Dennis Wheatley and To the Devil a Daughter

After the runaway commercial and critical success of Hammer’s version of the Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out in 1968, the actor Christopher Lee, the film company Hammer and Wheatley himself were all keen to have a go at filming another of Wheatley’s black magic novels — this time To the Devil a Daughter. However, though a box office hit on its release in 1976, the film is much less fondly remembered than its predecessor. The production was beset by problems and the film itself is controversial. Wheatley disowned it and refused to allow Hammer to film any more of his novels, having previously given them free rein. A rich (in more than one sense) history stretching back to the 1930s came to an abrupt end: To the Devil a Daughter was the last film Hammer Film Productions made in the twentieth century.

Yet, for all its undoubted flaws, I am a big fan. Looked at together, the two films — The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter — have a lot in common, much more than just dodgy special effects. Both are far superior to the original source novels. Both feature iconic scenes and quotable dialogue. Both are genuinely scary at times. And both feature towering performances from their star — Christopher Lee.

Wheatley’s novel, published in 1953, opens in France with the mystery of Molly Fountain’s reclusive young neighbour who — we eventually learn — had the ultimate bad start in life: she was the trade in a pact with the Devil, exchanged by her good-for-nothing father, Henry Beddows, for business success and material wealth. To redeem this ‘bond’ he must deliver his daughter Ellen to a group of devil worshippers on her twenty-first birthday. With the fateful day now approaching, Beddows has sent her away from England, hoping to protect her from what he has subsequently learned is to be her fate: a human sacrifice in a black magic ceremony.

As noted in the first part of this blog trilogy, notwithstanding the ‘black magic’ label, Wheatley offers up “a largely standard adventure-novel diet of kidnappings, escapes and manhunts, served up with lashings of derring-do.” The action switches between the French Riviera and the rather less glamorous English countryside. Indeed, the very name Canon Copely-Syle, leader of the devil-worshipping sect, is one more likely to conjure up an image of a gentle and good-natured, if slightly eccentric, vicar living in some quiet country village or other. Copely-Syle’s devilish goal is to create the first of an army of homunculi, human-like creatures brought to life via an unholy mixture of black magic and pitiless scientific experimentation. It is Ellen’s blood and spirit that will animate the homunculus.

The Hammer film version, on the other hand, is set in London and Bavaria (the latter because some German money was involved in financing the film). That certainly isn’t the only change; in fact, other than the title, the film bears little resemblance to that of the novel. Lieutenant-Colonel William Verney (‘Conky Bill’, on account of his large nose), a very British hero of the secret war against the Nazis and now of the postwar intelligence world, becomes John Verney, American writer of occult novels, played by Richard Widmark. One wonders if this change was made specifically to shoehorn in a relatively big-name Hollywood actor. Molly Fountain and her son John, who feature prominently in the book, are written out of the film altogether.

We now have Beddows tricking Verney into looking after his daughter — now Catherine, 17, rather than Ellen, 20. And instead of Canon Copely-Syle we have Father Michael Rayner, a heretic from the Catholic Church who has formed a breakaway sect based in Bavaria called the Children of the Lord. Catherine is under the influence of these devil worshippers. In another change, it was her birth mother who as one of Father Michael’s followers willingly handed her over, not her father who gave her away for material gain.

The homunculus of the book has become the demon Astaroth (or perhaps ‘Asteroth’), essentially the Devil, and Catherine is to be its avatar — its incarnation or embodiment — on Earth. The exact nature of Father Michael’s heresy, for which he was excommunicated, is not made altogether clear. We are told that he believes in the absolute capability of Man. The film script uses science to explain why this is such an alarming proposition: “Mankind is a freak of evolution … his brain is partially programmed for catastrophe.”

But it can perhaps be better understood in philosophical and theological terms, as a challenge to a fundamental pessimism about the human condition that was widespread in Christian belief systems down the ages, arising from the idea of the Fall of Man and the related notion of original sin. In the nineteenth century this ‘philosophy of imperfection’ underpinned conservative opposition to change and reform and to progressive ideologies such as socialism, at the heart of which is the belief that it is possible for humanity to build a better society.

All that Catherine has ever been taught by the Children of the Lord is that “[t]he youth has lost its way. They need something new to follow. We will provide it.” In reality, this means worldwide chaos and catastrophe, presided over by Astaroth, who will renew the ‘vital spirit’ of the world.

