One of the most popular ideas in all of horror is for an unsuspecting mother to give birth to a child which turns out to be the Antichrist. Sometimes, particularly in Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, this premise can make for a creepy and effective horror movie. But more often than not, the end result turns to be incredibly silly and unintentionally funny. However, there is also the rare occasion when a horror film about the spawn of Satan turns out to be silly and effective at the same time. The 1991 Italian effort, The Devil’s Daughter (also known as The Sect in some circles) would definitely qualify as an example of this. During the 1980s, Michele Soavi worked as an assistant on numerous films by legendary Italian horror maestro Dario Argento before he finally got the chance to direct a horror movie on his own and made the underrated 1987 slasher flick, Stage Fright. Soavi followed that up with a religious horror effort called The Church and is probably best known for his 1994 zombie love story, Cemetery Man. However, in between those two films, Soavi directed The Devil’s Daughter, which may be his most bizarre effort out of all them.
The Devil’s Daughter opens at a hippie commune in the southern California desert in 1970, where a creepy Charles Manson-esque figure named Damon (Tomas Arana) stops by. It isn’t long before we learn that Damon is a member of a satanic cult called the “The Faceless Ones”, who quickly decide to sacrifice the hippies and provide them all with brutal deaths. We then flash forward 21 years to Frankfurt, Germany, where we meet a young schoolteacher named Miriam (Kelly Curtis, who happens to be Jamie Lee’s lesser known sister). Miriam is driving down the road when she accidentally hits a mysterious old man named Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) carrying a wrapped package. Miriam is relieved to find out that Moebius survived, so she takes him back to her home to help nurse him back to health. However, it’s apparent that the old man is tired and dying and he speaks about completing the end of a long journey. That night, Moebius sneaks into Miriam’s bedroom while she’s sleeping, where the dirty old man proceeds to… uh, take a sacred bug out of his mysterious package and plant it inside Miriam’s nostril, causing her to have a hallucinatory dream sequence.
Miriam wakes up to discover that Moebius has wandered down into a secret, hidden basement beneath her home which she wasn’t even aware of. Miriam also discovers a one hundred-foot well in her basement, and you’ve probably already guessed that this is a portal to Hell since virtually every other Italian horror flick from this time period had an obligatory portal to Hell. She soon finds Moebius’ dead body, but this will not be the last we see of the old man and no points for figuring out that both Moebius and Miriam are somehow connected to “The Faceless Ones”. And, yes, that bug is not the only thing that Moebius has been implanted inside Miriam. In short, the best way to describe The Devil’s Daughter is “Rosemary’s Baby on crack”. This is a pretty surreal horror film, to say the least, but even though its story is all over the map, it’s visually striking, wonderfully atmospheric, and the technical credits and production values are all superb. Like I said earlier, this film somehow manages to be both creepy and silly at the same time. The climax features such goofiness as a white rabbit knocking a guy into a well, yet also contains a face-ripping scene which is one of the most cringe-worthy moments I’ve ever seen in a horror film.
It’s worth noting that Dario Argento was a co-writer on this film alongside Soavi and in spite of Argento’s immense directorial talent, he was never exactly known for his storytelling savvy. The Devil’s Daughter is somewhat reminiscent of Argento’s 1980 film, Inferno, which covered similar ground and is considered to be one of the more visually striking horror films of all time… even though its story is an incoherent mess! Argento also co-wrote Soavi’s predecessor, The Church, which often felt more like a series of striking setpieces than a coherent movie, and The Devil’s Daughter sometimes feels the same way. However, if you choose to view most of the sequences here as standalone setpieces rather than as a piece of an overall story, the film’s a very entertaining experience. One standout setpiece comes early on when a seemingly normal man (Italian horror icon Giovanni Lombardo Radice of Cannibal Ferox and City of the Living Dead fame) cuts out the heart of a woman who tries to escape the cult, but runs into trouble when someone tries to pickpocket him on the subway. This sequence may not add a lot to the story, but it’s very well constructed and manages to be both harrowing and darkly funny at the same time. Even the film’s incredibly corny ending feels like it belongs in another movie, but considering how surreal the rest of the film is, it almost seems appropriate. And this pretty much describes The Devil’s Daughter as a whole. Like most Italian horror, the film is an acquired taste, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the visuals without thinking about it too much, it makes for very satisfying viewing.