Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon* (1957)
directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
*Night of the Demon was the original British title. For the American release, the film was edited and re-titled Curse of the Demon. For clarity's sake, I'll refer to the film in my review as Night of the Demon since I chose to view the original, uncut British version.
(Note: This is my entry for the '50s Monster Mash Blogathon, hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.)
The renowned Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an expert on hypnotism and superstition, flies to England to attend a symposium on the supernatural. Holden plans to participate in an investigation of a mysterious devil-worshiping cult and their eccentric leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). However, when Holden arrives, he finds out that one of his colleagues, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), has died under mysterious circumstances. Karswell appears to Holden and warns him away from proceeding with the investigation, but Holden laughs it off. His skepticism is challenged by the arrival of Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), Professor Harrington's niece, who believes her uncle was killed by something supernatural, something to do with Karswell's cult. The two team up to find out the truth.
Holden refuses to admit the existence of the supernatural, but how does he explain the strange events happening around them? Why does he feels chilled when the weather is hot, why does he see visions of living smoke, and how does Karswell appear to summon wind storms and wild cats? Holden is further puzzled by finding a scrap of paper slipped in amongst his things, with runic inscriptions on it. Holden and Joanna discover that Professor Harrington received a similar paper, three days before he died. With the furtive help of Karswell's elderly mother, (Athene Seyler), the pair find evidence to suggest that Holden too is doomed to die in three days. Unless he can find out the secret of the runes before it's too late. Before he is caught by Karswell's curse. The curse of the demon.
Night of the Demon was based on M.R. James' classic story, "The Casting of the Runes," often acclaimed as one of the greatest scary stories of all time. In James' original tale, the focus was on a mild-mannered academic named Dunning, who becomes the target of the mad and bad Mr. Karswell, after Dunning rejects Karswell's rather incoherent paper on alchemy. Mysterious things begin to happen to Dunning. He sees cryptic messages, he feels nervous all the time, his servants mysteriously develop poisoning symptoms. It's only after he encounters John Harrington, brother of the late Henry Harrington, that he begins to understand what happens to the enemies of Mr. Karswell. And what may happen to him. The power of James' story comes from the dry, understated way these unsettling details begin to pile up, the way the darkness peeks out between the cracks of the maddeningly deliberate prose.
Jacques Tourneur's film takes this story and manages to craft a great horror film that honors its original source material while managing to deepen and enrich the story's themes. Night of the Demon changes the protagonist from a conventional British academic to a hard-headed American scientist named John Holden, whose journey to England results in a clash not just of culture, but of science against superstition. As one of his colleagues tells him, "Take it kind of easy on our ghosts. We English are sort of fond of them." The John Harrington of the story becomes Joanna Harrington, the niece of the mysteriously dead Professor Harrington. She helps Holden try to uncover the mystery of Mr. Karswell, who has been promoted from the frustrated academic of the James story into a powerful cult leader. James' story clung to the ordinary trappings of English life; the action was confined to railway cars, hotels, and small private rooms. Tourneur's film ranges all over, taking Holden from apartment buildings to isolated farmhouses to a spooky manor house, even to Stonehenge. And unlike the original story, which plays as an exercise in "is it or isn't it," Night of the Demon boldly opens with the gambit of actually showing the reality of its supernatural threat, as personified by the demon.
The question of the demon has plagued fans of this film since the very beginning. There is one camp, let's call them Anti-Demon, who swear up and down that Jacques Tourneur never planned to actually show the demon in the movie and that its actual appearance is a serious letdown from a subtle psychological horror film. For the record, Tourneur himself was in the Anti-Demon camp and remarked in interviews that the creature's appearance was forced on him by producer Hal E. Chester. But there's also a Pro-Demon camp, who insist that the demon is genuinely frightening and that the movie wouldn't be nearly as satisfying without it. Author Tony Earnshaw, in his book Beating the Devil: The Making of the Night of the Demon, claims that the demon's appearance was planned from early on, rather than shoehorned in at the last minute.
For myself, I have to stand in the Anti-Demon camp. It isn't because I think the monster shouldn't have been shown, it's because of how it's shown. At first when we see the demon, it always appears from a distance, shrouded in smoke and slightly blurry, so that it could be mistaken for an illusion. In those moments, it's genuinely unsettling, this strange black something that's coming closer and closer. Tourneur, quite craftily, always places the demon in settings where its appearance echoes something more ordinary. There's not much difference between a monster and the flash and smoke of an oncoming train. Or much difference between a demon and the sparks of a crashing telegraph pole.
It's only when the film suddenly zooms into a close-up of our monster, as in the still above, that all mystery vanishes and it becomes just another '50s movie monster. And it's not bad by '50s movie monster standards, it's just that it seems so out of place with the almost subliminal glimpses we were getting before. There's one lingering shot of the demon shaking a man like a rag doll that veers straight into comedy. It doesn't feel organic to the film, it feels like a money shot, like the filmmakers are telling us we got our money's worth in special effects horror. There's a similarly silly moment earlier in the film, when Dana Andrews is attacked by a cat that morphs into a leopard (call-back to Lewton and Tourneur's Cat People?) and the camera lingers long enough for us to realize that Andrews is fighting a stuffed cat. And I think these problems aren't because of bad special effects (Modern CGI would be just as much of a let-down), it's because these shots don't fit with an otherwise suggestive film. Night of the Demon ends on the words, "Maybe it's better not to know," and in this case, the film should have taken its own advice.
That complaint over with, I am free to linger over the many strengths of this film. Aside from the demon itself, Night of the Demon's production design is gorgeous; each set we see is carefully detailed and feels exactly right for the character that inhabits it. The strange geometrics of Karswell's mansion with its spiral staircases, Holden's cramped apartment, Joanna's striped wallpaper in the firelight, it's all fantastic. I kept wanting to pause the movie to linger over the details and I'm sure there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than in trying to parse the visuals of this film.
Jacques Tourneur's direction here is on par with his best work. Night of the Demon creates a mesmerizing, disquieting world, in which every shot seems designed to constrict your breathing. You can spot a lesser horror film by the way the movie deflates in between shock moments, as if the director doesn't know what to do when there's no big scary thing to shake in your face. Here though, Tourneur never loosens his grip. The echoing corridors, the barren countrysides, everything reflects back the fear and paranoia that slowly begins to grip our protagonists. Even a library becomes a horrifying labyrinth straight out of Crete. Tourneur mainly eschews "gotcha" tricks in favor of a suffocating sense of unease that occasionally veers into the hallucinatory. The way Holden's point-of-view sometimes blurs; is it a sign that he's losing his hold on reality? The way a hand appears on a balustrade, seemingly out of nowhere. In Night of the Demon, there's no easy distinction between the ordinary and the supernatural. They exist together.
At this point in his career, Dana Andrews was very much a sideliner, his alcoholism having relegated him to B-parts. In her brilliant essay on the career of the fascinating and vastly underrated Andrews, Imogen Sara Smith writes, concerning his work in Night of the Demon, that "the slur in his voice and uneasiness in his manner make him intriguing in a role that could have been played by Kent Smith." There was always that unease to Andrews, that lurking discomfort underneath the surface, so it's interesting here to see him play a character who is so determined not to look beneath the surface. The hyper-rationalist character of John Holden is, in fact, so stubborn, so smug and self-assured, that the film's sympathy often shifts away from him to the side characters. Even a group of daffy seance-seekers singing "Cherry Ripe" seem more reasonable. It's only by admitting his fears and doubts, however, that Holden can find a way to fight Karswell. And their battle of wits is something to see, indeed.
It's always a treat to see the talented Peggy Cummins although she doesn't really get to stretch herself as the "horribly bright" Joanna Harrington. Joanna, the professor's niece, is a bit of a stock character. B-movie scientists always seem to have a surplus of beautiful nieces/daughters/granddaughters that pop up out of nowhere, carrying research notes and ready to risk their lives. Still, Cummins adds some spark to the character and Joanna's willingness to accept the supernatural is the necessary foil to Holden's skepticism. Her best moment is when she snaps at the perpetually condescending Holden, "Please don't treat me like a mental patient who has to be humored. I also majored in psychology."
But the real treasure of this cast is Niall MacGinnis as the charming but sinister Julian Karswell. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this has to be one of the great horror movie villains of all time. At first glance, he's like a cross between Clarence the Angel and Mephistopheles. He threatens, but with a smile and a joke. He's fond of children and his mother, but he also summons demons from hell. He seems confident in his dark powers but to his mother, he confesses the terrible cycle he's caught in. "My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It's part of the price." Unlike the Karswell of the original short story, a "horrible man" who combines the evils of devil worship with the evils of badly written papers and whose only actions are malignant and petty, the movie Karswell is more fascinating. He's unpredictable, which makes him all the more powerful as an enemy. But there's also a shred of sympathy for his character, who must continually find new victims or else become a victim himself. Ironically, our hero Holden has to find that same ruthlessness within himself by the finale, if he plans to survive.
It's hard to write a review for a film like this without feeling you've only barely scraped at the surface; it's just that fascinating. You could watch it solely for the beauty of Tourneur's visuals. Or you could watch it for the sly humor of Charles Bennett's script. Or for the moment when Dana Andrews stands next to Stonehenge, utterly dwarfed by the mysteries he knows not. Or watch it so that you and your friends can have a rousing debate of Pro-Demon/Anti-Demon. It's a fine horror film and eminently worthy of its cult status.
"How can you give back life? I can't stop it. I can't give it back. I can't let anyone destroy this thing. I must protect myself. Because if it's not someone else's life, it'll be mine. Do you understand, Mother? It'll be mine."
For my money, the party scene at Karswell's house is just about perfect. Holden and Joanna go to Karswell's property to question him and are taken aback by the luxury and size of the place, hardly appropriate for the home of some crackpot con artist. And when they find Karswell, what is this master of dark magic doing? Why, he's dressed up as a clown and doing magic tricks for the local children ("A magic puppy! Now, who'd like to stroke a magic puppy?"). And his mother's even making ice cream. This is one instance of the film completely reversing a scene from the original story. In "Casting the Runes," Karswell is a sadist, who gives the local children a gruesome slide show in order to terrify them. Here, Karswell is genuinely sweet to them, which makes the underlying menace of his character all the more interesting. As he and Holden pass by a pair of kids playing a game of Snakes and Ladders, Karswell remarks whimsically that he always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing up ladders. Holden responds that maybe it means Karswell's a good loser. Karswell turns to him, coldly serious. "I'm not, you know. Not a bit of it."
Final Six Words:
It's in the trees! It's coming!