Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon/Haunted (1957) ****
It seems to me that a lot of so-called classic horror movies are considered “classic” for no reason other than their age. Seriously, some of these much-lauded flicks are a real chore to watch. (I’m thinking in particular of pretty much the entire Universal Studios canon from the 1930’s and 1940’s.) But if any “classic” horror film deserves its reputation, it’s Curse of the Demon, which was based on a story called “Casting the Runes” by big-shot horror author M. R. James; in fact, I’d happily argue that this movie deserves rather more respect than it gets.
Renowned psychologist Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham, from Torture Garden and Countess Dracula) is a man with a problem. Ever since he undertook to investigate the activities of the “Karswell Devil Cult”, a Satanist coven from southern England, he has felt that something beyond his understanding has been following him around, and that that something means him harm. Eventually, when he can no longer handle the strain, he seeks out Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis, of The Viking Queen and Island of Terror), the coven’s Alleister Crowley-like leader, whom Harrington believes to be responsible for his supernatural persecution. The two men exchange tense and cryptic words in Karswell’s parlor-- something about runic symbols; that Harrington “knows that it’s real,” that he will retract his statements and put an end to the investigation; a warning from Karswell that “some things are easier to start than they are to stop”-- and then Karswell glances at the clock (it’s nine PM) and ushers his visitor out the door. Harrington’s trip home takes about an hour. Just as he is closing up his garage, he spots a large, glowing cloud of dense smoke, billowing down the road toward his house. The professor screams, and leaps back into his car. In his haste to escape, however, he backs into a pole that supports the electrical lines to his house. The pole falls, mashing the car, and as Harrington tries to pull himself from the wreckage, we get a good look at what he’s trying to flee from: a demon-- huge, horned, and hairy, roughly humanoid, with great big wings and the face of a Chinese Fu-Dog, belching smoke and glowing from within with the fires of Hell. It closes in on Harrington, and in his panic, the man catches hold of one of the downed power lines, cooking himself to death within seconds.
In the next scene, an American psychologist named Holden (Dana Andrews, from Crack in the World and The Frozen Dead) lands in England. He has come to lead Harrington’s investigation, and it is with some astonishment that he learns of his colleague’s demise on the night before his arrival. What Holden finds more astonishing, though, is the fact that just about everyone he meets, including and especially the other scientists from his team, seems to think that Harrington’s death was due to supernatural circumstances, relating in some way to his investigation of Karswell and his cult. This doesn’t sit too well with Holden, who subscribes to the extremist materialist worldview that these old movies always attribute to men of science. (As a person who really does hold something close to that worldview, I can tell you that people who share it are only slightly more common than people who read Hittite.) And conveniently enough, on Holden’s first night in town, he gets a call at his hotel room from none other than Julian Karswell, who all but takes credit for Harrington’s death. It’s enough to start Holden thinking that Karswell employed some kind of mind trick on Harrington, made the professor believe that the other man really did have supernatural powers, and ultimately panicked him into killing himself by accident. A bit on the glib side, perhaps, but certainly more plausible than the idea that Karswell really did send Baal to kill the man. Unless, of course, you exist in a movie called Curse of the Demon.
Next, Holden meets Harrington’s niece, Johanna (Peggy Cummins of Hell Drivers), who also believes Karswell is responsible. She has been reading her uncle’s diaries, and she has found some distressing entries. There’s something about Karswell having slipped Harrington a strip of parchment inscribed with runic writing, which, upon being discovered, immediately flew out of Harrington’s hand and into the fireplace. Harrington believed that this parchment was an element of some Druidic curse, placed on him by Karswell, by which he would die in two weeks’ time at the stroke of ten. Interestingly enough, when Holden encountered Karswell at the library a scene or two back, the self-proclaimed warlock gave him a business card on which “In memoriam, Professor Harrington, allowed two weeks” had been written in disappearing ink. Karswell also told Holden that he would die in three days’ time, at the stroke of ten. And wouldn’t you know it, he and Johanna discover that Holden also got a parchment full of runes slipped into his briefcase, and the instant that parchment is found, it too is nearly sucked into the fireplace (Allah be praised for cinder screens, huh?). As the story progresses further, it starts to seem more and more like Karswell really is a sorcerer, and that he really has put a curse on both scientists in order to prevent them from exposing his activities. At one point, Karswell appears to create hurricane-force winds out of nowhere; the man’s cat turns into a leopard and attacks Holden as he prowls around Karswell’s mansion looking for evidence; and of course, Holden starts to feel as though he’s being followed, and once even sees a cloud of glowing smoke pursuing him through the woods. Fortunately for him, Holden also learns of a way to turn the spell back on its caster. As part of the Karswell investigation, Holden and company interview a farmer from Cornwall, by the name of Rand Hobart (To the Devil... a Daughter’s Brian Wilde), who was a member of Karswell’s cult, and who is scheduled to stand trial for murder if ever he emerges from the catatonic state into which he fell shortly after his arrest. Under hypnosis, Hobart tells Holden that he too had been cursed, but that he had escaped by secretly returning the parchment to the one who gave it to him. The demon then came for that person instead-- the one whom Hobart is now accused of murdering. So, can Holden find a way to sneak his parchment back into Karswell’s possession? This was made in 1957-- what do you think?
Curse of the Demon was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the same guy who made the 1942 version of Cat People. It is my understanding that he had wanted this movie to be similarly ambiguous; the audience was supposed to be left wondering whether Karswell was really a warlock, or whether he was simply a man who well understood the power of suggestion. Tourneur was prevented from making the movie he and the screenwriter really wanted, however, when the film’s producer, Hal S. Chester, stepped in and said, “Hey, listen, this is 1957-- we need to put a monster in this movie, understand?” If that story is true, then this may be the only example in history of a movie that was saved by the intervention of a profit-hungry producer into the director’s business. I have always believed, and probably always will believe, that a horror movie needs to show the audience something at some point-- sooner or later, you’ve got to turn the card in the hole face up. And this demon, which apparently was not supposed to have been in the movie at all, is easily one of the five coolest monsters of the entire decade-- right up there with the id-monster from Forbidden Planet-- and after the gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s probably also the most convincingly executed. Seriously, film it in color, and it would still have looked state-of-the-art in the late 70’s. And as it is, the story retains enough of the original ambiguity to suggest that the demon’s power stems from the belief of its victims-- that Holden would have remained safe if only he hadn’t let himself by convinced-- an idea well ahead of its time. In short, this is an immensely satisfying film, and it’s possible that the only reason I deny it a fifth star is that I’m enough of a product of the 80’s that even a first-rate 50’s movie seems a little hokey to me.