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Curse of the Demon(1957)

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Curse of the Demon (1957)

Ancient curses, black magic, poltergeists, and the supernatural world have been favorite subjects for the cinema of the fantastic but only a handful of movies have succeeded in convincing an audience to suspend disbelief and believe in the unbelievable. The titles that come immediately to mind are genuine classics of the genre - Cat People (1942), Dead of Night (1945), The Innocents (1961) - films that subtly convey a sense of the paranormal through mood and atmosphere. Curse of the Demon (1957), which was released in England as Night of the Demon, also belongs in this select group though it has had a much harder time eluding its reputation as a B-movie horror film - an accusation brought on by the producer's insistence on making the demon a highly visible presence on-camera. Nevertheless, its cult status is assured thanks to references to it in "Science Fiction Double Feature," the opening theme song to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, but passing them used lots of skill".) and the Kate Bush song, "The Hounds of Love" which begins with a quote from the movie, "It's in the trees! It's coming!"

Based on Montague R. James' short story, "Casting the Runes," Curse of the Demon goes beyond the conventions of most supernatural thrillers by engaging the viewer in an intellectual debate over two opposing philosophies - belief in the occult and a total refutation of it. Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a debunker of paranormal occurrences and beliefs who travels to England for a scientific conference. Upon his arrival, he discovers that a colleague, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Harrington's daughter Joanna (Peggy Cummins) is convinced that Doctor Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) was somehow involved with her father's death. Holden's own investigation reveals that Karswell is indeed a believer and practitioner of the black arts who placed a curse on Harrington. Yet, Holden's rational scientific mind cannot accept the possible explanation that Harrington was killed by supernatural forces, even when he is secretly slipped an ancient parchment with runic symbols and begins receiving warnings and signs about his own impending demise.

If Curse of the Demon seems like a throwback to the Val Lewton-produced thrillers for RKO in the forties, it's because Jacques Tourneur, the director of Lewton's Cat People,I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), has imbued the film with the same sense of dread and menace he brought to those evocative thrillers. "I detest the expression 'horror film,' Tourneur once stated. "I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe in it." Unfortunately, producer Hal E. Chester, who also made unwarranted changes to Charles Bennett's screenplay, insisted on shooting and inserting an opening scene featuring the demon and an explicit final appearance at a railway station. This was completely counter to Tourneur's wishes who wanted the viewer to decide for himself whether the demon existed or not. In his own defense, Tourneur said, "The only monster I did - and this is how I wanted to do the whole thing - was the scene in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by a cloud. Then I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom - did I see it or not? People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw."

The appearance of the creature in Curse of the Demon still generates controversy among the film's admirers today, splitting them into two camps. Those that believe the film's effectiveness is seriously damaged by showing the demon and those who believe the creature is a welcome and terrifying addition. Among the naysayers are Carlos Clarens, author of An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, who proclaimed the special effect "atrocious" and a "monumental blunder" and the film's original screenwriter Charles Bennett who was so outraged by Chester's creative changes that he once said, "If [Chester] walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead." On the other hand, Danny Peary, in the first of his three Cult Movies books, wrote "I believe most critics dislike the demon for no other reason than they know it was studio-imposed...I am in favor of this vile creature as big as a house and ugly as sin...It's the scariest monster in film history as far as I'm concerned (no matter that others think it ludicrous)." Even respected film historian William K. Everson approved of the demon's appearance, calling it "such a lulu that it lives up to the fearsome descriptions of it." And, in all fairness, the dragon-like creature was modeled on 3,400-year-old woodcut prints from demonology books according to Tourneur.

Yet, regardless of whether one is pro or con on the visualized demon, it is hard not to be seduced by Tourneur's depiction of a shadowy fantasy world where perceptions are often shaped by a fear of darkness; Ted Scaife's cinematography certainly exploits this with scenes framed in pitch black darkness illuminated only by passing car lights or flashlights. The suspenseful unfolding of the plot and Karswell's true nature is also sustained by Charles Bennett's witty and intelligent script which often bears comparison to characters and situations in Alfred Hitchcock films, which is no surprise when you realize Bennett penned some of the master's best early work: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) to name just a few.

