The Making of To the Devil…a Daughter: Dennis Wheatley (Part three)

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The Making of
To the Devil... a Daughter:

Dennis Wheatley

Part three

The last of three essays by K B Morris on occult writer Dennis Wheatley explores Hammer Productions’ final '70s horror film, To the Devil... a Daughter, loosely adapted from Wheatley's novel of the same name...

**This article contains spoilers**

In 1971, Christopher Lee and former Hammer producer Anthony Keys were working on a series of films based on Dennis Wheatley’s Black Magic books. Delighted with The Devil Rides Out (UK, Terence Fisher, 1968), Wheatley had given Lee free use of his work. Lee had set up his own film company called Charlemagne Productions who were planning on making The Haunting of Toby Jugg and To the Devil a Daughter. However, Charlemagne Productions made a film called Nothing but the Night (UK, Peter Sasdy, 1973) which bombed at the box office and took Lee’s company down with it. This was most opportune for Hammer, who then had sole rights to eight of Wheatley’s Black Magic books.

Michael Carreras took ownership of Hammer from his father in 1972 but the company was completely broke. In an attempt to turn it around, Carreras envisaged the future of the company as made for TV programmes and big budget film productions. He began working on an anthology called The Devil and all his Works, based on Wheatley’s occult novels, the first of which was To the Devil… a Daughter.

Carreras found it difficult to raise the money for the series as Hammer’s usual financial backers were either nowhere to be found or investing in their own production companies. EMI, who had funded several Hammer films in the past, weren’t keen on To the Devil… a Daughter, so Hammer secretary Brian Lawrence took the head of EMI, Nat Cohen, to see a screening of the as yet unreleased The Exorcist (USA, William Friedkin, 1973). Cohen committed fifty percent of the production costs after seeing the film, and Carreras managed to obtain the rest of the money from a German production company called Terra Filmkunst, bringing the budget to £360,000 (approximately £2,650,000).

Many directors were considered for the film, including Ken Russell and Nicholas Roeg, but none of the producers could come to an agreement. Nat Cohen eventually approached an Australian TV and film director called Peter Sykes, who had previously directed films for both EMI and Hammer. Sykes read To the Devil a Daughter and, even though he thought the book was ‘basically unfilmable’, accepted the project. He then went to Germany in order to cast the two leads.

Sykes went to see The Wrong Move (Germany, Wim Wenders, 1973) which was Nastassja Kinski’s first film. Nastassja, who was 13 at the time, was the daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski, and Sykes had an idea about obtaining them both for the film. Although Klaus could not commit, Sykes managed to sign Nastassja, and she was cast as Catherine Beddows. Richard Widmark was given the role originally offered to Klaus, that of John Verney, the Occult writer.

John Peacock, who wrote Straight on Till Morning (UK, Peter Collinson, 1972), was also shown The Exorcist, and informed by Carreras that this was what Hammer wanted going forward. Peacock’s adaptation however, bore little resemblance to Wheatley’s book. As Christopher Lee said, ‘When I saw the script, I thought it would make a very exciting film… but it was not Dennis’ book and… I don’t think anybody told him.’ Wheatley’s novel is about a British Intelligence Officer called Molly Fountain, who is staying in France and becomes intrigued by her next door neighbour, Christina Mordant. Molly discovers that Christina has been sold to the Devil by her father and given to a Satanic cult led by Canon Copely-Syle. Christina is destined to become a sacrifice in a Satanic ritual if she remains a virgin by her twenty-first birthday.

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Dennis Wheatley’s novel on which the film is loosely based

Michael Carreras left the UK for the States in order to raise money for another Hammer production, Vampirella, and left Roy Skeggs in charge of the production. Christopher Wicking, who had written several films for Hammer including Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (UK, Seth Holt/Michael Carreras, 1971), rewrote the script. He described it as ‘an awful mess’ and Skeggs later admitted that they never quite got it right. In fact, Skeggs approached Sykes before filming began and said, ‘We’re going with a script that really isn’t good enough.’ Subsequently, filming began without a script.

Skeggs brought in Gerald Vaughan-Hughes ten days into filming, which Vaughan-Hughes described as ‘nerve-wracking’: ‘Peter Sykes was filming one end of the picture and I was wondering what the hell was going to happen at the other end.’ Vaughn-Hughes, who was uncredited, looked at the script, said it was unusable, and started to completely rewrite it. Sykes met him every evening to collect the script for the next day’s shoot.

Richard Widmark, who kept demanding to see the script, renamed Hammer ‘Mickey Mouse Productions’. Sykes has many anecdotes of how Widmark kept threatening to leave the production and go back to the States. He also kept getting into scuffles with various members of the cast and crew. Perhaps the worst was when he slapped Kinski around the face after several unsuccessful takes where she found it difficult to cry.

Kinski later said of her early film years that she deeply regretted some of the nude scenes. She was thirteen years old when she appeared topless in The Wrong Move and about fourteen when she appeared completely naked in To the Devil… a Daughter. Klaus Kinski’s other daughter later accused him of sexually abusing her and Nastassja agreed that he had been inappropriate. Given her age and vulnerability, it is surprising that Hammer have kept the nude scenes in subsequent releases.