It is not too much of a stretch to see this as a corruption of the Christian message. Christianity is founded on the idea of a Chosen One or Anointed One (Christos in Greek; Messiah in Hebrew). The early Christians like Paul believed that the resurrection of Jesus was a sign that the end times were at hand and that the Second Coming would herald the thousand-year kingdom of God on Earth.

In more recent times fascism — and in particular Nazism — included elements characteristic of a messianic cult: a saviour who would deliver his people from disgrace and decay, and lead them, particularly the young, to glory. The ‘vital spirit’ — élan vital — is an idea sometimes associated with the philosopher Henri Bergson; its links with the idea of intuition and instinct made Bergson briefly popular on the anti-rationalist, anti-intellectual right at the start of the twentieth century.

Anyway, back to Father Michael’s satanic scheming. According to the Grimoire of Astaroth — a grimoire is a book of magic spells — Catherine, having been baptised in the blood of her dead mother, is to be rebaptised on her eighteenth birthday in the blood of Astaroth. At this point she will in effect become Astaroth and take her place as the ruler of the world, in Father Michael’s words fulfilling “his [ie Astaroth’s] great purpose and her great destiny”. The ceremony of baptism in the blood of the mother involves tying the mother’s legs together as she is about to give birth so that the baby is forced to erupt through her stomach à la the scene involving Kane (played by John Hurt) in 1979’s Alien. This is how Catherine came into the world, on the altar of a Christian church.

All this is good fiendish fare for fans of the genre, though it is by no means always easy to follow. We have already seen a baby born in just this way, to Margaret, near the beginning of the film — our first indication that the Children of the Lord are not all they seem. Margaret’s baby, we later learn, is Astaroth, who will be sacrificed during Catherine’s rebaptism ceremony. Hmmm. This viewer was left wondering exactly why Margaret’s baby is Astaroth. Is it due to the way it was born, helped along by the presence in the room of Catherine’s childhood toys? More likely it is linked to a black magic ceremony that haunts Catherine’s memories, in which Father Michael has sex with Margaret (presumably impregnating her) while Catherine herself simulates sexual intercourse with a life-sized version of the symbol of their Church — Astaroth on an upside-down crucifix, legs splayed, ready for what is to come.

Nothing of this derives from the original novel. As noted in a previous blog, anticommunism is central to the Wheatley worldview. The superiority of western civilisation — of Christianity, of the white Anglo-Saxon race — is axiomatic. Progressive ideas are deeply suspect. Communism is the work of the Devil.

The object of these high-up Satanists is to deliver the world up to him [the Devil], and the only way they can do that is to cause the breakdown of good rule so that misrule may take its place. With that as their goal they do everything they can to foment wars, class-hatred, strikes and famine; and to foster perversions, moral laxity and the taking of drugs. There is every reason to believe that they have been behind many of the political assassinations that have robbed the world of good rulers and honest statesmen, and naturally Communism has now become their most potent weapon.

Dennis Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter, Chapter VI

Later we learn that Copely-Syle is counting on the Kremlin to support his dastardly schemes:

…a government such as that of Soviet Russia, which is not hampered by the scruples and inhibitions of its people, might consider it well worth its while to segregate for several years large numbers of female children, in order to ensure their retaining their virginity until they reached an age when they could be used [ie sacrificed] for the production of homunculi. You see, for any country bent on making war the process offers a new weapon of inestimable value. As suicide troops these fabricated beings would prove enormously superior … because they would require no food other than the blood of their enemies…

Dennis Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter, Chapter XV

Risible though Wheatley’s attempts to link communism and satanism are, it at least has the virtue of clarity. The sometimes baffling plotline of the film, on the other hand, hints at a troubled history. It was made by Hammer in 1976, but with British cinema in the doldrums the company’s glory days were over. Hammer was broke. Despite securing financial backing from EMI, the film’s budget was a mere £360,000 — and it shows. By contrast, the big box office success The Omen, made in the same year, had a budget of $2.8 million. A further difficulty was that, though the film boasts a terrific cast, Richard Widmark seems to have been difficult to work with — “Nobody liked him.”1

The original scriptwriter had declared the novel unfilmable. An initial script was produced and then rewritten and then rewritten again (the original rewrite being described as unusable by the new script consultant), even as filming was already underway, with new pages being produced on a daily basis. The ending, in particular, was a mess. Michael Carreras, who ran Hammer, is quoted as saying that he tried to secure additional money to remake the ending but that EMI refused.2 We are left with an unintentionally comical climactic scene — Catherine’s rebaptism ceremony — in which Verney and Father Michael play out a mixture of Top Trumps and the spoof game Spoons from the comedy show Friends, in which random rules, conditions and exceptions are invoked to bemuse the contestants.