Most people agree that Curse of the Demon is Tourneur's last memorable film and the same could be said for Dana Andrews who uses his somewhat rigid and intractable style of acting to his advantage here playing a stubborn, not easily intimidated protagonist. Peggy Cummins, who is best known for her trigger-happy vixen in Gun Crazy (1957), makes a plucky heroine but the real scene-stealer is Niall MacGinnis as Karswell, a mercurial and complex character who can be an urbane and charming host as well as a threatening and sinister presence. The scene where he is dressed as a clown at a children's party on his estate and conjures up a storm for Holden's benefit is one of the film's highlights.

One last comment about Curse of the Demon: the film has existed in two versions ever since its release in 1957. The British release, entitled Night of the Demon, had a running time of approximately 95 minutes. The U.S. version, released as Curse of the Demon, was trimmed by some thirteen minutes, reducing its length to 82 minutes, and placed on a double bill with The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), a Hammer horror production. Both versions of Demon are currently available on the Columbia-TriStar DVD release. Like Chester's imposed "improvements" on Tourneur's film, his U.S. cut of the film - Curse of the Demon - has generated an equal amount of controversy. If you saw this version first you might not immediately notice what was missing but in viewing the longer cut you'll see that Chester trimmed scenes and dialogue, sacrificing nuance, plot details and character development, in order to create a breathless, fat-free narrative. The trim 82 version is certainly an entertaining funhouse ride but the "fat" that Chester pared away makes the original British release a much richer and satisfying experience.

Producer: Frank Bevis, Hal E. Chester
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: M.R. James (story), Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Film Editing: Michael Gordon
Art Direction: Ken Adam
Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Dana Andrews (Dr. John Holden), Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington), Niall MacGinnis (Dr. Julian Karswell), Maurice Denham (Professor Henry Harrington), Athene Seyler (Mrs. Karswell), Liam Redmond (Professor Mark O'Brien).
BW-95m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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Curse of the Demon (1957)

Charles Bennett, the original screenwriter of Curse of the Demon, had this to say about his involvement in the project in Cult Movies by Danny Peary: "I bought the rights to Montague James' story, "Casting the Runes," and wrote a screenplay called "The Bewitched." It engendered a great deal of excitement out here in Hollywood...But time rolled on...and I was in England directing a TV series (ghastly)...On the very day that I was leaving...Mr. Hal E. Chester [producer] turned up and asked me to sign a little letter granting him the rights for a certain amount of money for six months, if he could set it up. Very tired and on the way to the plane, I signed the Goddam thing...but as soon as I arrived back in Hollywood I was informed that RKO (Bill Dozier in charge) had okayed the purchase of my script with me as my own director. Too late. Hal Chester held that wretched little piece of paper in England and I hadn't even received a penny in advance."

According to Bennett in an interview with Tom Weaver, several major actors in Hollywood were interested in playing the lead in Curse of the Demon: "Robert Taylor certainly wanted to do it. In fact, it was his right hand man (whose name I now forget) who had set it up in my absence with RKO. Dick Powell also was very, very interested and talked to me about it a tremendous lot. But we never got down to a contract."

Director Jacques Tourneur became involved in Curse of the Demon through Ted Richmond, the producer of Nightfall (1957), who recommended the project to him.

According to biographer Chris Fujiwara in Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Tourneur "showed the script to his friend Dana Andrews, who agreed to play the main part. Andrews was at this point a somewhat tarnished figure, his career blighted by an alcoholism that reputedly affected his work (there is one scene in Night of the Demon, a process shot of Andrews getting out of a car in front of a hotel, in which his delivery is noticeably slurred and unsteady.)"

Andrews didn't much care for producer Hal E. Chester (he referred to him as "a real little schmuck") and recalled his interference on the set of Curse of the Demon: "He would come up and start telling Jacques how to direct the picture. Jacques would say, "Now, now, Hal," and try to be nice. But I just said, "Look, you little son-of-a-bitch! You want me to walk off this picture? I didn't come all the way over here to have the producer tell me what he thinks about directing the picture. I came because Mr. Tourneur asked me. Let the director direct the picture!""