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Catherine and Father Michael Rayner

Cinematography was by David Watkins who had worked on Ken Russell’s The Devils (UK, 1971). Watkins was new to Hammer and clearly hired in order to take them in a new direction in sync with the new horror cycle. Known for his subtle palette and use of reflectors to bounce light around interiors to create a painterly effect, he bestows a European feel, more in line with contemporary Italian horror films.

The music was composed by American composer Paul Glass and amps up the tension with spooky choral singers in a similar vein to The Omen (UK, Richard Donner, 1976) which was released the same year. To the Devil… a Daughter was filmed in Bavaria and London in contrast to most Hammer productions, which were filmed on location. It’s interesting to see contemporary London locations such as Heathrow Airport and St Katherine’s Docks.

Although To the Devil… a Daughter retained some of Wheatley’s Satanic themes, the story is closer to The Moonchild (UK, 1923) by Aleister Crowley. Richard Widmark plays John Verney, an occult writer who is asked to collect Henry Beddows’ (Denholm Elliott) daughter Catherine (Kinski) from the airport.

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John Verney taking Catherine to his London pad, St Katharine’s Way in St Katharine Docks

Catherine is pursued by a Satanic cult, Children of the Lord, the leader of which is Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee). Catherine’s mother was a member of the cult and gave up her daughter at birth in order for her to become an avatar of a demon called Astaroth. John Verney, with an eye to writing a best seller, agrees to meet Catherine and hide her from the Satanists. He leaves her with his two friends, Anna Fountain (Honor Blackman) and David Kennedy (Anthony Valentine), who meet grisly deaths. At the end, there is a showdown between Verney and Rayner, which ends somewhat abruptly, and he carries Catherine away.

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Anna Fountain (Honor Blackman) and David Kennedy (Anthony Valentine)

Peter Sykes said of the ending, ‘We tried and tried and tried and we couldn’t make it work.’ Vaughn-Hughes recalled having packed up his things believing his job to be over, when Skeggs came into his office and said, ‘You’ve forgotten about the blood.’ Skeggs was referring to a character in the film, who empties her body of blood which wasn’t mentioned again. ‘There was never really a fixed ending in terms of what actually happens.’ Vaughn-Hughes said, ‘Lee puts the blood around the protective circle and he’s not meant to cross it…the moment Lee crosses it there’s divine intervention and he is thrown backwards and lays on the ground in a reverse crucified position.’ However, it was decided that the ending was too similar to the end of Scars of Dracula (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1970). Skeggs managed to cobble together a new ending by taking sequences from the middle of the film. However, Skeggs described the climax of the film as ‘pretty awful.’ The sequence where Lee was meant to be struck by lightning was replaced by Verney, throwing flint at Lee who disappears once struck.

Sykes believed that the idea of the flint had a lot of potential and something more could have been made of it in terms of it having supernatural power, but the ending ‘happens too quickly and is a bit corny.’ Christopher Lee thought that the ending ‘completely ruined the end of the movie.’ He also thought that the foetus sequence, which is where Kinski is naked on an altar and a foetus crawls inside her, spoiled the film because ‘up until then it had been very exciting and very well made.’

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The foetus designed by Les Bowie

Carreras later said, ‘The picture simply didn’t work. The people who made it forgot about the ending. It was an anti-climax, as far as I was concerned. I was very dissatisfied when I saw the rough cut. I went back to EMI and told their then boss Nat Cohen, “This picture doesn’t work. I need some money to redo the end.” I had it properly written out and we knew exactly what to do. Nat looked at the film and over-ruled me. He said that as far as he was concerned, it was perfectly adequate, and he wasn’t prepared to make any more funding available. The movie was then dubbed, scored and delivered.’

Dennis Wheatley, who had no idea about the changes to his book, was appalled. According to Lee, when Wheatley saw the final cut, he said, ‘This is disgusting, obscene, has no relationship to my book. It’s outrageous and disgraceful. And I will never again let this company turn one of my books into a film!’ Deeply conservative, Wheatley would have been shocked at the explicit nature of the film, which featured close ups of people having sex as well as full frontal nudity. Wheatley refused to allow Hammer to make any more adaptations of his Black Magic books, including The Satanist, which was already in development with Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland.

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Poster for the 1976 film release

Flawed though it was, the film took £13,375 (approximately £100,000) on its opening week at the Odeon Leicester Square and was very popular with cinema goers, reaching number three in the London Film Charts. To the Devil… a Daughter was Hammer’s last horror film. Even though the film was a box office success and Hammer’s most profitable film of the Seventies, all its profits went to its overseas investors. For its North American release, it was sold to a new American distributor called Cine Artists, a consortium of cinema owners, who gave it a limited release before going out of business. Hammer Films went into receivership a few years later.

Dennis Wheatley died in 1977, a year after the film’s release, and was interred at Brookwood Cemetery.

Read part one Occult Uncle: Dennis Wheatley

Read part two The Making of The Devil Rides Out: Dennis Wheatley


Sources:

– To the Devil…The Death of Hammer, 2016
– Fall of the House of Hammer, Steve Swires, Fangoria, 1992

KB Morris

KB Morris

K B Morris write plays, novels and short stories.

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