VERNEY: I read the book of Astaroth. You’ve just butchered Astaroth. The demons hate you, Rayner. They’re waiting for you.

RAYNER: The circle of blood protects me, as you know, if you have read the book. Very soon Astaroth will live on in this child and all will be well.

VERNEY: You really think that this circle will protect you, don’t you? It won’t.

RAYNER: It will because this circle stands upon a hill of flint. Flint is the sacred stone of Astaroth.

VERNEY: But this stone of Astaroth [which he had picked up off the ground and just clobbered Rayner’s accomplice with] has the blood of your disciple on it. Now the demons will protect me.

Cue dodgy special effects on a par with Dr Who circa 1974 as Verney crosses the circle of blood. Here the film abruptly ends, Verney carrying Catherine away in his arms. There is, however, the merest hint of ambiguity. Father Michael, floored by the stone thrown by Verney, has disappeared. Have the demons claimed him, as Verney warned? Or has he managed to escape? Meanwhile, Catherine is now safe, the rebaptism ceremony not having been performed. But what is that look in her eyes in the very final shot? Was the image of Astaroth entering her as she lay on the altar really just a dream? To add to the confusion, we now know that this latter image was not originally part of the rebaptism scene at all but inserted post-filming in an attempt to strengthen the film’s ending.3

At least this hastily concocted rebaptism scene helped them overcome another script-induced headache. An earlier scene, showing another of Father Rayner’s disciples — Catherine’s surrogate mother Eveline — giving her life by squeezing the blood out of her own body until she dies, had been overlooked, the purpose of her self-sacrifice not made clear. Now we learn that it is to create the circle of blood that will protect the rebaptism ceremony. [It’s quite remarkable how many women seem to have chosen to join this cult considering the bloody fates that await them compared to their male counterparts.]

The film’s problems didn’t end there. Far from it. In contrast to Hammer’s version of The Devil Rides Out which he loved, Dennis Wheatley hated To the Devil a Daughter, not simply because it departed so markedly from the novel but also because he found some bits of it obscene — presumably the bloody childbirths among them. Though actually made only eight years apart, it feels as if decades separate the two films, and not just because The Devil Rides Out retains its original 1930s setting whereas To the Devil a Daughter is updated to the (then) present day.

The soft-focus softcore nudity and comic-book gore of Hammer classics like Twins of Evil, Lust for a Vampire and The Vampire Lovers had by the mid-’70s been superseded by films with an altogether harder edge. Ken Russell’s The Devils had already caused a furore on its release in 1971 due to its (for the time) explicit sexual and violent content and the religious themes it explored. Then came the success of The Exorcist in 1973 — and not just at the box office: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.

To the Devil a Daughter is less restrained than The Devil Rides Out in its depiction of sex and violence, though by modern standards it steers clear of anything too graphic. It is the bloody aftermaths of the babies’ unnatural births and the murder of Anna Fountain (played by Honor Blackman, the character’s name a seemingly pointless half-nod to the novel’s Molly Fountain) that we see, not the events themselves. A brief orgy scene obscures more than it reveals. Even the penetration of Catherine by Astaroth in a dream sequence (or is it? — see above) is more suggested than shown.

Far more controversial, considering that Nastassja Kinski was only 14 or at most 15 when she made the film, is her full-frontal nudity when Father Rayner tries to use the virginal Catherine to tempt Verney. An earlier nightmare scene, with Catherine writhing around on the bed in a sweat-drenched nightie, is also filmed in a gratuitously suggestive way.

