Hammer Films… Christopher Lee… Honor Blackman… Denholm Elliott… Satanism… If you know your stuff, then really, I could just leave my review there and it would look like a potential 10 out of 10. Unfortunately I can not leave the review there, so this is going to drop points from it’s review fairly quickly.
Directed by Peter Sykes, with writing credits for John Peacock (adaption), Dennis Wheatley (novel) and Gerald Vaughan-Hughes (additional material), this 1976 horror film has a runtime of 95 minutes, and was originally rated an X – although it has since being classified as an 18. The rating comes about due to moderate frightening and intense scenes with occasional violence and gore; it also has mild use of profanities, alcohol, drugs, smoking, and sex & nudity aplenty.
Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) is a nun with the Children of the Lord, a religious order based in Bavaria which is headed up by an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest called Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee). Unbeknown to her, her father Henry (Denholm Elliott) agreed to give her soul to the religious order, which would be sealed on her 18th birthday. This is a big mistake as it turns out that the religious order is a satanic sect who want to resurrect the devil, on her birthday Father Raynor wants her to become the vessel for Astaroth. As the date approaches Henry enlists help from his friend John Verney (Richard Widmark), an expatriate American occult novelist. Together they try to save Catherine spiritually and physically from Father Rayner and his satanic order.
This is the second and last of Dennis Wheatley’s novels to be adapted by Hammer, the first being “The Devil Rides Out” (1968) which was far better. Wheatley was not happy with the way this film turned out and forbade Hammer from using any more of his material. He felt that the film did not stick closely enough to the novel and did not incorporate all its ideas and suggestions. I tend to agree slightly although I have not read his novel, my agreement is purely from a film fan point of view. In my opinion the screenplay is a weak and flawed and the scrip, although delivered well is poor. The script never really elicits tension or excitement it should for such a brooding occult film. There is a real suggestion that this could be a dark and atmospheric film, but it’s never really delivered on and at times gets a little confusing too. After sitting through this, the conclusion of the film is a let-down too – I felt slightly cheated. A pity really, the cinematography is decent, and the level of talent in the film is – well, just wow! Christopher Lee is brilliant of course, but almost seems to be bored of the lines he is having to recite. Richard Widmark and Denholm Elliot do great without every really eliciting empathy from the audience despite their ability to deliver solid dialogue. Honour Blackman is far removed from the usual roles I have seen her in. Even Nastassja Kinski, in one of her earliest films does a good job – although knowing that she was 14 or 15 years old, playing a 17-year-old, and she goes nude is a little worrying by today’s PC standards.
This film turned out to be Hammer’s last film – for a while anyway. With the film becoming a bit of a flop it was pity that the swan song for the famed studio was not a much stronger entry. They tried doing something serious and more realistic, far removed from rubber bats and wobbly sets. Perhaps it was this step away from what fans of the studio had grown up with, that alienated some of the hardcore fans. It’s almost like Hammer were trying to compete with some of the other big occult films of the 70’s like “Carrie” (1976), “The Omen” (1976) “The Exorcist” (1973), and “The Wicker Man” (1973) – but in doing so, they missed something. They went for gore and aesthetics over a solid story, screenplay and script.
While I have issues with certain parts of the film, I do not completely hate the film, I just feel it could have been a lot better if more attention had been given to certain parts. Out of the two occult Wheatly adaptions I prefer “The Devil Rides Out”, but as a Hammer fan, I would not shirk watching this. Hindsight has given me the ability to know that if I want to watch an occult-based film from 1976, then I am spoilt for choice and unfortunately this is not in the top 5 for that year.
As far as recommendations to watch this film, sure, if you are a Hammer fan then your viewing pleasure would not be fulfilled without watching this. If you are just after a relatively simple film that you do not have to pay too much attention to then fair enough, this may be for you too. If you want to watch something that is complex or has depth, maybe its dark and mysterious due to the occult within it, then maybe try a different film, maybe try “The Omen” instead. I wouldn’t recommend this to all age groups of an audience; Kinski is seen fully frontally nude briefly (she’s between the ages of 14 and 15 years old in this depending on what you read, but she’s portraying a 17 year old); there is a very quick brief scene of oral sex and spanking; a girl is seen in a pleasured state after being raped by an alien baby; and there is a suggestion that a girl stuffs a living, bloody alien baby not her vagina – all reasons why the film was initially classified as an X.
To finalize, I’m giving this 5 out of 10; it could have and should have been a better film, but at the same time I wouldn’t skip passed it if it was on TV late one night.