directed by Peter Sykes
starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee,
Nastassja Kinski, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott
It's an intriguing — for film historians and Nastassja fetishists — if not terribly auspicious performance. All that one associates with her from later films like Paul Schrader's hypnotic Cat People remake and James Toback's Exposed — the unplaceably-accented sultriness, the personification of the dark and mysterious Dorothy Vallens (from Blue Velvet) archetype, the sexual masochism shot through with the obliviousness of the natural beauty who can't help making a drooling obsessive out of every man she meets — it sits on the screen here, doughy and unshapen, her incipient conception of herself as an actress and as an international sex symbol. Kinski just sort of stakes out her space within the frame and stares at her co-stars as if she didn't understand English while intoning her lines with the dubbed-sounding hesitance of some vaguely Slavic sexpot who winds up naked with Laura Gemser in an Emanuelle flick — it's a vocal sound utterly unique to '70s Pan-Euro soft porn more so than post-Exorcist devil-possession movies. Its presence here softens things in a way you didn't expect — it conveys through the mouthpiece of an unseasoned teenage actress the innocence that needs to be at stake in the story of a heretical cult defying God and plotting to make her character the earthly representation of their dark lord on her eighteenth birthday. After all, our gape-eyed horror viewer's impulse demands our money's worth: a virginal white lamb that we can see defiled.
Director Peter Sykes, however, serves up sautéed lamb chops with Béarnaise butter that he yanks from under our noses just as we'd clutched our forks. We're cock-teased with hints of the genre vitiation of Nastassja's sweet young flesh that we came for — her Catherine is strapped down in an orgiastic cult ceremony as cult minions hold a giant inverted-crucifix statue of their lord Astaroth over her body and move it about in simulation of intercourse; during the tortuous labor of a woman bearing a child for the cult, Catherine writhes in agony while receiving telepathic signals of some sort, and her moans and thrashing (augmented by the peeks at her tighty-whities that she gives us between parted thighs) are identical to those of rabid carnal ecstasy. (Pain and ecstasy are, of course, intertwined for a girl losing her virginity; this interplay between opposing senses becomes, in a woman's lifelong attempts to recreate the dopamine hit of that first time ever, the cornerstone of the female arousal mechanism.)
With the exception of her brief strip-down at the film's climax, however, there's only a half-hearted utilizing of the fruits offered by Kinski the Lolita, actorly or otherwise; cock-teasing is all it remains. There's little hint of whatever might be going on in Catherine's head during the protracted battle for her soul; her purpose here is to be the football tossed back and forth between good and evil — Richard Widmark in grizzled-hero mode as John Verney, the occult novelist who's tasked with keeping Catherine from the cult's far-reaching tentacles, and Christopher Lee as the excommunicated priest who leads the cult, all brooding intensity and stentorian declarations like, "It is not heresy and I will not recant!" as he glowers at Christ on the cross as if our Lord owed him some gambling debts. We wonder: how is Catherine processing her destiny as the vessel for evil works by spirits unknown? How does her acceptance of this tie into her burgeoning sexuality and conception of herself as a young woman?
For that matter, how does she feel about her father (Denholm Elliott in sniveling-pansy mode), who buckled under intimidation from Lee's Father Michael Rayner and has, out of fear of repercussions, essentially handed his own daughter over to Satan? How does she feel about her mother who pledged her unborn child to the cult and offered up her own life in exchange for what one imagines was sold to her as eternal reward? Is Catherine's clear arousal under the spells cast by Rayner a function of demonic control or is it an unshackling of her inherent feminine attraction to debauchery, in keeping with Verney's assertion that the great majority of would-be Satanists are merely seeking a lofty, mystical-sounding reason to get naked and gratify their hedonistic urges? (I don't know much about the occult or Satanism — if it wasn't growled about over downtuned jackhammer riffs on an old Slayer or Morbid Angel CD that I listened to in high school, then I've got no clue. But then, I've never encountered any roadblocks to freely indulging my sadist's penchant for dominating and manhandling bad-girl Daddy-fetishists as young as Chris Hansen and the Feds will allow me, so I've no need for such mystical/mythical hocus-pocus.)
Sykes doesn't appear to know how to answer such questions, and if there was something in Dennis Wheatley's novel that elucidated these matters, then Sykes and his screenwriter didn't understand it or thought it irrelevant to the cinematic shocks they were crafting. Wheatley, in fact, viewed this take on his novel as nonsensical and obscene, and forbade Hammer from adapting any more of his works — was it perhaps a desire to please an unpleasable author whose name provided this film with much of its box-office draw that hobbled the filmmakers in their attempt to bring his thematic implications to their full, rancid blossoming? One salivates, imagining the blasphemous kink that strangers to the Christian tradition such as William Friedkin or that mind-fucking perv-daddy Polanski might have brought to the material — or, on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, any number of American filmmakers then working the horror-exploitation grindhouse circuit, filmmakers whose carny-barker commitment to telling a tale in the most whiz-bang, prurient manner allowed by the ratings board could only have enhanced what was pretty sensationalistic stuff to begin with.
