Today’s Halloween Horrors entry comes to us courtesy of Wayne Walls. Like a few of our earlier contributors, Wayne is, unfortunately, another soul that I do not know. What I do know is that, if his choice of topic for his Halloween Horrors debut is any indication, he has great taste in films. As Curse of the Demon is one of my own favorite films to watch during the Halloween season, I was quite excited to see just what he had to say about it.
As more than a few of Wayne’s views and opinions mirror those of my own, this piece definitely gets my seal of approval. As a side note, I found it quite refreshing to have at least one piece devoted to a much older film. It’s nice to know that the golden days of horror aren’t being completely forgotten.
I was asked by the good folks at Horror and Sons to write about a movie that really gets me into the Halloween spirit. While there are quite a few movies that do so, none of them really get me in the mood for fall weather, a crackling fireplace, windy nights full of creepy sounds like the movie, Curse of the Demon.
Curse of the Demon is a black and white film that was released by Columbia Pictures in 1957. It is a superbly crafted story, directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also directed the acclaimed Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie.
The cast includes Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins. Niall MacGinnis, Maurice Denham, and Athene Seyler.
Curse of the Demon starts with an agitated Professor Harrington. Harrington is begging a mysterious ex-stage magician turned leader of a secretive cult, Julian Karswell, to call off the evil force that is plaguing the poor Professor. In return, Harrington offers to call off his investigation of Karswell’s cult and followers. Karswell agrees. Then we see a fragment of parchment paper burn up. Karswell becomes very uneasy and promptly hurries Harrington out of his house. Harrington drives to his home, and as he is getting out of his car, a hideous fire demon appears in the sky, causing Harrington to back into a power line pole. He is instantly killed him by electrocution.
Then, the skeptical American psychologist, John Holden, arrives in London to attend a symposium exposing witchcraft, séances, and other archaic superstitions as fraud. He soon learns that the man that had organized the event, Professor Harrington, has just died in a strange and terrible accident. Shortly before his untimely demise, Harrington had suggested Holden locate and read a book that might have some clues about Karswell’s cryptic cult. While looking for the book in a London library, Holden meets Karswell. After a duel of witty quips, Karswell offers to show his personal copy of the mysterious book to Holden and invites him to come to his home in the country.
Holden meets Joanna, Harrington’s niece who has been reading her uncles papers. She comes to believe that Karswell does indeed have secret terrible powers and was somehow responsible for her uncle’s death.
Holden visits Karwell at his lavish home, and is surprised to find the villainous cult leader dressed as a magician and hosting a children’s Halloween party. A sudden and unexpected storm develops and Karswell, Holden, and Joanna run for cover in Karswell’s mansion. Karswell makes more veiled threats and slips a mysterious parchment into Holden’s papers. Karswell’s mother, who is clearly afraid of her son, tries to warn Holden off, but because of his skeptical nature, Holden does not listen.
Holden also tries to meet with an ex-member of Karswell’s cult, but the meeting fails horribly.
Holden begins to realize his worse fears, as he starts to feel the effects of the curse that Karswell has placed on him. Fevers, chills, and sensory disturbances begin to mount and Holden’s grip on his sanity begins to loosen. To save himself, Holden must transfer the curse to someone else, by passing the parchment. The villainous Karswell becomes fearful. He knows that the forces that give him his power are not forgiving, and Holden must die or the demon will come after the one who conjured it up. Which of these men will survive the….Curse of the Demon???
I know the answer, and I think most of the readers here know it as well, but I’ve decided to not spoil the ending of the movie for the few that might not have seen Curse yet.
You may ask, what makes Curse of the Demon such a great Halloween movie? It invokes nearly every iconic trapping we associate with our favorite spooky day of the year. A scary house, strange sounds, eerie shadows, witchcraft, cults, and demons are just a few of the cords that are struck by this incredible movie.
Jacques Tourneur is at his best here. He uses black and white to great effect, utilizing shadow and muted lighting to heighten the tension in the film. Long shadows and simple, but marvelous effects, a sudden wind storm, and strange noises keep the creepy atmosphere alive where an abundance of special effects would have ruined the setting that both Tourneur and screen writer Charles Bennett were trying to convey. To me, that is what a good Halloween movie is all about. A scary story, told well, the unknown just around the corner where the unseen is never friendly. Even an everyday object and familiar setting can become strange and unsettling purveyors of terror.
There are very few scary movies of this time period that have better casts. Dana Andrews was well cast as the realistic and skeptical psychologist “John Holden”. I think Andrews plays Holden perfectly. An American scientist who’s training and outlook refuses to accept that there might be forces that are not of this earth, even when his own experiences are telling him otherwise. Mr. Andrews plays his ongoing symptoms of being cursed quiet well, and viewers can both feel bad for him, while also realizing that he brought the curse on himself by refusing to dwell outside his own belief system
Peggy Cummins plays “Joanna Harrington”, the niece of the first victim of the Demon. Miss Cummins delivers a balanced performance that lets her be a strong character, and not a screaming bimbo that needs to be saved. Her growing fear for Dr. Holden’s life plays very well and Miss Cummins and Mr. Andrews have a good chemistry between them.
It is however Niall MacGinnis that is the beating evil heart of this movie. From the first meeting in the library until the final scene at the train station, we know that Karswell is a man who is willing to use the dark forces of Hell to get what he wants. Mr. MacGinnis is a very likeable villain, exceptionally evil, yet proper, and polite, a real charming bastard. Most readers will best remember him as Zeus in the Ray Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts.
And of course, the Demon itself. A long time mainstay on covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the Demon is quite the controversial subject for lovers of this movie. Its early appearance in the movie lets the audience know that indeed there are satanic forces at work, and that Holden is foolish for not believing in them sooner. The original screenplay didn’t have a showing of such a demon, just a mysterious ball of light. The viewers were supposed to think that perhaps there was not any evil magic happening, that it was just the power of suggestion and hypnosis that was the cause of Holden’s failing health.
Both the director, Jacques Tourneur, and screenwriter Charles Bennett wanted a more ambiguous story that suggested the events could have been explained away by hypnosis, the power of suggestion, and good old-fashioned grifting instead of satanic black magic. Bennett, who based his screenplay on the short story “Casting the Runes” was at odds with the studio, who wanted a monster so the viewers could easily see that it was indeed evil forces at work.
For me, it’s hard to say. The Monster Kid in me loves the classic look of the Demon and it has been one of my favorite monsters of all time. Yet, as I have aged, I think if there is a flaw in Curse of the Demon, its showing the monster too soon, or if the demon should have been shown it at all. One day I would love to see a Fan Edit that takes the monster out and could recut the movie perhaps more like the version Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett wanted to make in the first place.
No matter the flaws of the film, Curse of the Demon stands up 60 years later as a near perfect Halloween movie. We can believe even for a short time, that imps and other infernal devils walk the earth. That for a few short days in October, legends can come true, and if we are not careful, something monstrous will follow us home and cause our doom. This makes our candy sweeter, our popcorn tastier, and all our other treats that much more delicious. It’s the shiver and fear or fascination of the unknown that makes us carve Jock-o-lanterns, move closer to the fireplace, and maybe even leave a little light on before going to bed. And that folks is what Halloween is all about….
A postscript: Curse of the Demon is easily found on Amazon, Vudu, Google and many other video on demand for a pretty cheap rental. If possible, look for Night of the Demon, which is the title that the movie was made under and released in Britain. Night of the Demon has a longer running time and considered the better of the two movies. The DVD release of the movie has both versions and can usually be found on eBay and Amazon fairly cheap as well.