Curse of the Demon
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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).
by Jeff Stafford