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Savant champions a lot of genre movies but only infrequently does one appear like Jacques Tourneur's superlative Curse of the Demon. It's simply better than the rest -- an intelligent horror film with some very good scares. It occupies a stylistic space that sums up what's best in ghost stories and can hold its own with most any supernatural film ever made. Oh, it's also a great entertainment that never fails to put audiences at the edge of their seats.
What's more, Columbia TriStar has shown uncommon respect for their genre output by including both versions of Curse of the Demon on one disc. Savant has full coverage on the versions and their restoration below, following his thorough and analytical (read: long-winded and anal) coverage of the film itself.
The majority of horror films are fantasies in which we accept supernatural ghosts, demons and monsters as part of a deal we've made with the authors: they dress the fantasy in an attractive guise and arrange the variables into an interesting pattern, and we agree to play along for the sake of enjoyment. When it works the movies can resonate with personal meaning. Even though Dracula and Frankenstein are unreal, they are relevant because they're aligned with ideas and themes in our subconscious.
Horror films that seriously confront the no-man's land between rational reality and supernatural belief have a tough time of it. Everyone who believes in God knows that the tug o' war between rationality and faith in our culture has become so clogged with insane belief systems it's considered impolite to dismiss people who believe in flying saucers or the powers of crystals or little glass pyramids. One of Dana Andrews' key lines in Curse of the Demon, defending his dogged skepticism against those urging him to have an open mind, is his retort, "If the world is a dark place ruled by Devils and Demons, we all might as well give up right now." Curse of the Demon balances itself between skepticism and belief with polite English manners, letting us have our fun as it lays its trap. We watch Andrews roll his eyes and scoff at the feeble séance hucksters and the dire warnings of a foolish-looking necromancer. Meanwhile, a whole dark world of horror sneaks up on him. The film's intelligent is such that we're not offended by its advocacy of dark forces or even its literal, in-your-face demon.
The remarkable Curse of the Demon was made in England for Columbia but is gloriously unaffected by that company's zero-zero track record with horror films. Producer Hal E. Chester would seem an odd choice to make a horror classic after producing Joe Palooka films and acting as a criminal punk in dozens of teen crime movies. The obvious strong cards are writer Charles Bennett, the brains behind several classic English Hitchcock pictures (who 'retired' into meaningless bliss writing for schlockmeister Irwin Allen) and Jacques Tourneur, a master stylist who put Val Lewton on the map with Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. Tourneur made interesting Westerns (Canyon Passage, Great Day in the Morning) and perhaps the most romantic film noir, Out of the Past. By the late '50s he was on what Andrew Sarris in his American Film called 'a commercial downgrade'. The critic lumped Curse of the Demon with low budget American turkeys like The Fearmakers. 1
Put Tourneur with an intelligent script, a decent cameraman and more than a minimal budget and great things could happen. We're used to watching Corman Poe films, English Hammer films and Italian Bavas and Fredas, all the while making excuses for the shortcomings that keep them in the genre ghetto (where they all do quite well, thank you). There's even a veiled resentment against upscale shockers like The Innocents that have resources (money, time, great actors) denied our favorite toilers in the genre realm. Curse of the Demon is above all those considerations. It has name actors past their prime and reasonable production values. Its own studio (at least in America) released it like a genre quickie, double-billed with dreck like The Night the World Exploded and The Giant Claw. They cut it by 13 minutes, changed its title (to ape The Curse of Frankenstein?) and released a poster featuring a huge, slavering demon monster that some believe was originally meant to be barely glimpsed in the film itself. 2
Horror movies can work on more than one level but Curse of the Demon handles several levels and then some. The narrative sets up John Holden as a professional skeptic who raises a smirking eyebrow to the open minds of his colleagues. Unlike most second-banana scientists in horror films, they express divergent points of view. Holden just sees himself as having common sense but his peers are impressed by the consistency of demonological beliefs through history. Maybe they all saw Christensen's Witchcraft through the Ages, which might have served as a primer for author Charles Bennett. Smart dialogue allows Holden to score points by scoffing at the then-current "regression to past lives" scam popularized by the Bridey Murphy craze. 3 While Holden stays firmly rooted to his position, coining smart phrases and sarcastic put-downs of believers, the other scientists are at least willing to consider alternate possibilities. Indian colleague K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott) keeps his opinion to himself. But when asked, he politely states that he believes entirely in the world of demons! 4
Holden may think he has the truth by the tail but it takes Kindergarten teacher Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins of Gun Crazy fame) to show him that being a skeptic doesn't mean ignoring facts in front of one's face. Always ready for a drink (a detail added to tailor the part to Andrews?), Holden spends the first couple of reels as interested in pursuing Miss Harrington, as he is the devil-worshippers. The details and coincidences pile up with alarming speed -- the disappearing ink untraceable by the lab, the visual distortions that might be induced by hypnosis, the pages torn from his date book and the parchment of runic symbols. Holden believes them to be props in a conspiracy to draw him into a vortex of doubt and fear. Is he being set up the way a Voodoo master cons his victim, by being told he will die, with fabricated clues to make it all appear real? Holden even gets a bar of sinister music stuck in his head. It's the title theme -- is this a wicked joke on movie soundtracks?
