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Posts Tagged ‘Nastassja Kinski’

Oh blog, have I been neglecting you? I fear so. (Friends have even taken to asking me if I’ve been on holiday, so unaccustomed are they to my not rattling on about everything under the sun.) Well, what can I say, real life has intruded somewhat, plus what I have been up to has not been very immediately bloggable. (Though my thoughts on the incredibly obscure topic of Five-Room-Dungeon Design as Applied to Superhero RPGs may yet be forthcoming.)

One of the things that led friends to assume I was overworked/on holiday/dead was the absence of any comment on the recent passing of Sir Christopher Lee. It felt very appropriate that the departure of this iconic figure received such significant coverage across the media – it seemed as if everyone had their own story to pass on or retell, many of them not even connected to his remarkable film career. One almost gets the impression Christopher Lee’s real life, especially his wartime experiences, was the really incredible thing about him: meeting the assassins of Rasputin as a child, serving with the special forces, getting the King of Sweden’s blessing for his marriage, becoming a late-in-life heavy metal star – the list goes on and on.

Needless to say, I never had the pleasure of meeting Sir Christopher Lee, though I should mention that this is largely Peter Jackson’s fault. I went to two SF Conventions in 2002 and 2003, partly because it was strongly rumoured that Lee would be making a surprise appearance at some point in the festivities. However, the con dates coincided in both cases with the dates of reshoots on the last two Lord of the Rings films and instead of hanging out with me, the great man was off being Saruman on the other side of the world. It was a significant disappointment (even if I did get the consolation prize of hanging out very informally with Simon Pegg).

So, of course I will be doing a Christopher Lee film to mark his recent departure from this plane of existence – but one of the things which has slowed this down has been trying to find an appropriate film to look at. As I write, Christopher Lee is the most-tagged actor on the blog, with 25 appearances (obviously it will have gone up to 26 by the time you read this), one ahead even of Jason Statham on 24, and it’s a little difficult to think of a major Lee performance that I haven’t already looked at: The Curse of Frankenstein, nearly all the Hammer Draculas, Rasputin, The Devil Rides Out, The Wicker Man, The Man with the Golden Gun, Attack of the Clones, his films as Saruman… I’ve written about them all (more than once, in some cases), along with lesser works like Horror Express. What’s left? I know he was personally very proud of Jinnah, but I don’t have ready access to it, and while I do have Revenge of the Sith (of course) he hardly plays a significant role in it.

Which kind of restricts us to a minor work, I’m afraid. If only I had The Satanic Rites of Dracula to hand – an appropriately final appearance as the Count, plus another teaming with Peter Cushing – but I don’t. So I find myself revisiting a film I haven’t watched since 1989, the DVD of which has languished in the depths of the Ultimate Hammer box set since I bought it: Peter Sykes’ 1976 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s occult thriller To the Devil a Daughter.

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I suppose there is a sort of appropriacy in covering this final classic Hammer horror film, with Lee in his last major role for the studio, but it’s still a film I find it very difficult to find positive things to say about. It’s certainly a horror movie, but is it really what we all mean by a Hammer horror? I’m not sure.

Lee plays Father Michael Rayner, a Catholic priest who, at the top of the film, is excommunicated for unspecified heretical beliefs. Twenty years later, as things get going in earnest, he is overseeing the departure of a young girl named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) from a convent in Germany, ahead of her arrival in England for an occasion of great moment.

However, Catherine’s father (Denholm Elliott) knows full well that something unspeakable is on the cards and recruits American occult writer John Verney (Richard Widmark) to look after her on her arrival in the country. Very soon Verney’s involvement comes to the attention of Rayner, who is well aware that this could derail his plan to use Catherine to create an avatar of the demon Astaroth, and so he sets about using all his powers of black magic to lure her back into his clutches…

My understanding is that, on release, To the Devil a Daughter was Hammer’s biggest hit in years (co-production deals and the fact the company was already deeply in hock meant not much of the money actually reached them), and by all accounts significant English directors like Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg were considered to direct it. It certainly feels a world apart from what I would call a traditional Hammer horror – there is a very different sensibility involved here. Rather than being filmed on luridly-dressed sets and in the woodland round the back of the studio, To the Devil a Daughter has a drab, naturalistic style, with much of it shot on location and even abroad.

This change of pace extends to the way the film is plotted and written: most Hammer movies are very up-front about the nature of whatever’s going on, with a wholly matter-of-fact approach to the characters and their relationships. This one, however, opts for more of a sense of brooding unease and menace, prior to the moments of explicit horror that punctuate it: we’re not initially told exactly what Rayner’s plan is for Catherine, nor indeed what her father tells Verney to bring him into the story. I suppose it’s arguably a more sophisticated and mature form of storytelling, provided it’s done properly – here, it’s sometimes unclear exactly what’s going on and why, although this may be due to the fact that the script was still a work-in-progress well into principal photography.

Certainly the main thrust of the plot is very straightforward, with much of the film’s flavour and depth – such as it is – coming from a fairly complex back-story, some of it revealed via flashback, and a number of set-piece sequences which are… how can I put it? ‘Implicitly gory’ is one way, ‘disgusting to the point of obscenity’ might be another. Deeply, deeply nasty things happen in this movie – some sequences are simply sordid, and it’s only the magisterial presence of a full-power Lee that redeems them to some extent. By modern standards, the making of this film involved some pretty questionable practices, too, even if (under British law at the time) it was apparently perfectly legal to require a fourteen-year-old actress to do a full-frontal nude scene.

I had thought that a quarter-century and a moderately altered perspective might lead me to reappraise To the Devil a Daughter, but apparently not. Lee is at the height of his powers, of course, and there’s an impressive supporting cast including Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine and the utterly reliable Denholm Elliott. But Richard Widmark is a stolid protagonist at best (Hammer’s run of importing American leads and having them turn out to be horrible presences on set apparently continued) and the film just feels pedestrian and seedy, devoid of the colour and character you’d expect from a Hammer film. Set against all this, the weak ending (a product of post-production jigging about) doesn’t register as a particular problem. In terms of making films about black magic and Satanism, To the Devil a Daughter is probably a more sensible and authentic film than The Devil Rides Out (surely its closest cousin in the Hammer canon), but it’s massively less enjoyable to watch.

Christopher Lee simply disappears into thin air at the end of it, gone without a trace. In reality, of course, his legacy is rather more monumental. If this film is very far from being one of his best, at least he himself shows every sign of giving it his total commitment. One would expect no less: that, amongst many other reasons, is why he was so beloved and will be so missed.

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