One of the few points of convergence between book and film is the need to retrieve Henry Beddows’ pact with the Devil. The book does this rather better than the film, the latter taking Verney and his friend David Kennedy to the very altar on which Catherine was born eighteen years previously. Kennedy’s girlfriend has just been brutally murdered with a pair of scissors by Catherine (under Father Michael’s malign influence, of course) to enable her to effect her escape. Though — or perhaps because — Kennedy is motivated by revenge, his will is weak and on grasping the pact he spontaneously combusts (the fate that awaited Henry Beddows if he tried to recant). The special effects — a sudden gust of wind and a ghostly appearance by Father Michael — reflect the size of the budget.

In the book, the pact is a piece of paper stored (with many others) in the sinister vault of Canon Copely-Syle — part satanic temple, part chamber of horrors, containing not just a consecrated altar to facilitate his devil worship but also the hideous results of his experiments in creating life. Verney’s and John Fountain’s very souls are in peril as they attempt to reach the altar until, at the final moment, Verney begs for divine intervention:

There was a blinding flash. A fork of light streaked down through the roof striking, not them, but the centre of the altar slab, shattering it into a hundred fragments. God had intervened. Instantly a deafening din broke out. Cries, screams, moans and groans sounded from every direction, as the minions of Hell fled back into the dark underworld.

Dennis Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter, Chapter XXII

Verney was presumably unaware of the Sussamma Ritual, used by the Duke de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out to save him and his colleagues from damnation. This is not as flippant a comment as it perhaps sounds: earlier in the novel Copely-Syle refers to Mocata and Simon Aron (“a wealthy young Jew”), so Wheatley was clearly not averse to linking the two books.

The film of To the Devil a Daughter sits, unloved and half-forgotten, in the shadow of the magnificent The Devil Rides Out, but for all its flaws — the convoluted script, the done-on-a-shoestring special effects, the weak ending — it is a worthy addition to any film buff’s library of occult films. The basic plot idea —a girl raised in seclusion by a cult of devil worshippers led by an excommunicated priest, to be baptised as Lord Astaroth on her eighteenth birthday — is at least as good as that of the novel, and there are some eminently quotable lines:

[The presiding bishop recites words in Latin, one of which is ‘excommunicatus’.]

It is not heresy and I will not recant.

Father Michael’s excommunication

[The doctor attending Margaret begins to prepare a pain-killing injection. Father Michael stops him.]

RAYNER: Show it to her. Tell her what it is.

DOCTOR: It’s morphine, Margaret.

RAYNER: Answer him, Margaret.

The birth of Margaret’s child — without morphine

98% of so-called satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing churchyards and use the Devil as an excuse for getting some sex. But then there’s that other 2%… I’m not so sure about them.

John Verney’s initial thoughts on the matter

I have a feeling I’m dealing with that other 2%.

John Verney the next day

She died as she wished to die. You were nothing to her. And I will not have this sacrament profaned by any drunken tears. Look at me! There is nothing in you, Henry Beddows, of any strength or grace or value at all.

Father Michael’s withering assessment of Henry Beddows

The acting more than compensates for the shortcomings of the script. I have loved Anthony Valentine ever since watching him as the chilling Major Mohn in the TV series Colditz (and then as the much more gentlemanly Raffles). Given her age, Nastassja Kinski’s performance is remarkably assured. I suspect that it is the character of the bookish John Verney than I am drawn to, rather than Verney’s role in the film (the script doesn’t help him) or the performance by Richard Widmark. The wonderful Denholm Elliott plays a role that, very unfairly and probably because of the Indiana Jones films, I instinctively associate with him — as someone permanently midway between a drunken stupor and a nervous breakdown.

Above all, there is another magnificent performance by Christopher Lee — not this time the righteous and upright Duke de Richleau but the devil-worshipping Father Michael. Who else could make an occult ceremony involving the upturning of plastic-looking plates or the tying of a rope around a hand holding a telephone receiver so terrifying? And in the finest moment of the film, as doctor and nurse turn away in disgust at the hideous birth of Astaroth, we see Father Michael/Lee looking on, his face a picture of both pure evil and pure delight: “Margaret, you shall die now,” he says soothingly.

Dennis Wheatley Blog Trilogy

Part 1:
Dennis Wheatley’s Horror Novels

Part 2:
Comparing The Devil Rides Out Book and Film

Part 3:
To the Devil a Daughter

Notes

  1. There is much of value, including this quote, in this short documentary on YouTube: To the Devil… (The Death of Hammer Horror).
  2. This is an excellent article on the website of Horrified.
  3. See Note 1.

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