The Devil’s Daughter Put the Satanic Panic of Rosemary’s Baby on TV

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The Devil’s Daughter Put the Satanic Panic of Rosemary’s Baby on TV

From 1969 to 1975, ABC put out weekly films. They functioned as TV pilots, testing grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers, and places for new and old stars to shine. Every month, Chloe Walker revisits one of these movies. This is Movie of the Week (of the Month).

Was The Devil’s Daughter a rip-off of Rosemary’s Baby? Well, it wouldn’t be the most unfounded accusation. Maybe “spiritual sequel” would be the fairer term.

The ABC MOTW’s titular spawn of Satan is Diane (Belinda Montgomery); at first, however, she isn’t aware of her terrifying status. In a pre-credits scene, we learn that Diane’s mother, Alice (Diane Ladd), fell in with a bunch of Satanists, was impregnated by the Devil and made a deal to keep the truth from that baby until her 21st birthday. When the Devil comes a-calling on that auspicious day and Alice refuses to let him have Diane, he shoots her dead. 

Diane, having been estranged from her mother for as long as she can remember, knows nothing about any of this. We meet her at Alice’s funeral, where Lilith (Shelley Winters), a woman who claims to have been a friend of Alice’s, offers her a room while she waits for the estate to get settled. New in town and friendless, Diane accepts. But as Diane’s stay with Lilith progresses, she increasingly notices things that unsettle her. Eventually, at the advice of a friendly priest, she decides to move in with another young woman instead—a move to which Lilith takes great offense. Nevertheless, Diane stays in touch, and attends a party Lilith throws in her honor. 

It’s at this party she learns her true identity, and her fate—she is betrothed to the Demon of Endor! (The one with yellow eyes!) Horrified, she runs fast and far from the Satanic cabal in which she’s found herself… but is there any escaping her destiny?

As with many MOTWs, The Devil’s Daughter boasted an array of talent among its cast and crew. Most notable of all is the mighty Shelley Winters, deliciously cast as the Satanic matriarch who takes Diane under her wing and insists that she stays there (each of her line readings is a perfect, barmy jewel; just listen out for the way she pronounces “gazebo”). Also representing classic Hollywood is Joseph Cotten, who plays Diane’s apparently kindly estate lawyer…

Helming the chaos was Jeannot Szwarc, best known for directing cult Christopher Reeve sci-fi/romance/weepie Somewhere in Time (though he also had Jaws 2 on his CV). And the screenplay was penned by Colin Higgins, who had written Harold and Maude just two years earlier and would go on to write and direct 9 to 5.

So with that eclectic but talented bunch involved, it should come as no surprise that The Devil’s Daughter is—despite its derivative nature—actually rather good. It’s rare that direction counts among an ABC MOTW’s better qualities, but Szwarc’s is consistently interesting, if not always successful in its ambitions. Shooting Diane’s occult coming-out party from her point of view does an excellent job of making her claustrophobia—these Satanists aren’t ones to respect personal space—uncomfortably tangible. A near-miss hit-and-run, where a hypnotized Diane watches as a vehicle barrels perilously close to a small boy, is so reminiscent of a scene from Twin Peaks: The Return, it’s easy to imagine that David Lynch was among those sitting in front of their TVs in 1973. Sure, there are plenty of silly flourishes, but the clammy atmosphere of mounting dread that Szwarc conjures is surprisingly unnerving. 

And although Higgins—with perhaps a hint of embarrassment—referred to The Devil’s Daughter as being “just a job” for him, his screenplay doesn’t feel phoned in. The character details of Lilith’s devilish crew are particularly delightful. Best of the bunch are The Poole Sisters—two middle-aged women, one white and one Black, who always dress exactly the same—and Mr. Howard, Lilith’s mute but hearing butler, ever tantalizingly on the cusp of helping Diane out. Sure, the idea of such a demonic gang does seem like another lift from Rosemary’s Baby (or as Daniel Kurland asserts in Bloody Disgusting, films as old as 1943’s Val Lewton classic The Seventh Victim), but Higgins and the actors give them just enough life and specificity that they don’t appear mere imitations. 

The Devil’s Daughter was far from the ABC MOTW’s sole brush with the occult across its six-year run. Later in 1973, the fabulously named and genuinely creepy Satan’s School for Girls saw the dark lord adopt the form of a handsome teacher in an all-female art school (the Salem Academy for Women), where he sought new recruits for his coven. Two years earlier, western The Devil and Miss Jones imagined him as a brutal bandit (played with scenery-chomping glee by Gene Barry) who possessed the ability to manipulate people with his mind. The last of the set was 1975’s Satan’s Triangle, starring Kim Novak, which caught Satan wreaking havoc on the high seas. 

This Satanic intrigue was undoubtedly influenced by the enormous success of Rosemary’s Baby at the end of the previous decade, as well as the other classics like The Exorcist that would soon follow in its wake. The ABC MOTW production line was an efficient, sometimes shameless beast, which usually had its ear to the ground. Whether it be current events or big-screen trends, the series regularly embraced what was going on in the world beyond the small screen with transparently exploitative aplomb.

Though the Satanic Panic didn’t really kick into gear until the 1980s, it’s not difficult to see how these films would have helped stoke that particular (hell)fire. In 1950, only 10% of American households had a TV set. By 1970, that figure was 95%. The generation of kids who grew up with the ABC MOTW were the first generation who grew up with televisual ubiquity. Their parents could still remember a time when this box in the living room was a vaguely suspicious stranger. Age ratings were in action at the local theater, but there were no such measures stopping children watching these movies in their very own homes. This uneasy intimacy could make even the more innocuous MOTWs unsettling. When the subject matter was the Devil himself? Terrifying! It’s no wonder that a TV movie from 1982, Mazes and Monstersa baffling oddity that conflated Dungeons and Dragons with the occult (and featured Tom Hanks’ debut leading role!)—is often credited as being one of the Panic’s architects.

Still, all that would be a problem for the following decade—more than anything else, The Devil’s Daughter is just a whole lot of eerie, campy fun. And for what it’s worth, it’s certainly a whole lot better than the actual Rosemary’s Baby sequel, 1976’s Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (yes, seriously…).

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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