This brings us to the wonderful character of Julian Karswell, the kiddie-clown turned multi-millionaire cult leader. The man who launched Alfred Hitchcock as a maker of sophisticated thrillers here creates one of the most interesting villains ever written, one surely as good as any of Hitchcock's. In the short American cut Karswell is a shrewd games-player who shows Holden too many of his cards and finally outsmarts himself. The longer UK cut retains the full depth of his character.
Karswell has tapped into the secrets of demonology to gain riches and power, yet he tragically recognizes that he is as vulnerable to the forces of Hell as are the cowering minions he controls through fear. Karswell's coven means business. It's an entirely different conception from the aesthetic salon coffee klatch of The Seventh Victim, where nothing really supernatural happens and the only menace comes from a secret society committing new crimes to hide old ones.
Karswell keeps his vast following living in fear, and supporting his extravagant lifestyle under the idea that Evil is Good, and Good Evil. At first the Hobart Farm seems to harbor religious Christian fundamentalists who have turned their backs on their son. Then we find out that they're Karswell followers, living blighted lives on cursed acreage and bled dry by their cultist "leader." Karswell's mum (Athene Seyler) is an inversion of the usual insane Hitchcock mother. She lovingly resists her son's philosophy and actively tries to help the heroes. That's in the Night version, of course. In the shorter American cut she only makes silly attempts to interest Joanna in her available son and arranges for a séance. Concerned by his "negativity", Mother confronts Julian on the stairs. He has no friends, no wife, no family. He may be a mass extortionist but he's still her baby. Karswell explains that by exploiting his occult knowledge, he's immersed himself forever in Evil. "You get nothing for nothing"
Karswell is like the Devil on Earth, a force with very limited powers that he can't always control. By definition he cannot trust any of his own minions. They're unreliable, weak and prone to double-cross each other, and they attract publicity that makes a secret society difficult to conceal. He can't just kill Holden, as he hasn't a single henchman on the payroll. He instead summons the demon, a magic trick he's only recently mastered. When Karswell turns Harrington away in the first scene we can sense his loneliness. The only person who can possibly understand is right before him, finally willing to admit his power and perhaps even tolerate him. Karswell has no choice but to surrender Harrington over to the un-recallable Demon. In his dealings with the cult-debunker Holden, Karswell defends his turf but is also attempting to justify himself to a peer, another man who might be a potential equal. It's more than a duel of egos between a James Bond and a Goldfinger, with arrogance and aggression masking a mutual respect; Karswell knows he's taken Lewton's "wrong turning in life," and will have to pay for it eventually.
Karswell eventually earns Holden's respect, especially after the fearful testimony of Rand Hobart. It's taken an extreme demonstration to do it, but Holden budges from his smug position. He may not buy all of the demonology hocus-pocus but it's plain enough that Karswell or his "demon" is going to somehow rub him out. Seeking to sneak the parchment back into Karswell's possession, Holden becomes a worthy hero because he's found the maturity to question his own preconceptions. Armed with his rational, cool head, he's a force that makes Karswell -- without his demon, of course -- a relative weakling. Curse of the Demon ends in a classic ghost story twist, with just desserts dished out and balance recovered. The good characters are less sure of their world than when they started, but they're still able to cope. Evil has been defeated not by love or faith, but by intellect.
Curse of the Demon has the Val Lewton sensibility as has often been cited in Tourneur's frequent (and very effective) use of the device called the Lewton "Bus" -- a wholly artificial jolt of fast motion and noise interrupting a tense scene. There's an ultimate "bus" at the end when a train blasts in and sets us up for the end title. It "erases" the embracing actors behind it and I've always thought it had to be an inspiration for the last shot of North by NorthWest. The ever-playful Hitchcock was reportedly a big viewer of fantastic films, from which he seems to have gotten many ideas. He's said to have dined with Lewton on more than one occasion (makes sense, they were at one time both Selznick contractees) and carried on a covert competition with William Castle, of all people.