Remembering the filming of Curse of the Demon, director Jacques Tourneur commented on the scene where Karswell conjures up a windstorm at the children's party: "I had a fight over the staging of the storm scene. We had to rent twelve aerial engines from World War I. We were on an exterior location, and these were great long trees, and if we'd had half a storm it would have been inadequate. We had truckloads and truckloads of dead leaves, and we set the radial engines whirling - cost a fortune, no one would talk to me. They said, "We'll do it with generators, electric machines," and I said, "No, it's got to be a hell of a storm, it's got to blow over the prams and the nurses in the garden, and all the chairs." So we had all these huge engines going: there was so much noise you couldn't hear anything." He also added, in a separate interview with Joel E. Siegel for Cinefantastique:, "...if we are going to have a morlock making a storm, it can't just be a wind - it's got to be a gale. So this nice kids' birthday party is destroyed. I had all of the wicker furniture painted white so that you'd see it and, when the nurses start taking the kids inside, all this furniture rolls across the screen. I'm very happy with that."

Producer Hal E. Chester, with the studio's approval, decided that Curse of the Demon would perform better at the box office if they showed the monster, an idea that Tourneur was strongly opposed to. In an interview with Films and Filming he said, "The monster was taken right out of a book on demonology -3,400-year-old prints copied exactly - and it looked great, I must say, in a drawing so I said, 'Fine, go ahead.' Then they put this thing on a man. I thought it was going to be suggested and fuzzy and drawn, in and out, appearing and disappearing, like a cartoon, animated.....The one-fourth of the film which had to do with the delineation of that monster belonged to another type of film which is the teenager horror film."

The monster didn't work for Tourneur and he said "The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. All except one. I shot the sequence in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by a sort of cloud. This technique should have been used for other sequences. The audience should never have completely seen the demon....They ruined the film by showing it [the demon] from the very beginning."

In an interview for Cinefantastique, Tourneur explained, "I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom - did I see it or didn't I? People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw. But after I had finished [the film] and returned to the U.S., the English producer made that horrible thing [the monster], cheapened it. It was like a different film. But everything after that opening was as I had intended."

Compiled by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Cult Movies by Danny Peary
Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants by Tom Weaver
Cinefantastique, "Tourner Remembers" by Joel E. Siegel
Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara
American Directors Volume 1 by Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage
Video Watchdog, "Curse of the Demon: Two Versions, Two Critics" by Bill Cooke and Kim Newman

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Curse of the Demon (1957)

The working titles of Curse of the Demon were Night of the Demon, The Bewitched, Casting the Runes and The Haunted. The film opens with an image of a Stonehenge-like ruin over which an off-screen narrator states: "It has been written since the beginning of time even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said man using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of hell."

Curse of the Demon was produced at Associated British Picture Corp. Studios, which is abbreviated on the print as A.B.P.C. The Copyright Catalog lists the film's running time as 95 minutes, which according to a modern source, was the running time of the British release.

The Original screenplay of Curse of the Demon was written by Charles Bennett, who is best known for his script collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on Blackmail (1929), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937) and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

Bennett was very unhappy with what Hal E. Chester did to his screenplay for Curse of the Demon: "I had to sit by while Chester made the biggest balls up of a good script that I have ever seen...somehow the movie, perhaps because the fundamentals of my screenplay couldn't be entirely wiped out, succeeded. To add insult to injury I frequently get letters, even now, from cult-type organizations, asking me to write something about Night of the Demon because it is still loved in peculiar areas."

Despite Bennett's low opinion of Chester's changes to his screenplay, he had great respect for the director Jacques Tourneur, saying, "Tourneur was a wonderful person. I would never blame him for what happened to the film. I blame only Hal Chester. Never Jacques. He did the best he could with what he was told to shoot."

Curse of the Demon is the movie that the line "It's in the trees! It's coming!" was sampled from for the opening of the Kate Bush song "The Hounds of Love".

