[box cover]

Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Dana Andrews, Niall MacGinnis, Peggy Cummin,
and Maurice Denham

Written by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester
from M.R. James' "Casting the Runes" (story)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

There are "horror movies," the sort of entertainment that since approximately 1973's The Exorcist relies more on in-your-face "Boo!" or "Ick!" moments than on subtly drilling a tendril into your brain to pick the lock on those primitive fears waiting under your mind's bedframe since childhood. These days, the term "horror movie" elicits greater expectations of CGI eyeball kicks than of goosebumpy chills. You know those classic Warner Brothers cartoons where Foghorn Leghorn lifts up the big snarly dog by the tail and whales on its ass with a two-by-four? That's what I'd like to do to everyone behind such recent whipped dogs as Blair Witch, The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, Jason X, and What Lies Beneath.

Then there are movies that genuinely know how to push your buttons — which means that they know where to find your buttons, when to push them (and, equally important, when not to), and how to push them in such a way that you aren't too aware that the movie has its long, bony finger on your button in the first place. They demonstrate that atmospherics, mood, and suggestion can be more effective than Jack-in-the-box special effects, and that the scariest monsters are those you can't see, at least not clearly, because a monster imagined is always worse than a monster standing naked in the studio lights. (Controversially, our subject film at hand proves the point by, reportedly due to a producer's meddling, briefly violating it.)

For many aficionados, Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting is the nonpareil of that second category. (For examples of everything wrong with the first category, see the 1999 remake.) Accompanying it on any list of Top 10 Favorite Understated Scary Movies are The Innocents (1961), The Wicker Man (1973), and a modest but effective gothy thriller of necromancy and deviltry that's a high point in British cinema, Night of the Demon.

Stephen King's asterisk

This subdued spooker from 1957 played in the U.S. in a recut release titled Curse of the Demon. Both the fuller U.K. (Night) and the truncated U.S. (Curse) editions appear on this disc, and we'll be comparing them before we're through. Under either title, any self-respecting horror cineaste with a taste for period genre stylings and precision craftsmanship can go here for an intelligent script directed with mastery and style by Jacques Tourneur, protégé of the great Val Lewton in the '40s. Stephen King, in his nonfiction book on horror fiction, Danse Macabre, places Demon on his list of films that contributed something of value to the genre, and gives it a special asterisk as one of his personal favorites. Not a bad recommendation, and it's only right to add that Night/Curse of the Demon is a movie that lots of its fans remember with affection and respect from their childhoods — because it scared the crap out of them.

Dark shadows

Here's a deceptively simple story exceptionally well told, its pulse beating beneath its skin with Tourneur keeping its lub-dub beat in your head from start to finish.

American psychologist and die-hard skeptic John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in rural England (not far from Stonehenge, which figures in the proceedings) to disprove the alleged black magic of "witch cult" leader Dr. Julian Karswell, played with smooth affability by Niall MacGinnis. However, Holden's local colleague, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), has realized that their investigations into Karswell's group have uncovered demonological truths too terrible to dismiss, and Harrington begs Karswell to "stop what has begun." But the scientist recants too late. The urbane and polite sorcerer reminds Harrington that "You said, 'Do your worst,' and that's precisely what I did." Not even Karswell can halt what is underway, and deep in the night-black woods Harrington perishes violently by a giant hellish creature, his death occurring at a date and time predicted to the minute by Karswell.

Karswell had passed to Harrington an ancient strip of parchment inscribed with occult runes. The runes can invoke a demon that kills any person possessing the parchment. And not just any bush-league demon either — we're talking a monstrous fire demon "whose legend has persisted through civilization after civilization.... Babylonian Baal, Egyptian Sethtyphon, Persian Asmodeus, Hebraich Moloch." The curse can be broken only by stealthily passing the parchment to someone else, and after Holden arrives and pokes too closely into Karswell's business, he turns out to be the latest unbeliever to whom Karswell slips the demonic death warrant.

