studio to history (well, for the remainder of the 20th Century, at least). Hammer went all out and signed acclaimed actor, Richard Widmark to play the lead role, although by this point in his career he was more often seen in a supporting role. Well, I say ‘all out’ – by Hammer’s standards sure, but it seems Widmark himself did not agree. Despite agreeing to the role, and the fee, he concluded that he hadn’t been paid enough and made it his personal mission to be a dickhead on set whenever possible.
Fourteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski was cast as Catherine, a clear amalgamation of other successful characters such as Regan and Rosemary. A little footnote here: somebody had done a bit of a Traci Lords and embellished Nastassja’s age. She had signed on as a 17-year-old, which was just about old enough in the UK at the time for that full-frontal nude scene. Of course, she was actually 14, but fortunately for those who failed to check her age, it was one of the scenes that wasn’t overtly sexualised so nobody needed to go to jail for it.
Hammer even managed to get Christopher Lee back, who put in one of the most impressive performances of his career in a film that most people have forgotten about.
The film ticked the boxes Hammer was looking for. It’s far rawer than anything they had produced previously, littered with sexual imagery, and graphic scenes. You’ve got a demon foetus and plenty of Satanic imagery to capitalise on the popularity of The Exorcist. Undeniably, the film is also quite offensive to certain types of people which in the Seventies was a massive selling point. Not so much today, of course.
It’s not perfect. A slew of LSD-inspired POV shots is more confusing than disorientating. The plot meanders at times, regularly degenerating into two people delivering exposition while sipping whiskey. Hammer just couldn’t really balance their innate need to produce a character-driven horror film with the demands of the Seventies (s)exploitation audiences. Hence, the film suffers heavily in the pacing department with the confusing tendency to take a corner like a Formula One driver and proceed down the next straight like Richard Bucket.
Perhaps the most glaring fault is the lack of confidence that is evident in the way the film haphazardly showcases ‘shocking’ imagery without rhyme or reason other than a desperate desire to be hip and with it – like your grandad breaking out his banjo to sing a Taylor Swift song in front of your mates.
That lack of confidence is showcased no better than the ending. An ending had already been shot, but for reasons known to scarce few people, was reshot into the type of absurdly abrupt conclusion that makes the final season of Game of Thrones seem like a methodical masterpiece. Character arcs get tossed out of the window. All of those drawn-out drinking session conversations amount to very little. No sooner has the action finished than the curtain falls, without epilogue or a brief moment for consideration. In some ways, it’s fitting. The ending we get looks like the ending we’d get from a film producer that just ran out of money, and that’s exactly what happened.
Oddly, To the Devil – A Daughter performed well at the box office. It didn’t flop. The movie made a profit, but it still killed Hammer. Why? Because the British film industry, including Hammer, was so reliant on foreign investment to get anything made that the box office returns didn’t end up in Hammer’s pockets, but those of their German investors – and so the least-Hammer Hammer film ended up being the last Hammer film for several decades.
As a slice of history, it’s worth watching. As an example of Seventies horror, it’s worth watching. Arguably, it will never satisfy the typical Hammer audience, nor will it satisfy those drawn to the films it so clearly seeks to emulate. On its own merits, however, despite everything wrong with it, To the Devil – A Daughter is probably one of Hammer’s most underrated movies.
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