The scene in which Holden breaks into Karswell's study at night and is attacked by his housecat-turned-leopard is reminiscent of the scene in Cat People (1942), also directed by Jacques Tourneur, where Dr. Judd (Kent Smith) is attacked in his darkened study by a prowling panther.

Curse of the Demon was referenced in the opening song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show ("Science Fiction Double Feature"): "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, but passing them used lots of skill".

Dana Andrews was so impressed with the director that when he returned to the United States he had Jacques Tourneur direct his next film, The Fearmakers (1958).

Although he had appeared in numerous film noirs and thrillers prior to 1957, Curse of the Demon was really the first fantasy film that Dana Andrews appeared in. After that, he dabbled more frequently in the sci-fi horror genre with such efforts as The Satan Bug (1965), Crack in the World (1965) and The Frozen Dead (1966).

In interviews regarding Curse of the Demon, Dana Andrews credits the story to Oliver Onions. The story is actually based on "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James.

Jacques Tourneur's approach to horror was always more psychological than explicit. "The real horror is to show that we all live unconsciously in fear," he observed. "Many people suffer today from a fear that they don't begin to analyze and which is constant. When the audience is in the dark and recognizes its own insecurity in that of the characters of the film, then you can show unbelievable situations and be sure that the audience will follow. For another thing, people love to be afraid. It's strange, when we're children, we say to our nurse or to our parents: "Frighten us," and we love that. These fears stay in us all our life: we're afraid of thunder, we're afraid of darkness, of the unknown, of death. The horror film, if it's well done, awakens in the mind of the audience this fear that it didn't know it had in it, and this discovery makes it shiver."

When Curse of the Demon was first released in the U.S., it was distributed as a double feature with the Hammer horror film, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), directed by Terence Fisher.

Despite bearing the title Curse of the Demon, the print currently available on videotape and television in the USA is actually the original longer (UK) cut.

The original U.S. release version was edited down from the British version by thirteen minutes (some sources claim it was fourteen). Here are some of the deleted or drastically edited scenes, which can be seen in the British version:
- a conversation at the airport between Holden and the reporters was shorn of 41 seconds
- Holden's first meeting with his scientific colleagues is reduced by almost half its original length
- a minute and twenty one seconds was cut from the tense encounter between Karswell and Holden in the British Museum, lessening the impact of their clashing philosophies
- crucial dialogue between Joanna and Holden in a hotel room that helped confirm Holden's refusal to accept supernatural beliefs was deleted.

Compiled by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Cult Movies by Danny Peary
Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants by Tom Weaver
Cinefantastique, "Tourner Remembers" by Joel E. Siegel
Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara
American Directors Volume 1 by Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage
Video Watchdog, "Curse of the Demon: Two Versions, Two Critics" by Bill Cooke and Kim Newman

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Curse of the Demon (1957)

"Its understated, elliptical style and brilliant final sequence make this one of the great films of the supernatural."
- Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films.

"Night of the Demon abounds in prosaic situations turning implacably into nightmares. Every flourish is a touch not underlined but understated...Unfortunately, the film's producers could not see that this was enough....they inserted some atrocious shots of a demon at the very outset of the picture. It is a tribute to the director's skill that his movie survives such a monumental blunder."
- Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film.

"Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon certainly deserves its cult following. It is the best horror movie of the science fiction-dominated fifties, the most intriguing film ever made with a witchcraft theme, and the most intelligent, visually impressive entry to the genre since director Jacques Tourneur, followed by Mark Robson and Robert Wise, made that classic series of B horror films at RKO for producer Val Lewton in the early forties."
- Danny Peary, Cult Movies.