Much of Demon's tension arises from our watching Holden pull the runes from his pocket and place them back again, the paper fluttering as if alive, while he refuses to recognize the terror stalking him. Holden is our anchor, our point of view that must be convinced of the dark forces on the loose in the dark, and his ghostly encounters in dark hallways, alone in the woods, in a lonely farmhouse, and other scenes where the overriding question is "Who's there?" do the job thoroughly.

Peggy Cummins also stars as Harrington's attractive niece, kindergarten teacher Joanna. She occupies the middle ground between Holden's obstinate skepticism and Karswell's witchcraft beliefs. Joanna is as level-headed as any educated modern woman, but unlike Holden she's willing to acknowledge the evidence that's before her eyes. Demon takes full advantage from this collision of realities: stiff-necked modern matter-of-factness vs. ancient supernatural magicks. It's a theme seen again and again in British genre films of the '50s and '60s, and a duality well suited for a British setting, where the isles' stiff-upper-lip pragmatism occupies the same space as Stonehenge and haunted castles. Karswell understands these dueling dogmas far better than Holden could ever hope to. The cold light of reason, Holden is told, casts very deep shadows, yet it's Joanna who at the very end, after witnessing the horrific climax of Karswell's demonic conjurings, first declares that perhaps it's better not to know some things.

Famous Monsters

Although considered a classic today, Demon's reputation took time to build.

Regarded only as so much filler during its initial distribution, in the U.S. Curse of the Demon was double-billed as the B entry with Hammer's Revenge of Frankenstein. We can imagine a typical American moviegoer's reaction to such a pair of dissimilar creature features — Hammer's garish full-color EC Comics sensibilities paired up with Demon's more sedate, suspenseful, black-and-white turns of the screw.

Over the decades it has accrued an admirable level of respect among genre devotees. That was helped by Forrest Ackerman's monthly necronomicon, Famous Monsters of Filmland, which carried tantalizing images and descriptions of the movie throughout the '60s and '70s. Then the June/July '87 copy of Filmfax made it a cover feature. It's been only spottily shown on TV, but more and more it has appeared on the bill at international film festivals and university campuses. Today it's recognized as one of the few first-rate specimens of its form, a textbook model of how to make an unsettling and scary movie.

And no doubt some of the film's appreciators discovered it thanks to a line from Rocky Horror Picture Show's famous title song: "Dana Andrews said prunes / Gave him the runes / And passing them used lots of skills."

So it's safe to say that this DVD release is being greeted with thankful hossanas throughout horror film fandom. While it can't substitute for a good big-screen experience, home video may be the perfect place for Tourneur's spooky gothic number. This is a creeper, if ever there was one, that benefits from multiple viewings ... at night with all the lights off.

The devil is in the details

Jacques Tourneur was a master craftsman who was himself the son of director Maurice Tourneur (whose 1915 gangster opus Alias Jimmy Valentine holds pride of place on the Origins of Film DVD set). By 1942 he was Val Lewton's first director when Lewton headed the new horror unit at RKO. Their partnership led to some of the most lauded films of the genre: Cat People ('42), I Walked with a Zombie ('43), and The Leopard Man ('43), all displaying Tourneur's Kubrick-like command of visually rich composition and precision-targeted atmosphere, with Cat People in particular being an artistic and commercial success. Tourneur went on to helm other fine work as diverse as westerns, comedies, and the film noir classic Out of the Past, and directed one of the earliest episodes of TV's The Twilight Zone.

With the arguable exception of a few key shots reportedly inserted against his wishes — more on that shortly — Tourneur concocted a tightly wound suspense film that would awe a Swiss watchmaker. Like Lewton before him and Kubrick after, he employed every tool in his kit to control the goings-on and catch us off our guard. Demon displays an exquisite sensitivity to the use of light and shadow, and Tourneur accents meticulously constructed dark compositions and sunny outdoor scenes alike with little epiphanies, sudden surprises, Hitchcockian camera work, and cold splashes of humor. Every scene, shot, and sound counts, and the result is a deliciously "Lovecraftian" mood film that would make H.P. Lovecraft proud.

