One of the most fascinating and ambitious, yet ultimately flawed horror movies of its generation, Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957) is vintage film noir meets grand guignol, superbly photographed by Edward Scaife. If only the machinations ironed out by screenwriters, Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester had lived up to either Bennett’s original draft or Montague R. James’ novel, ‘Casting the Runes’ – a plot-twisting minor masterpiece steeped in the occult and demonic possession – then the film might have truly lived up to its name (‘Night’ in the U.K./‘Curse’ in the U.S. because producers, Chester and Frank Bevis thought ‘Night’ would confuse audiences with ‘Night of the Iguana, then in general release). Instead, Night/Curse of the Demon founders almost from the beginning; its narrative loopholes repeatedly salvaged at the last possible moment with some bone-chilling sequences. These promise to improve the overall tenor of the piece, but wind up as mere – if compelling – vignettes, that never quite come together as the anticipated, heart-pounding roller coaster ride.
Charles Bennett owned the rights to James’ book, but sold his stake in the project to Chester before departing for America. It was a decision he later, and forever thereafter, much regretted, particularly when the rechristened Night/Curse of the Demon wound up as the bottom half of a double bill, then quickly disappeared off the marquee altogether. The story of a fairly intrepid skeptic, Dr. John Holden (played with lazy charm by Dana Andrews), who becomes the next intended victim of a wealthy cultist, Dr. Julian Karswell (tremendously accomplished in all his otherworldly menace by Niall MacGinnis), definitely had potential. But the narrative waffles between Holden’s prerequisite exculpatory investigation of Karswell (utilizing some spectacular locations, including the British Museum, Stonehenge and Brocket Hall) and a rather perfunctory ‘romance’ between Holden and laconic eye candy, Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins); daughter of the recently deceased, Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), whom Holden has come to England to meet for a seminar on the supernatural.
Given Holden’s involvement on this project, he curiously lacks any ‘faith’ to believe in the paranormal. However, his powers of observation will be tested – and soon. For it seems Henry Harrington died a horrible, mysterious death; badly burned and mutilated after his car struck a telegraph pole near his home one dark and foggy night. Director Tourneur kicks off his story with this big reveal; Harrington pursued by a vengeful demon, inflicted upon him by Karswell, despite Henry’s pleas to Karswell to call off this winged vapor from hell. It seems Harrington had earlier accused Karswell of practicing the ‘black arts’ as the leader of a demonic cult. The allegation made all the papers and created quite a scandal for Karswell who, at least on the surface, leads a supremely pleasant, laid back existence as a middle-age bachelor, living with his mother (Athene Seyler) on his sprawling country estate, Lufford Hall.
Of course, Holden knows none of this beforehand. And so, Tourneur and the Chester/Bennett screenplay spends an interminable amount of time setting up this back story for Holden’s benefit rather than ours: his cute meet with Joanna aboard a plane from New York to London (his repeated attempts to get some sleep, thwarted by her need to move around while making notes); Holden’s quick consultation with professors, Mark O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott) – who seem rather oddly devout and united in their unscientific fear of the unknown (arguably, counterbalance to Holden’s own abject dismissal of the paranormal as pure nonsense); Holden stumbling into Karswell at the British Museum while he is researching the history of witches and demons (and having Karswell immediate put a curse on him); and finally, ‘cute meet #2’ – Holden bumping into Joanna at her father’s funeral, finally making the connection; she is Henry’s daughter.
A short while later, the pair winds up at Holden’s hotel suite. Joanna initially sees this as a meeting of the minds, even bringing along her father’s journal to read a few of his notations about Karswell. Holden would much rather get to know Joanna socially. Only, he goes about it the wrong way; inadvertently insulting her intelligence by dismissing her father’s diary as pure tripe and trouncing Joanna’s own curiosity as grossly unwarranted silliness. Nevertheless, Holden really cannot explain away what he has been feeling since his accidental encounter with Karswell at the British Museum; dizzy spells and a strange ‘insect-like’ screech (the actual noise the demon makes before materializing) rattling inside his head.
To appease Joanna – and perhaps, to get to the bottom of things – Holden has Joanna drive him out to Lufford Hall; intruding on an afternoon’s delights – Karswell in clown makeup, entertaining a group of local children with a bit of ‘innocent’ magic. Holden and Joanna separate, Karswell suggesting his mother might take her inside for some ice cream while he and Holden go for a stroll about the grounds. Holden questions Karswell about his ‘interest’ in the ‘black arts’; Karswell making no apology for dabbling in both the ‘black’ and ‘white’ arts of witchcraft. Holden is rather flippant in his rejection of ‘magic’ as anything except a grand hoax, illusions and slights of hand. To prove his point, Karswell conjures a violent thunderstorm, forcing everyone into the house. The mood between Karswell and Holden turns adversarial after Karswell informs Holden he has a mere three days left to live. In the U.K. version, this scene segues to a brief exchange between Karswell and Joanna, whom he instructs to go home and prepare for Holden’s demise. But in the U.S. version, the plot merely leaps ahead - to later that evening - Joanna begging Holden to take his fate or, at least, the one designed for him by Karswell - more serious.