"Tourneur, who excelled at films that staged the eruption of repressed desires, made the classic horror movies Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943)...Here his extraordinary placing and handling of the camera imbue seemingly ordinary surroundings with a brooding sense of menace. The trees, objects or simply unlit areas darkly obtruding in the foreground suggest the presence of implacable forces waiting to pounce on vulnerable, isolated figures. Some suspense scenes, perfectly timed and staged, stand out as models of their kind: the shots of a car with blazing headlights speeding through the night, filmed from behind a cluster of trees; the sudden storm at the children's party presided over by the villain dressed up as a clown; or Andrews' growing panic as he walks through the woods after a visit to the necromancer....the movie is an object lesson in atmospheric horror."
- Phil Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies

"One of the finest thrillers made in England during the '50s, despite the fact that the final cut was tampered with against the director's wishes...Even so, the rest is so good that the film remains immensely gripping with certain sequences (like the one where Andrews is chased through the wood) reaching poetic dimensions."
- David Pirie, TimeOut Film Guide.

"His reputation [Tourneur's] still refers initially to the sense of unrevealed horror within the everyday that he showed in the films made for Val Lewton...But the same talent is evident in the British Night of the Demon, taken from an M. R. James story. Time and again in these films, it is the imaginative use of light, decor, space, and movement that makes the impact of the movie."
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

"Despite dim work from the leads, this supernatural thriller is intelligently scripted and achieves several frightening and memorable sequences in the best Hitchcock manner."
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"Classic devil-cult thriller...The photography and acting is mostly top notch in a film that almost surpasses the earlier RKO-Lewton hits."
- Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

"This still emerges as the finest horror film produced during the 1950s, with a wealth of rich plot detail....boasts excellent performances - particularly [Niall] MacGinnis as the urbane sorcerer."
- James O'Neill, Terror on Tape.

"...film convinces audience right off the bat and never lets up...Exceptional shocker."
- Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.

"Just as in Tourneur's Cat People, it is what the audience does not see which causes a sense of unease...Niall MacGinnis's satanist is a sinister yet affable figure, ultimately aware that he is out of his depth in his occult dabblings. His fear is believable, even if the depiction of his fire-breathing nemesis is not. Although slightly marred by some creaky effects, this remains an engaging, frightening and influential film."
- Ronnie Hackston, BFI Screen Online.

"No mere matinee programmer, this is one of the classiest and most intelligent terror films around, even with the presence of a controversial demon (a combination of puppetry and a truly horrific monster make up concoction) which may or may not betray the Lewton aesthetic, depending on which accounts one chooses to believe. In any case it's a crackerjack monster design, but the film has bigger scares up its sleeve on both an intellectual and visceral level...Tourneur operates at full throttle with this film and keeps events moving at a fever pitch."
- Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital.

"The image of MacGinnis running along the railway track, trying to catch the parchment as it blows away is one that stays with you - there are fewer images in cinema that seem to so potently portray a doomed and futile desperation. And the final image of the demon riding in a wreath of smoke on top of the train carriage is a truly extraordinary one."
- Richard Scheib, The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review.

"Director Jacques Tourneur turns in one of his best pieces of work. From the beginning, when Harrington is pursued by a strange cloud, to the very end when Karswell, knowing the runes have been passed back, tries to escape along railway tracks before being savaged by the demon, the atmosphere is always on the edge of fear. Every scene is loaded with tension, the latent fear of the unknown bubbling below the everyday surface....The secret of the film's success lies in the way that Tourneur and the scriptwriters keep to the spirit of James' original understatement."
- www.britmovie.co.uk

Compiled by Jeff Stafford

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Curse of the Demon (1957)

Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham): "It's in the trees! It's coming!"

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews): "I see you practice white magic as well as black."
Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis): "Oh yes, I don't think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them."

Dr. Julian Karswell: "You get nothing for nothing."

Dr. John Holden: Joanna, let me tell you something about myself. When I was a kid, I used to walk down the street with the other kids and when we came to a ladder they'd all walk around it. I'd walk under it, just to see if anything would happen. Nothing ever did. When they'd see a black cat they'd run the other way to keep it from crossing their path. But I didn't. And all this ever did for me is make me wonder why, why people get so panicky about absolutely nothing at all. I've made a career studying it. Maybe just to prove one thing. That I'm not a superstitious sucker like ninety per cent of humanity.

Professor Mark O'Brien (Liam Redmond): Hobart, what is the order of the true believer?
Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde): Those of us who believe that evil is good and good, evil.
Professor Mark O'Brien: Yes, go on.
Rand Hobart: Who blaspheme and desecrate. In the joy of sin will mankind that is lost, find itself again.