The screenplay is credited to writer Charles Bennett, who scripted several of Hitchcock's British films in the '30s, and producer Hal E. Chester. They drew inspiration from M.R. James' Edwardian ghost story, "Casting the Runes," opening up the story into an airtight screenplay that's clever, subtle, and refreshingly chooses not to insult its audience.

Other names here are cinematographer Ted Scaife (The Dirty Dozen, also contributed to The Third Man and The African Queen), production designer Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove, numerous James Bond films, Addams Family Values), and composer Clifton Parker.

It's a rare pleasure to find a good villain, and Demon sports a terrific one in Niall MacGinnis' scene-stealing performance as Karswell, a character templated on that infamous showboating Satanist, Aleister Crowley. Fantasy fans will recognize MacGinnis as Zeus in Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts. Because Demon avoids flinty good guy/bad guy dichotomies, here's an antagonist far removed from the cackling stereotypes of Satanic high priests in starched Ming of Mongo collars. Against Dana Andrews' self-consciously flat and steadfastly boorish unbeliever, MacGinnis' Karswell is simultaneously several contradictory things — a dangerously powerful occult religious leader, a charming trickster who hosts children's Halloween parties at his remote country mansion (where he lives with his doting mother and performs magic shows as Bobo the clown), a sympathetic bloke just securing a living in his chosen field, and a genuinely frightening master of platinum-card witchcraft.

MacGinnis' engaging work leaves open the question of whether Karswell is a true Satan-sanctioned diabolist who learned demon-summoning through long study, or else was once just a pathetic Anton LeVay fanboy who got lucky by stumbling across that magic parchment, then puffed himself up to wealth and power like a goateed Jerry Falwell. When Karswell explains to his mother that their mansion and high-living lifestyle derive from what his followers give them out of fear, he confesses that what he does also happens out of fear, that he cannot stop what has begun because of his fear for his own life.

Either way, not even Holden, whose skepticism comes as rigid as a Stonehenge megalith, can ultimately deny the potentially lethal presence of supernatural forces associated with Karswell. Once Holden is told that he is marked for death by a gigantic demon next Tuesday at 10 p.m. sharp, those forces appear to be approaching closer and closer and....

The hell you say

A number of memorable moments stay with you after the closing credits:

Speak of the devil

Sit down at any film fan convention bar over White Russians and highballs, and you can't engage in a learned discussion on Night of the Demon for more than 60 seconds before the heated topic of "It" comes up. "It" is the appearance of the demon itself. Does it help the overall movie, or does it kneecap Tourneur's well-tuned mood and tone? No matter who starts the topic, a fight's going to break out and some poor Blair Witch fan is going to end up hiding under the table.

Different sources tell differing stories about how much Tourneur knew and approved (or didn't) regarding the demon's two boldly realized materializations, one near the beginning, the other at the climax. Did the director really never intend, as some claim, for the demon to be seen at all, his personal aesthetic calling for complete ambiguity? Or did he plan for its presence but visible only in hazy, ill-defined forms? Some Demon scholars have made a case for Tourneur knowing about and approving the demon as we see it all along. After all, the full-figure winged beast is so well integrated into the body of the film that it's hard to imagine Tourneur not having an approving hand in its presence.

Almost every account attributes the final demon images — achieved via some fairly obvious puppetry and an ornate animal-like head used for screen-filling close-ups — to last-minute insertions authorized by producer Hal Chester, who decided that a full-blown "monster" would make the film more commercial. That decision is said to have outraged Tourneur, scenarist Bennett, and actor Andrews.