As any thinking man will acknowledge, there's no greater horror — with all of its onerous long-term implications — than the tarnishing of fertility and innocence, the corruption of female flesh; thus, in a horror film centered around a young girl, one expects to see this concept carried through. In this particular horror, there's a kind of lump-throated eroticism — we're made silent conspirators in our moviegoer's desire to see bad things done to sweet little darlings. We cheer on the killers and monsters and demons from beyond, even as we recoil from them, because their dirty deeds not only give us our money's worth but provide us with the peek into unrestrained madness — the cathartic play-acting of our own worst impulses — that draws us to the horror genre in the first place. Hitchcock understood this; thus, he gave us that titillating peek at Marion Crane through Norman Bates' private peephole. William Friedkin understood this and gave us cherub-cheeked Linda Blair stab-fucking her twelve year-old muffin with a crucifix — porny sacrilege that upped The Exorcist's outrage factor as properly expected, while making us sweat at the sight of a film going places where only the sickest imaginations had dared previously. This transgression — this mirror held up to the onanistic cravings of the little demon inside us, one and all — is the sacred mission of the horror film, and any horror filmmaker who balks at the execution of his duty does a disservice to the genre and to its fans.
To the Devil is nearly torpedoed in its first inning by muffled sound (someone slams a car door or a guy gets shot, and it sounds as if someone had forced air through a wet paper bag) and fuzzy pacing — it takes awhile for it to kick in just who's who and what their relations to each other are. That's not to say that the film is completely without merit, though. It is rather interesting for horror buffs and Hammer completists; along with solid performances from a rather excellent cast, its allusions to something much deeper and revelatory in regard to the workings of a young girl's emergent will to unrestrained sexual power keep one glued to the screen, parsing the skeletal goings-on for clues to things that the filmmakers might have felt they were unable to come outright and say.
Cinematographer David Watkin — the Munkácsy behind Tony Richardson's Mademoiselle and its claustrophobic panoramas of the Jeanne Moreau character's private hell — pulls off no dazzling displays of fireworks here, but rather he impresses quietly via the heightening of the everyday, exemplifying that dry, overcast look that seemed to personify Britain on celluloid in the Straw Dogs '70s. Christopher Lee, of course, is — as always — Christopher Lee: he fluctuates effortlessly between the outward appearance of the learned English gentleman that he was in real life and a controlled madman who'll let nothing — not tears for the deceased, and certainly no one's fruitless appeals to mercy and propriety — get in the way of his doing the Devil's work. (And that, by the way, is a ringing endorsement.) He brings to one's mind thoughts of a courtly Bela Lugosi when torturing Catherine's father over the phone with apparitions of a coiled snake; in a flashback that explains the father's involvement with the cult by having him stumble onto his dead wife's body after she's given birth to Catherine, Lee's Father Rayner explains to him in no uncertain terms that he must do nothing to interfere with Catherine's destiny, and his resolute lack of any shred of human sympathy or understanding — "I will not have this sacrament profaned by any drunken tears!" — is so anti-heroic under the circumstances that it becomes positively heroic; the twelve year-old boy inside your head, still clutching a box of Goobers in the dark and rooting for the bad guy to get it, needs a villain worthy of his hatred: an evil fire-breathing dragon who's so diabolical and arrogant in its seeming invincibility that its inevitable toppling makes the hero's triumph all the sweeter.
Kinski has, in the autumn of her siren's years, expressed regret for having done so much nudity in her earlier films, insisting that she never felt secure about herself when baring beaver for Paul Schrader or for Peter Sykes here. This comes across in those performances, to a degree. Kinski's always maintained a kind of schoolgirl shyness behind her onscreen sexual image — no matter how nude she was or how coquettish she appeared to be, there was always a question mark behind it all, as if she were never quite sure, deep down inside, that she was really the enchanting goddess of unknown pleasures that men like her father and Roman Polanski kept telling her she was. She projects an enthralling uncertainty, a yearning to be validated by the viewer's gaze which, in the right role, often reads as a kind of humility that's very appealing in sex symbols; the very reason she was so effective. (Marilyn Monroe had it, as well.) Beauty combined with haughtiness is off-putting to all but a select niche of men who get off on dominatrices and that sort of thing; what translates to, and transfixes, the widest possible audience is said beauty neutralized by a kind of implied nod to chastity; a womanly submission to the gaze of the viewer. It's an acknowledgment of her equal role in the symbiosis of watcher and watched — hunter and target — at the heart of the male-female dance, which is to say, at the heart of the human dance, of life itself. Arousing us here despite the fat-wife nagging of our implacable Catholic-school consciences, Kinski hardly appears fourteen, particularly when stripped down to muff 'n bits. Blame it on the Devil if you like or, more appropriately, the God who created her: she seems one of those girls who's looked nineteen since she was born, the kind of preternaturally adventure-seeking jailbait kitten who's been getting men in trouble since the beginning of time.
©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic