It’s Hammer-time! In the 1970’s, Dennis Wheatley was a literary phenomenon, with a slew of bestsellers; he was pretty much the biggest brand-name for horror in the UK long before Stephen King was a thing. Wheatley has been a friend of Ian Fleming, and an advisor to Winston Churchill during World War II, and knew his way around all manner of government secrets. He wrote spy novels too, but the notion of him having access to hidden information seemed to inform his most popular work; They Used Dark Forces is a typical title.
Adaption for Wheatley’s work, however, proved trickier than it was for Fleming. Cheapo epic The Lost Continent is a laugh-riot, yet Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out was pretty good, special effects aside, and when Hammer was looking to take on The Exorcist, The Omen and the devil worship cycle of the mid 1970’s, it turned to Wheatley’s bestseller To The Devil A Daughter.
With genre favourite Christopher Lee as a villain, imported star Richard Widmark as the occult writer tracking him down, and Nastassja Kinski as the nubile Bravian nun set to be sacrificed to Old Nick himself, what could go wrong? Quite a lot really; while the overtones are decidely dark, the action is fairly stodgy and doesn’t stick too closely to the book, much to the author’s displeasure.
Compensations include Rising Damp’s Francis De La Tour as a Salvation Army singer, Bond girl Honor Blackman, saturnine Anthony Valentine and of course the always welcome visage of the great Denholm Elliot, and there’s nothing boring about Peter Sykes’s film. There’s nothing very scary about it either, but that’s to do with the source material. Wheatley was an adventure writer who used black magic themes; To The Devil A Daughter was the wrong selection of weapon, club or instrument by the Hammer executives, but shorn of expectations of being the next big thing in horror, which this most assuredly wasn’t, it’s a fun ride for specialists.