Dr. Julian Karswell: Listen, mother. You believe in the supernatural. I've shown you some of its power and some of its danger.
Mrs. Karswell (Athene Seyler): Yes, Julian.
Dr. Julian Karswell: Well, believe this also. You get nothing for nothing. This house, the land, the way we live. Nothing for nothing. 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.
Mrs. Karswell: But if it makes you unhappy. Stop it. Give it back.
Dr. Julian Karswell: 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.

Dr. Julian Karswell: Ha ha, snakes and ladders. An English game, you wouldn't know it. You see, if you land at the foot of the ladder you climb all the way to the top. But if you land on the head of the snake, you slide all the way down again. Funny thing, I always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing up the ladders. You're a doctor of psychology, you ought to know the answer to that.
Dr. John Holden: Maybe you're a good loser.
Dr. Julian Karswell: I'm not, you know. Not a bit of it.

Dr. Julian Karswell: Do I believe in witchcraft? What kind of witchcraft? The legendary witch that rides on the imaginary broom? The hex that tortures the thoughts of the victim? The pin stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body?
Dr. John Holden: Also imaginary.
Dr. Julian Karswell: But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?

Dr. John Holden: Sit down. Your generosity is becoming overwhelming as it gets closer to ten o'clock. You're staying with me, Karswell. You've sold your bill of goods too well, because I believe you now. I believe that in five minutes something monstrous and horrible is going to happen. And when it does, you're going to be here so that whatever happens to me will happen to you.

Dr. John Holden: You were right. Maybe it's better not to know.

Professor Mark O'Brien: [taking a drink] You know, the devil has something here. Very pleasant.
Professor K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott): He's most dangerous when he's being pleasant.

Dr. John Holden: Well, what do you expect me to do? Nobody's free from fear. I have an imagination like anyone else. It's easy to see a demon in every dark corner. But I refuse to let this thing take possession of my good senses. If this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well give up right now.

Compiled by Jeff Stafford

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teaser Curse of the Demon (1957)

Ancient curses, black magic, poltergeists, and the supernatural world have been favorite subjects for the cinema of the fantastic but only a handful of movies have succeeded in convincing an audience to suspend disbelief and believe in the unbelievable. The titles that come immediately to mind are genuine classics of the genre - Cat People (1942), Dead of Night (1945), The Innocents (1961) - films that subtly convey a sense of the paranormal through mood and atmosphere. Curse of the Demon (1957), which was released in England as Night of the Demon, also belongs in this select group though it has had a much harder time eluding its reputation as a B-movie horror film - an accusation brought on by the producer's insistence on making the demon a highly visible presence on-camera. Nevertheless, its cult status is assured thanks to references to it in "Science Fiction Double Feature," the opening theme song to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, but passing them used lots of skill".) and the Kate Bush song, "The Hounds of Love" which begins with a quote from the movie, "It's in the trees! It's coming!"

Based on Montague R. James' short story, "Casting the Runes," Curse of the Demon goes beyond the conventions of most supernatural thrillers by engaging the viewer in an intellectual debate over two opposing philosophies - belief in the occult and a total refutation of it. Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a debunker of paranormal occurrences and beliefs who travels to England for a scientific conference. Upon his arrival, he discovers that a colleague, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Harrington's daughter Joanna (Peggy Cummins) is convinced that Doctor Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) was somehow involved with her father's death. Holden's own investigation reveals that Karswell is indeed a believer and practitioner of the black arts who placed a curse on Harrington. Yet, Holden's rational scientific mind cannot accept the possible explanation that Harrington was killed by supernatural forces, even when he is secretly slipped an ancient parchment with runic symbols and begins receiving warnings and signs about his own impending demise.