Visually, Tourneur's film is marvelous, effortlessly conjuring menacing forests lit in the fantastic Mario Bava mode by Ted Scaife, who was not known as a genre stylist. There are more than a few perfunctory sets, with some unflattering mattes used for airport interiors, etc.. Elsewhere we see beautiful designs by Ken Adam in one of his earliest outings. Karswell's ornate floor and central staircase evoke an Escher print, especially when visible/invisible hands appear on the banister. A hypnotic, maze-like set for a hotel corridor is also tainted by Escher and evokes a sense of the uncanny even better than the horrid sounds Holden hears. The build-up of terror is so effective that one rather unconvincing episode (a fight with a Cat People - like transforming cat) does no harm. Other effects, such as the demon footprints appearing in the forest, work beautifully.
In his Encyclopedia of Horror Movies Phil Hardy very rightly relates Curse of the Demon's emphasis on the visual to the then just-beginning Euro-horror subgenre. The works of Bava, Margheriti and Freda would make the photographic texture of the screen the prime element of their films, sometimes above acting and story logic.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon presents both versions of this classic in one package. American viewers saw an effective but abbreviated cut-down. If you've seen Curse of the Demon on cable TV or rented a VHS or a laser anytime after 1987, you're not going to see anything different in the film. In 1987 Columbia happened to pull out the English cut when it went to re-master. When the title came up as Night of the Demon, they just slugged in the Curse main title card and let it go.
From such a happy accident (believe me, nobody in charge at Columbia at the time would have purposely given a film like this a second glance) came a restoration at least as wonderful as the earlier reversion of The Fearless Vampire Killers to its original form. Genre fans were taken by surprise and the Laserdisc became a hot item that often traded for hundreds of dollars.6
Back in film school Savant had been convinced that ever seeing the long, original Night cut was a lost cause. An excellent article in the old Photon magazine in the early '70s5, before such analytical work was common, accurately laid out the differences between the two versions, something Savant needs to do sometime with The Damned and These Are the Damned. The Photon article very accurately describes the cut scenes and what the film lost without them, and certainly inspired many of the ideas here.
Being able to see the two versions back-to-back shows exactly how they differ. Curse omits some scenes and rearranges others. Gone is some narration from the title sequence, most of the airplane ride, some dialogue on the ground with the newsmen and several scenes with Karswell talking to his mother. Most crucially missing are Karswell's mother showing Joanna the cabalistic book everyone talks so much about and Holden's entire visit to the Hobart farm to secure a release for his examination of Rand Hobart. Of course the cut film still works (we loved the cut Curse at UCLA screenings and there are people who actually think it's better) but it's nowhere near as involving as the complete UK version. Curse also reshuffles some events, moving Holden's phantom encounter in the hallway nearer the beginning, which may have been to get a spooky scene in the middle section or to better disguise the loss of whole scenes later. The chop-job should have been obvious. The newly imposed fades and dissolves look awkward. One cut very sloppily happens right in the middle of a previous dissolve.
Night places both Andrews and Cummins' credits above the title and gives McGinnis an "also starring" credit immediately afterwards. Oddly, Curse sticks Cummins afterwards and relegates McGinnis to the top of the "also with" cast list. Maybe with his role chopped down, some Columbia executive thought he didn't deserve the billing?
Technically, both versions look just fine, very sharp and free of digital funk that would spoil the film's spooky visual texture. Night of the Demon is the version to watch for both content and quality. It's not perfect but has better contrast and less dirt than the American version. Curse has more emulsion scratches and flecking white dandruff in its dark scenes, yet looks fine until one sees the improvement of Night. Both shows are widescreen enhanced (hosanna), framing the action at its original tighter aspect ratio.
It's terrific that Columbia TriStar has brought out this film so thoughtfully, even though some viewers are going to be confused when their "double feature" disc appears to be two copies of the same movie. Let 'em stew. This is Savant's favorite release so far this year.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon rates:
1. Made very close to Curse of the Demon and starring Dana Andrews, The Fearmakers (great title) was a Savant must-see until he caught up with it in the UA collection at MGM. It's a pitiful no-budgeter that claims Madison Avenue was providing public relations for foreign subversives, and is negligible even in the lists of '50s anti-Commie films.
