To the Devil... a Daughter was one of the biggest hits Hammer Film Productions had enjoyed in years at the time of its 1976 release. Paradoxically, it's also more or less the film that finally killed Hammer off. The studio hung around in a tattered way for a few years before disappearing: it managed to eke out one more feature, 1979's The Lady Vanishes (a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece), and it oversaw the creation of two 13-part television anthologies, 1980's Hammer House of Horror and 1984's Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. But after To the Devil... a Daughter, it was pretty much all over: though the film met with great success in the UK and abroad, the terribly unfavorable terms under which Hammer had borrowed money to make it meant that virtually all of the profits went to other parties. Which was not a state of affairs that the desperate, cash-strapped Hammer of 1976 could survive.

It's a sorry fate for the studio that had spent most of the '60s defining what sophisticated trash horror could look like before suddenly finding itself discarded as old-fashioned and square. But also not a very undeserved one. Hammer was only rarely able to put a foot right during the 1970s, and To the Devil... certainly doesn't count as one of the successes artistically, even if it managed to bring in the crowds. The film's popularity surely because this was one of the few times in those last few years of its life that Hammer's creative powers-that-be were able to look around at the world and see what people were interested in spending money on, rather than just trying variations on the early '60s Gothics only this time with topless women and awful, insipid young men in the leading roles. And what people were spending money on in the mid-'70s, as far as horror went, was Satanism; in 1973, The Exorcist had met with a level of commercial and critical rapture more or less unique in all the history of horror cinema (only 1999's The Sixth Sense comes even a little bit close), and it led to a fad of religious-themed horror movies that only burned itself out when the slasher movies were ready to make their bow at the end of the decade. 1976 itself bore witness to the most successful of all the wannabe Exorcists, The Omen, a film that bears far more than a passing resemblance to To the Devil... itself.

The Omen is also not a film I hold in any particular regard, so when I claim that To the Devil... falls short of it in pretty much every regard save the performance of the main villain, I'm by no means setting the bar insurmountably high. That main villain is the first character we meet, so the film at least makes a good first impression; his name is Father Michael Rayner, and he's being excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Also, he's played by Christopher Lee, so we can assume that he probably deserves it, despite his muttered voice-over complaints that he is no heretic and will not recant. 20 years later, when we next see Rayner, he's devised a new religious sect out of Germany, the Children of the Lord. It has all the trappings of Christianity, but this is in fact a devil-worshipping cult, a bit of knowledge that the film delays confirming but never really bothers pretending is a surprise. Which is for the best, what with the title and all.

The plot is awfully twisty, but the basic thrust is that Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott) has a teenage daughter, Catherine (Natassja Kinski) who is a novitiate in the order of the Children of the Lord, and he wants American occult novelist John Verney (Richard Widmark) to help him extract her from Rayner's clutches. The exact reason, beyond just fatherly concern - which seems to be low on the list of the pathetic, nervous Henry's likely motivations anyway - is left for later, but it's not at all hard to guess now, and I doubt it was hard to guess in 1976. But like the fact of the Children of the Lord's Satanism, surprise isn't really the goal; we're almost invited to get ahead of the film, all the better to feel a certain slow-moving fatalism as things play out in exactly the way we might dread they'd do.

That is, anyway, the apparent intention, and sometimes it's even the effect. Director Peter Sykes, mostly a TV veteran making his second horror film (the 1972 Demons of the Mind, also made by Hammer, was the other), had some fairly keen ideas on how to inject a sense of psychic disarray into the largely style-free film, mostly in the scenes centering on Henry. In part because Elliott (giving the film's second-best performance) was so good at looking miserable and baffled and terrified, his face made for an excellent anchor for some shots that use highly erratic angles and wider-than-expected lens lengths to slightly distort the world without going into full-on Expressionism. Given how budget and the realities of 1970s film stock had reduced the old Hammer aesthetic to a hollow shell, it matters that some kind of unsettling horror imagery can be brought up, and the intrusion of bent perspectives throughout To the Devil... manages to do that fairly well.

For the most part, though, the film is frankly rather dull. It's a very talky film, one in which conversations do virtually all of the work, and this succeeds only as far as the people talking are interesting; when it's Lee or Elliott or Honor Blackman, this pays off extremely well; when it's Widmark or Kinski, it's either painful (in her case, given her somewhat dazed expressions and unsteady English) or boring (in his case, owing to a flat style of enunciation probably descended from his active dislike of the material). Meanwhile, when the film finally shifts into showing rather than telling, it's easy to wish it hadn't; the "action-packed" final third of the movie is pretty dismal altogether. As part of the film's generally tormented production, which involved a long struggle to find a director, a longer struggle to find funding, and multiple re-writes that weren't complete by the time the film was in production, the final act was made up more or less on the fly, and there's basically nothing good in it: novelist Dennis Wheatley, author of the source material, denounced the final product (it was the third time Hammer had made a film from one of his books - the 1968 horror film The Devil Rides Out and adventure film The Lost Continent were the others - and if the studio hadn't folded, it's a dead certainty that there wouldn't have been a fourth). It involves cumbersome deployment of visions, as Rayner tempts Verney, an climax so devoid of action that I'm not sure how to summarise it other than "and then the bad guy gives up", a spectacularly bad demon hand puppet, and a full-frontal nude shot of Kinski, all of 14 years old at the time, in one of the most wholly unjustifiable choices made in all the annals of "respectable" exploitation cinema (I am truly baffled how the film could be produced and distributed without running afoul of multiple countries' laws against exploiting minors). If the film before the ending had been an unmatched triumph, it would still have to contend with how deeply boring, crass, tacky, cheap, and anti-climactic the last couple of reels are.

And of course, the first hour and some of To the Devil... most certainly isn't an unmatched triumph, though it's not hardly the worst thing you ever did see. Lee isn't being taxed very hard - it's the same peevish and arrogant force of evil he'd played several times by then - but he's still extremely good at investing Rayner with a tremendous amount of curt menace. The score, by Paul Glass, is full of jangling modernist blasts, refusing to resolve itself into anything tuneful, and instead picking up a fair amount of menace in its own right. The atmosphere isn't the usual Hammer thing, but by '76 that was no longer meaningfully possible, and there is some atmosphere. Mostly, the film's problem is that it lacks much momentum, and that Widmark and Kinski, in the two largest roles, are so emotionally flat and annoying to watch. Still, there are worse examples of Hammer in its panic-struck '70s mode, and it's possible to see how under different circumstances, this might have provided a path forward for the studio. Not a path I'd have been interested in following myself, probably, but it is possibly the least musty of the studio's '70s output. I mean, it's become musty in the intervening years, but that's different.