Holden refuses to buy into this hysteria. However, when he discovers parallels between Henry Harrington’s death (pages torn from both their day planners, a sinister parchment slipped into his briefcase by Karswell with ancient symbols scrawled) Holden becomes a tad more suspicious. Even so, when the parchment jerks from Holden’s hand and attempts to leap into the nearby fireplace (prevented only by its decorative grate), Joanna is convinced some ethereal darker force is at work, Holden blames the parchment’s ‘escape’ on the wind. Nevertheless, upon returning to his suite at the Savoy, Holden once again hears the demon’s insect-like call coming from the end of the hallway; interrupted by Kumar and O’Brien, who welcome Holden into their suite to discuss the pending examination of one Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde); a ‘nonbeliever’ too who has since slipped into a state of catatonia.
In the U.K. version this moment is followed by Holden driving out to a remote hovel on the windswept moors, attempting to broker favor with the rest of the Hobart clan to examine Rand. Mrs. Hobart (Janet Barrow) reluctantly gives her consent, but not before Holden’s parchment attempts another escape – this time, from his wallet. The Hobarts are easily spooked and Mrs. Hobart declares Holden has been ‘chosen’. His fate is sealed. Holden next makes his pilgrimage to Stonehenge, discovering the same Runic symbols from his parchment chiseled into one of its mysterious stone pylons. Returning home hours later, Holden receives a rather cryptic message from Joanna to meet him at the house of Mr. Meeks (Reginald Beckwith). It turns out the pair have been summoned there by Mrs. Karswell who, ever-fearful of her own son’s influence, is attempting to intervene on Holden’s behalf to save his life. Together with Mrs. Meeks (Rosamund Greenwood), Holden, Joanna and Mrs. Karswell engage in a séance; the spirit of Henry Harrington forewarning Holden of imminent doom, using Mr. Meeks as his medium.
Given Holden’s scholastic interest, he is all but arrogant and quite dismissive of Meeks’ abilities to contact the dead, laughing it off as a lot of fakery put on for their amusement. As Joanna and Holden depart, Mrs. Karswell is taken into Julien’s custody back to Lufford Hall. Joanna thinks Holden terribly foolish. To prove his point, Holden agrees to drive out in the dead of night to Lufford Hall, break in and search for the rare manuscript on witchcraft and demons stolen from the British Museum and now in Karswell’s possession. Leaving Joanna at the gates, Holden skulks through the woods. He discovers an open window on the second floor of Lufford Hall, climbing a rickety trellis; then, slinking downstairs into Karswell’s study to begin his search. Unbeknownst to Holden, Karswell is following his every move. Karswell stops just short of entering his study, instead using his occultist powers to conjure a leopard from the common housecat to attack Holden in the library. It’s a rather ridiculous moment in the movie; one reminiscent (and far more effectively staged and apropos to Cat People, Tourneur’s ghoulish horror/suspense masterpiece from 1942).
The leopard assault is cut short herein by Karswell, who bursts into the room and turns on the lights; the panther instantly transformed back into his unobtrusive black house kitty. Given the severity of the conflict, Holden shows no outward signs from the attack – not even a few well-placed scratches. Karswell orders Holden from his house; Mrs. Karswell begging her son to call off whatever mystical mischief he has invoked. But as Holden makes his way back to Joanna’s car the all-too familiar sound of the demon grows strong; a puff of smoke manifesting into the very same winged gargoyle that claimed Harrington’s life. Holden flees this apparition, and manages his awkward escape. The next afternoon, under medical supervision at an insane asylum, Hobart is brought out of his catatonic state with an injection of sodium pentothal. Under hypnosis, he reveals how Karswell’s parchment is the key to the curse. Whoever possesses it must die. It’s all rather riveting melodrama, except that Hobart suddenly and quite unexpectedly begins to rave of persecution, leaping off the examination table and falling to his own death through an open upstairs’ window.