If Curse of the Demon seems like a throwback to the Val Lewton-produced thrillers for RKO in the forties, it's because Jacques Tourneur, the director of Lewton's Cat People,I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), has imbued the film with the same sense of dread and menace he brought to those evocative thrillers. "I detest the expression 'horror film,' Tourneur once stated. "I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe in it." Unfortunately, producer Hal E. Chester, who also made unwarranted changes to Charles Bennett's screenplay, insisted on shooting and inserting an opening scene featuring the demon and an explicit final appearance at a railway station. This was completely counter to Tourneur's wishes who wanted the viewer to decide for himself whether the demon existed or not. In his own defense, Tourneur said, "The only monster I did - and this is how I wanted to do the whole thing - was the scene in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by a cloud. Then I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom - did I see it or not? People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw."

The appearance of the creature in Curse of the Demon still generates controversy among the film's admirers today, splitting them into two camps. Those that believe the film's effectiveness is seriously damaged by showing the demon and those who believe the creature is a welcome and terrifying addition. Among the naysayers are Carlos Clarens, author of An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, who proclaimed the special effect "atrocious" and a "monumental blunder" and the film's original screenwriter Charles Bennett who was so outraged by Chester's creative changes that he once said, "If [Chester] walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead." On the other hand, Danny Peary, in the first of his three Cult Movies books, wrote "I believe most critics dislike the demon for no other reason than they know it was studio-imposed...I am in favor of this vile creature as big as a house and ugly as sin...It's the scariest monster in film history as far as I'm concerned (no matter that others think it ludicrous)." Even respected film historian William K. Everson approved of the demon's appearance, calling it "such a lulu that it lives up to the fearsome descriptions of it." And, in all fairness, the dragon-like creature was modeled on 3,400-year-old woodcut prints from demonology books according to Tourneur.

Yet, regardless of whether one is pro or con on the visualized demon, it is hard not to be seduced by Tourneur's depiction of a shadowy fantasy world where perceptions are often shaped by a fear of darkness; Ted Scaife's cinematography certainly exploits this with scenes framed in pitch black darkness illuminated only by passing car lights or flashlights. The suspenseful unfolding of the plot and Karswell's true nature is also sustained by Charles Bennett's witty and intelligent script which often bears comparison to characters and situations in Alfred Hitchcock films, which is no surprise when you realize Bennett penned some of the master's best early work: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) to name just a few.

Most people agree that Curse of the Demon is Tourneur's last memorable film and the same could be said for Dana Andrews who uses his somewhat rigid and intractable style of acting to his advantage here playing a stubborn, not easily intimidated protagonist. Peggy Cummins, who is best known for her trigger-happy vixen in Gun Crazy (1957), makes a plucky heroine but the real scene-stealer is Niall MacGinnis as Karswell, a mercurial and complex character who can be an urbane and charming host as well as a threatening and sinister presence. The scene where he is dressed as a clown at a children's party on his estate and conjures up a storm for Holden's benefit is one of the film's highlights.

One last comment about Curse of the Demon: the film has existed in two versions ever since its release in 1957. The British release, entitled Night of the Demon, had a running time of approximately 95 minutes. The U.S. version, released as Curse of the Demon, was trimmed by some thirteen minutes, reducing its length to 82 minutes, and placed on a double bill with The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), a Hammer horror production. Both versions of Demon are currently available on the Columbia-TriStar DVD release. Like Chester's imposed "improvements" on Tourneur's film, his U.S. cut of the film - Curse of the Demon - has generated an equal amount of controversy. If you saw this version first you might not immediately notice what was missing but in viewing the longer cut you'll see that Chester trimmed scenes and dialogue, sacrificing nuance, plot details and character development, in order to create a breathless, fat-free narrative. The trim 82 version is certainly an entertaining funhouse ride but the "fat" that Chester pared away makes the original British release a much richer and satisfying experience.

Producer: Frank Bevis, Hal E. Chester
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: M.R. James (story), Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Film Editing: Michael Gordon
Art Direction: Ken Adam
Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Dana Andrews (Dr. John Holden), Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington), Niall MacGinnis (Dr. Julian Karswell), Maurice Denham (Professor Henry Harrington), Athene Seyler (Mrs. Karswell), Liam Redmond (Professor Mark O'Brien).
BW-95m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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