In the Summer '73 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, Tourneur himself gave his sharply worded remembrance: "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?.... But after I had finished and returned to the United States, the English producer made this horrible thing, cheapened it. It was like a very different film." Likewise, Bennett has decried the final demon insertion in a similar vain: "I had to sit by while Chester made the biggest balls-up of a good script that I have ever seen."

However, even with these damning tesimonials, not everyone agrees. Britain's Today's Cinema at the time singled out the "thrills from well-staged giant fiery demon in the woods and on the railway." Many enthusiasts see the beast as one of the film's essential pleasures. Its first appearance early in the story sets up anticipation for an even bigger pay-off later on, and that pay-off delivers the goods. Plus, because we in the audience know that the demon is very real, that awareness steers our feelings regarding Dana Andrews' doggedly skeptical John Holden — the guy is so pig-headed, so willfully closed-minded that we know something's going to happen to change his mind before the closing credits.

Similarly, opinions on the creature's design range all over the map. To some the demon, especially in its distant winged formed, looks as shudderingly authentic as any hell-beast in a medieval woodcut from Witchcraft Through the Ages. Naysayers, however, assert that the winged version is too obviously a puppet or a man in a costume. Some see in the close-up model head a well-wrought Stygian terror, others a mood-shattering resemblance to, say, the aforementioned snarly dog from the Warner Brothers cartoons.

To me, what we have here is mostly a matter of insensitive editing — the rather vague full-body shots look great, but the close-up model head is overused. It shouts when the rest of the film whispers.

So is the demon a flaw in an otherwise polished gem, or a worthwhile facet in the gem's structure? You can, of course, make up your own mind on the matter. In any case, it's not on screen long enough to destroy the virtues Demon exhibits, and there's something to be said for a monster that sends eight-year-olds scurrying behind the couch, making them fans for life.

About the DVD

Columbia TriStar's "double feature" disc holds both versions of the movie. The original U.K. version, Night of the Demon clocks in at 95 minutes. The American re-edited edition, Curse of the Demon is shorter by 13 minutes. The story is fundamentally the same in both, and while Curse stands tall as a tight and coherent whole just fine (some fans even prefer it), the minutes cut from it make a significant difference to the flavor of the work and the information it provides the viewer.

Night includes a scene in which Holden, investigating one of Karswell's followers, visits the now-catatonic man's hardscrabble farm family. All are members of the faith, so when Holden displays the runic parchment they make no bones about ushering him out the door so that his doom will befall him elsewhere. The scene is not in Curse. Other scenes lost from Curse diminish some characterization and bits of dialogue, and at least one scene is moved to a spot earlier in the story. And the opening credits are slightly redone. Still, other than some sketchy edits where the seams are showing, the changes don't cripple the narrative or pacing.

Because the changes in Curse are relatively minor and don't actually create a whole new film, most viewers will want to spend their time with the complete original Night of the Demon. The shorter Curse qualifies as a welcome curio for completist collectors and compare/contrast purposes, rather than as the disingenuous "double feature" touted on the keep-case.

Visually, both movies look at least very good from start to finish, with Night noticeably cleaner than its U.S. counterpart. The source prints are in fine condition and widescreen (1.78:1, anamorphic) transfers are flawless, preserving the strong contrast, definition, and clarity. Some age is still evident as minor grain and speckling (particularly in Curse) and some of the brighter scenes might benefit from having the contrast upped a notch, but these are quibbles.

The audio bears the expected limitations of its age (no subwoofer-rattling here), but it's good clean DD 2.0 monaural that's stout and clear and more than adequate for the job. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Japanese.

The only disappointment comes from the absence of supplementary material. I'm by no means a DVD extras fetishist, but this really is a film that deserves better than mundane studio cross-sell in the form of the theatrical trailers for The Bride and Fright Night. At least a scholarly essay printed on a folded slipsheet. Ah — as Karswell might say — hell.

—Mark Bourne

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