2. Curse of the Demon's Demon has been the subject of debate ever since the heyday of Famous Monsters of Filmland. From what's on record it's clear that producer Chester added or maximized the shots of the creature, a literal visualization of a fiery, brimstone-smoking classical woodcut demon that some viewers think looks ridiculous. Bennett and Tourneur's original idea was to never show a demon but the producer changed that. Tourneur probably directed most of the shots, only to have Chester over-use them. To Savant's thinking, the demon looks great. It is first perceived as an ominous sound, a less strident version of the disturbing noise made by Them! Then it manifests itself visually as a strange disturbance in the sky (bubbles? sparks? early slit-scan?) followed by a billowing cloud of sulphurous smoke (a dandy effect not exploited again until Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The long-shot demon is sometimes called the bicycle demon because he's a rod puppet with legs that move on a wheel-rig. Smoke belches from all over his scaly body. Close-ups are provided by a wonderfully sculpted head 'n' shoulders demon with articulated eyes and lips, a full decade or so before Carlo Rambaldi started engineering such devices.
Most of the debate centers on how much Demon should have been shown with the general consensus that less would have been better. People who dote on Lewton-esque ambivalence say that the film's slow buildup of rationality-versus demonology is destroyed by the very real Demon's appearance in the first scene, and that's where they'd like it removed or radically reduced. The Demon is so nicely integrated into the cutting (the giant foot in the first scene is a real jolt) that it's likely that Tourneur himself filmed it all, perhaps expecting the shots to be shorter or more obscured. It is also possible that the giant head was a post-Tourneur addition - it doesn't tie in with the other shots as well (especially when it rolls forward rather stiffly) and is rather blunt. Detractors lump it in with the gawd-awful head of The Black Scorpion, which is filmed the same way and almost certainly was an afterthought - and also became a key poster image. This demon head matches the surrounding action a lot better than did the drooling Scorpion.
Savant wouldn't change Curse of the Demon but if you put a gun to my head I'd shorten most of the shots in its first appearance, perhaps eliminating all close-ups except for the final, superb shot of the the giant claw reaching for Harrington / us.
4. Kumar, played (I assume) by an Anglo actor, immediately evokes all those Indian and other Third World characters in Hammer films whose indigenous cultures invariably hold all manner of black magic and insidious horror. When Hammer films are repetitious it's because they take eighty minutes or so to convince the imagination-challenged English heroes to even consider the premise of the film as being real. In Curse of the Demon, Holden's smart-tongued dismissal of outside viewpoints seems much more pigheaded now than it did in 1957, when heroes confidently defended conformist values without being challenged. Kumar is a scientist but also probably a Hindu or a Sikh. He has no difficulty reconciling his faith with his scientific detachment. Holden is far too tactful to call Kumar a crazy third-world guru but that's probably what he's thinking. He instead politely ignores him. Good old Kumar then saves Holden's hide with some timely information. I hope Holden remembered to thank him.
There's an unstated conclusion in Curse of the Demon: Holden's rigid disbelief of the supernatural means he also does not believe in a Christian God with its fundamentally spiritual faith system of Good and Evil, saints and devils, angels and demons. Horror movies that deal directly with religious symbolism and "real faith" can be hypocritical in their exploitation and brutal in their cheap toying with what are for many people sacred personal concepts. I'm thinking of course of The Exorcist here. That movie has all the grace of a reporter who shows a serial killer's atrocity photos to a mother whose child has just been kidnapped. Curse of the Demon hasn't The Exorcist's ruthless commercial instincts but instead has the modesty not to pretend to be profound, or even "real." Yet it expresses our basic human conflict between rationality and faith very nicely.
5. Savant called Jim Wyrnoski, who was associated with Photon, in an effort to find out more about the article, namely who wrote it. It was very well done and I've never forgotten it; I unfortunately loaned my copy out to good old Jim Ursini and it disappeared. Obviously, a lot of the ideas here, I first read there. Perhaps a reader who knows better how to take care of their belongings can help me with the info? Ursini and Alain Silvers' More Things than are Dreamt Of Limelight, 1994, analyzes Curse of the Demon (and many other horror movies) in the context of its source story.
Note 7.27.02: Marshall Deutelbaum has written with the info - it's Photon Issue 26, the article
written by Ronald V. Borst and Scott MacQueen. Thanks so much! GE
6. This is a true story: Cut to 2000. Columbia goes to re-master Curse of the Demon and finds that the fine-grain original of the English version is missing. The original long version of the movie may be lost forever. A few months later a collector appears who says he bought it from another unnamed collector and offers to trade it for a print copy of the American version, which he prefers. Luckily, an intermediary helps the collector follow up on his offer and the authorities are not contacted about what some would certainly call stolen property. The long version is now once again safe. Studios clearly need to defend their property but many collectors have "items" they personally have acquired legally. More often than you might think, such finds come about because studios throw away important elements. If the studios threaten prosecution, they will find that collectors will never approach them. They'd probably prefer to destroy irreplaceable film to avoid being criminalized.