In the meantime, Karswell kidnaps Joanna, intent on fleeing London by train. Holden pursues Karswell, slipping him the same parchment Karswell gave him at the British Museum. Realizing what Holden has done, Karswell attempts to perform the exchange once more. But the parchment escapes his grasp, flying down the railroad tracks. As Holden and Joanna look on, Karswell races toward an oncoming train; their view of him momentarily obstructed. The parchment bursts into flames. The demon manifests itself in Karswell’s presence and tears him apart. After the train has passed, Holden and the station master (Leonard Sharp) find Karswell’s smoldering body near the tracks; Holden shielding Joanna from this gruesome discovery and adding “Perhaps it is best not to know.”
Night/Curse of the Demon is unquestionably a very bizarre movie. Valiant attempts have been made to treat its subject matter with seriousness and integrity. But on the whole, the story devolves into just another spook story about one man’s mangling of the unexplained. In either its U.K. or U.S. incarnation, the plot never entirely gels for more than a few intermittent moments of suspense cobbled together in between fitful bouts of melodramatic tedium. Where the story is supposed to mesmerize, it merely amuses, and when it aims to unhinge our nerves, it barely manages a mild ruffle of our collective curiosity. There’s a lot of style here, but precious little substance. Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins are not a terribly engaging ‘couple’; his American ease in constant conflict with Cummins’ clipped British resolve. The best performance comes from Niall MacGinnis; the queerly cordial menace of the piece. MacGinnis’ Julian Karswell is a sinister conjurer of the black arts; a man who could just as easily smile his way into the bowels of hell as he remains adept at amusing an impressionable brood of children with his less satanic slights of hand.
Arguably, the real star of the picture is Edward Scaife’s cinematography. Night/Curse of the Demon would be nothing at all without his chiaroscuro lighting techniques. These transform even the benign luxury of Karswell’s Lufford Hall into an eerie den of foreboding. Viewing the two alternate cuts of this movie side by side reveals how expertly fitted Tourneur’s staging of the action is – the excisions really not affecting the overall pace or narrative structure. Night/Curse of the Demon is not a remarkable film. But it is an exceptionally competent one with a few clever twists peppered in for good measure. Tourneur had not wanted to show the audience the demon; a decision vetoed by producer, Hal E. Chester.
When effects genius, Ray Harryhausen proved unavailable, the assignment of conjuring a demon from hell was handed to George Blackwell instead. Blackwell’s incarnation is part winged gargoyle/part horn and hooved wildebeest with some smoke effects tossed in. As Tourneur predicted, showing the demon as bookends to the story diffused the movie’s suspense rather than augmenting it. Done properly, the implied is always infinitely more successful than the concrete. The real issue ought to have been does Karswell possess a command of the black arts, or is he merely able to instill hysteria into the hearts and minds of his intended victims – thus, in effect, they bring about their own demise through his powers of suggestion. Night/Curse of the Demon leaves nothing to interpretation.
In his wiry goatee and dark suit, Karswell is the devil’s emissary on earth; his power genuine; his demon, physically manifested to do his bidding with relish. Does it work? Partly – though without ever instilling a genuine sense of dread. Creepy in spots, but failing to leave us shattered at our core, Night/Curse of the Demon is a mostly forgettable and below par movie – especially from Jacques Tourneur, who gave us such memorable classics as the aforementioned Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and Out of the Past (1947).
In yet another curious alliance, Sony Home Video has allowed Wild Side Home Video to release Night/Curse of the Demon only in France: a very handsome package, indeed. This set comes with both DVD and Blu-ray, containing both versions of the movie. The DVD is PAL and therefore can only be played in Europe or on region free players. But the Blu-ray (reviewed herein) is region free and can thus be played anywhere. Both versions of Night/Curse of the Demon have undergone a considerable restoration effort. Yet, ‘Curse’ is noticeably sharper, sporting a more refined grain structure than its U.K. counterpart. Both renderings have good solid contrast. But the U.S. version (shorter) looks superior by virtue of its vast amount of fine detail popping as it should in 1080p.
Furthermore, ‘Night’s’ DTS audio seems ever so slightly muffled when compared to the U.S. cut of the film. They’re both very watchable, but discrepancies in the visuals and audio do exist and bear mentioning herein. There is another curiosity to consider. The disc’s menus leave no room for the removal of the French subtitles. However, by clicking the ‘subtitles’ button on one’s remote control a message immediately appears on screen about ‘this option is not available’. Nevertheless, the subtitles are removed. Odd. Silly. Arguably, even more so than the movie. Finally, this deluxe set comes with a phenomenal book – not a booklet – written by Michael Henry Wilson: 144 pages of essay, illustrations, publicity art and stills from the movie; all of it regrettably only translated in French. As I never bothered to learn the language, this leaves me at a disadvantage to discuss the merits of the text. But I have to say, without question, the inclusion alone of such a comprehensive work to accompany such a minor film is impressive. Bottom line: for those who love this movie – and can read French – this one comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)