Savant champions a lot of genre movies, but only once in a while does one come out 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, after his thorough and analytical (read: long-winded and anal) coverage of the film itself.
The majority of Horror films are fantasies where 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 the tug-o-war between rationality and faith, and 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 seance hucksters and the dire warnings of a foolish-looking necromancer, while letting a whole dark world of horror sneak up on him. The film is so intelligent, that we're not offended by its advocacy of dark forces, or even its literal, in-your-face demon.
Curse of the Demon is a remarkable film, made in England for Columbia but 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 several dozen teen crime pictures. The obvious strong cards are writer Charles Bennett, the brains behind several classic English Hitchcock pictures (who 'retired' into a 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 very interesting Westerns (Canyon Passage, Great Day in the Morning) and perhaps the best 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', where the critic ignorantly lumped Curse of the Demon in with lowbudget 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 of upscale shockers like The Innocents, because they 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 resources. Its own studio (at least in America) released it like a genre quickie, double-billed with drek like The Night the World Exploded and The Giant Claw. They cut it by 13 minutes, and changed its title (to ape The Curse of Frankenstein?), and released a poster featuring a huge, slavering demon monster that, some say, originally was supposed 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 eybrow to the open minds of his colleagues, who, unlike most second-banana scientists in horror films, 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 the ages. Maybe they all saw Christensen's Witchcraft through the Ages, which might have been a primer for Charles Bennett. Smart dialogue allows Holden to score points by scoffing at the then-current 'regression to past lives' scams 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 other possibilities. Indian colleague K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott) keeps his opinions to himself, but when asked, politely states that he believes entirely in the world of demons! 4
Holden may think he's got the truth by the tail, but it takes Kindergarten teacher Joanna Harrington (played by Peggy Cummins of Gun Crazy fame) to show him that being skeptical 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 some form of hypnosis, the pages torn from his datebook, and the parchment of runic symbols that Holden believes to be props in a conspiracy to draw him into a vortex of doubt and fear. Holden even gets a bar of sinister music stuck in his head (the title theme - is this a joke on movie soundtracks?). 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?
This brings us to the wonderful character of Julian Karswell, the kiddie-clown turned multimillionaire cult leader. The man who launched Alfred Hitchcock as a maker of sophisticated thrillers here creates one of the most interesting villains ever written, surely as good as any in Hitchcock's movies. In the short American cut, Karswell is a shrewd games-player who seems to show Holden too many of his cards, and finally outsmarts himself. The longer UK cut retains the full depth of his character.
The key to Karswell is that he's tapped into the secrets of demonology to make himself rich and powerful, yet tragically recognizes that he also is a powerless pawn, as potentially 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-clatch of The Seventh Victim, where nothing really supernatural happens, and where the only menace comes from a secret society commiting new crimes to hide old ones.
Karswell keeps a huge following living in fear, 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've turned their backs on their son. Then we find out that they're Karswell followers, living blighted lives on cursed acreage, 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 our shorter cut she only makes silly attempts to interest Joanna in her available son, and arranges for a seance. Mother confronts Julian on the stairs, obviously concerned by his 'negativity'. He has no friends, no wife, no family. He may be a mass extortionist, but he's her baby, after all. "You get nothing for nothing" says Karswell, and explains how, by exploiting his occult knowledge, he's immersed himself forever in Evil.
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 doublecross each other, attracting publicity that makes a secret society harder to conceal. He can't just kill Holden, as he hasn't a single henchman on the payroll, and instead has to summon the magic of the demon 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, and Karswell has no choice but to surrender him over to the un-recallable Demon. In his dealings with Holden, Karswell is defending his turf against the cult-debunker, but is also attempting to justify himself to a peer, another man who might be a potential equal. It's more than just 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 gets Holden's respect, especially after the fearful testimony of Rand Hobart. It's taken some extreme demonstrations to do it, but Holden's finally budged 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 again because he's found the maturity to doubt his own preconceptions. And 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 with 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 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 induced by fast motion and noise interrupting a tense scene. There's an ultimate 'bus' at the end, where 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 bored by mainstream movies and 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 property) and carried on a covert competion with William Castle, of all people.
Visually, Tourneur's film is marvellous, effortlessly conjuring up menacing forests lit in the fantastic Mario Bava mode by Ted Scaife, who was not known as a genre stylist. There's more than a few perfunctory sets, with some unflattering mattes used for airport interiors, etc, but elsewhere the show is beautifully designed by Ken Adam, in one of his earliest outings. Karswell's ornate floor and central staircase evokes an Escher print, especially when visible/invisible hands appear on the bannister. There's an hypnotic, maze-like set for a hotel corridor that's 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, are very powerful.
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-not-as-complex cutdown. 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 the English cut of the film when it went to remaster. 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 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, laid out the differences between the two versions with full accuracy, something Savant needs to do with The Damned / These Are the Damned sometime. The Photon article very accurately described the cut scenes and what the film lost without them, and certainly provided the basis for Savant's thoughts.
Being able to see the two versions back to back shows exactly how they differ. Curse omits a lot, and rearranges some scenes as well. 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 can look awkward, and 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 any digital funkiness that would spoil the film's spooky visual texture. Night of the Demon is the version to watch, both for content and quality. It's not perfect but has better contrast and much 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 16:9 enhanced (hosanna), and properly cropped for widescreen - 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 bit of drek that claims Madison Avenue
was providing public relations for foreign subversives, and is negligible even in the lists of '50s
2. Curse of the Demon's Demon has been the subject of debate ever since the heyday of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Nobody authoritative is on record, but it's fairly likely 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. To Savant's thinking, it looks great. The demon 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 whose legs move on a wheel-rig. Smoke belches from all over his scaly body. Closeups 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 more. People who dote on Lewtonesque ambivalence say that the film's slow buildup of rationality-vs 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 very frightening) 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 into the other shots as well (especially when it rolls forward rather stiffly) and is rather blunt. Detractors lump it in with the gawdawful head of The Black Scorpion, which is filmed the same way and almost certainly was an afterthought - and also became the key poster image. This demon head matches the surrounding action a lot better than the drooling Scorpion did.
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 the giant head 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 it takes 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, unchallenged. Kumar is a scientist but also probably a Hindu or a Sikh, yet has no problem 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, of course, 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. It's a film which
has all the grace of a reporter who shows a serial-killer's atrocity photos to a mother who's child has
just been kidnapped. Curse of the Demon hasn't The Exorcist's ruthless commercial
instincts, but instead the modesty not to seek a greater significance by pretending to be profound,
or even 'real'. Yet, it expresses our basic human conflict between rationality and faith, very
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's More Things than are Dreamt Of Limelight, 1994, analyses Curse
of the Demon (and many other horror movies) in the context of its source story.
6. This is a true story: Cut to 1998. Columbia goes to remaster Curse of the Demon, and
finds that the fine-grain original of the English cut is missing. It may be lost forever. A few
months later, a collector 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, Columbia has the good sense to take the collector up on his offer, rather than
call in the authorities 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. Sometimes such finds are the result of studios throwing away
important elements. If they threaten prosecution, the studios will find that collectors will never
approach them - and would probably prefer to destroy irreplaceable film to avoid being criminalized.