What does it have in their place?
Well, how about one of the more popular photogenic leading men of his era, Dana Andrews? In the role of Dr. John Holden, Andrews is on his way to a paranormal psychology convention in England where he’ll serve as the chief debunker to phenomenon that may or may not be going bump in the night. (These things always have a conventional explanation, don’t you know?) In his quest to uncover just what dark fate may’ve befallen a fellow researcher, Holden teams up with the man’s niece, Joanna Harrington (played by a comely Peggy Cummins). After she convinces him that something sinister may be afoot, the two will race against the clock to unravel the mystery as it would appear that Holden’s immortal soul might very well depend on it.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“American professor John Holden arrives in London for a parapsychology conference, only to find himself investigating the mysterious actions of Devil-worshiper Julian Karswell.”
Having thought about, talked about, and written about films since the 1980’s, I really have butted heads with an incredible number of folks over the years. I’ve always found it fabulous to share my love of the cinema with so many, many people. While I may not always have the same opinion of a project that they do, I hope that they’ve appreciated that I take my love of film very seriously … but I rarely, if ever, take my particular assessment of any picture as being definitive. We’re all allowed to like what we like; that’s just the way I’m wired.
As I mentioned above, Curse Of The Demon is a film that comes up quite often in my research. Having now sat and watched the entire affair on my DVR I think I can fully understand why.
The shooting script – as crafted by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester – is actually an adaptation of “Casting The Runes,” a tale by M.R. James (aka Montague R. James). From what I’ve discovered on Wikipedia.org, “Casting” was a short story published in a collection of them all the way back in 1911. Without dissecting the particulars, it does appear as if the screenplay truly sticks to the premise of that original tale and goes in slightly different direction as to how the associated ‘curse’ plays out between its characters. Wiki also reports that the short story has been adapted a few times for British television as well as undergoing a few different radio dramatizations as well.
But evolving from literature might be Curse’s greatest strength: it gives its various characters vastly more depth than other filmed haunts of the day, and the script takes the audience logically through its creepy vibe of with natural and nuanced progression.
Furthermore, director Jacques Tourneur is no intellectual lightweight here. As a storytelling steward, his career to this point had already garnered him two Hugo Award nominations: he enjoyed a nomination in 1943 in the category of ‘Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form’ for bringing Cat People (1942) to the silver screen, and he backed that effort up only one year later with a 1944 nomination (in the same category) for his work on I Walked With A Zombie (1943). IMDB.com reports that Curse Of The Demon would eventually go on to garner him a bit of praise from a screening at the Faro Island Film Festival, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself in that respect. I’m also aware of Tourneur as the director of the film noir Out Of The Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. (While that one clearly isn’t of the SciFi and Fantasy variety, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that it’s one of my all-time film favorites as well.)
From what I’ve read elsewhere, I recall that Tourneur was opposed to showing Curse’s central monster on the silver screen. I believe his position on this (going from memory) is that he didn’t believe that such a creature was necessary and might even be a distraction from the story’s central questioning of whether or not the alleged curse was real or merely a creation of circumstances. The director has even been quoted on record (per Wikipedia.org) as insisting that the scenes created with the lumbering gruesome giant were done without his participation; though there’s ample evidence to suggest that may not have been the case, I can still understand how anyone in his position may’ve assumed that more suggestion and less spectacle makes for a superb thriller.
I’ve often written that one of the reasons I do prefer older films is that the characters are actually given some very good dialogue with which to move a story forward. Players actually talk about what happens, and we – as voyeurs – get to glean from it an awful lot of substance, motivations, foreshadowing, etc. In that respect, the script quite masterfully gives Dr. Holden and young Joanna some fabulous exchanges. While some might find them a bit too short and maybe even a bit light on subtext, I think they worked perfectly; in no small way, their occasionally witty exchanges do mirror some of the effectiveness to those debates Mulder and Scully had on the aforementioned The X-Files. Holden’s clearly a skeptic, and Joanna fully accepts that there’s dark magic at work here. This spine – and their growing friendship and acceptance of each other’s perspective – elevates this Curse to the level of respectability its earned over the years.
What matters to many in an authentic Horror is the scares, and here this would involve those sequences wherein the Demon enters our world through the veil of darkness. Yes, yes, and yes: the effects are understandably primitive when compared with anything from, say, the 1970’s onward, but that doesn’t diminish the theatrical effectiveness. The actors in those scenes conveyed their own respective astonishment – chiefly Maurice Denham (as Henry Harrington) and MacGinnis (in the finale); and they sell the sizzle as perfectly as roasted mutton when the time comes.
Curse Of the Demon (aka Night Of The Demon) (1957) was produced by Sabre Film Productions. For those who like to know this kind of minutiae, I watched the film via standard cable from an airing on Turner Classic Network. As for the technical specifications? This black-and-white chiller actually looks very, very good: there are a few sequences wherein the special effects of the day might make for a bit of – erm – obviousness that images have been altered to achieve the proper scare, but it’s all handled surprisingly solid.