For my 2nd “Spook Show” review, I thought I’d pick an oldie but a goodie. Curse of the Demon is a 1957 noir, psychological thriller-slash-monster movie (called Night of the Demon when it was originally released, in a slightly longer cut, in England) with a big, goofy demon puppet in it, which, from what I’ve read and seen in interviews, several people in the production team really hated (including the director AND the star of the film.) Personally, I love the monster.
The film was directed by Jacques Tourneur and was based on a short story, “Casting the Runes,” by M.R. James (considered by many to be the greatest ghost story author in the English language.) The film stars Dana Andrews as an American psychologist and skeptic, Dr. John Holden, who is traveling to England for a conference on the paranormal at which he is supposed to deliver presentations on subjects like hypnosis and devil worship. One of his key targets for ridicule is a devil cult, known as the Order of the True Believer, lead by an Aleister Crowley-esque character named Julian Karswell (played with sinister gusto by Niall MacGinnis.) Unfortunately, before Holden arrives in Jolly Old England, his partner in the investigation, Dr. Harrington, is found dead.
We learn right from the very beginning of the film that Karswell claims to have placed a curse on Dr. Harrington, and we see Harrington in the opening scenes traveling to Karswell’s mansion to beg him to cancel the spell and spare his life. Karswell says, “Some things are more easily started than stopped,” and Harrington leaves with assurances from Karswell that he’ll “do all he can” to stop the demon from coming. Within minutes, however, Harrington is dead.
The key conflict in this film is whether the “curse” is an actual MAGICAL phenomenon or an expression of the BELIEF of the victim. The official cause of death in Harrington’s case is a car accident and electrocution, as Harrington drove his automobile into a telephone pole and then wandered into the downed power lines trying to escape the “demon” that he believed was pursuing him. The police report, as we learn from Harrington’s niece, Joanna (played by Peggy Cummins), also notes that it looks like the body has been mauled by an animal, but as the corpse may have been laying outside for many hours before being found, it’s possible that a wild animal came along later and savaged it after the accident…
Once Holden arrives in England and discovers his partner has been killed, he dutifully agrees to continue the investigation into the Karswell cult, despite the warnings of several people, including Ms. Harrington. Holden is rather quickly confronted by Karswell himself, who also asks him to drop the investigation. When Holden refuses, Karswell puts a curse on Holden as well, giving him a calling card that says, in magical disappearing ink, that his “time allowed” to live is just three days.
A few scenes later, Holden goes to Karswell’s mansion to borrow a book, which Karswell offered to lend to him (possibly just as a pretense to get him to come to his house so he can convince Holden that his magic is legitimate.) During their conversation, Karswell notes that Holden isn’t impressed by the “curse” he’s levelled against him, and the following exchange takes place (while Karswell is dressed as a clown! He’s was in the midst of performing a magic routine at a Halloween party for the local children when Holden and Ms. Harrington arrived…):
Karswell: “You don’t believe in witchcraft?”
Holden: “Do you?”
K: “Do I believe in witchcraft? What kind of witchcraft? The legendary witch that rides on the imaginary broom? The hex that tortures the thoughts of the victim? The pin stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body?”
H: “Also imaginary.”
K: “But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight? This half-world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?”
It’s a sentiment that I think Alan Moore would appreciate. (He must have seen the film, but I’ve never heard him discuss it.) The question is legitimate? Is an imaginary curse, all in the mind of the doomed individual, that ends in the death of the victim STILL false? It might not have been supernatural, but it was still effective. Mind, magic, power, psychology—these are the themes explored in this film, which has some wonderfully creepy moments in it, AND some horribly silly scenes, like when Holden sneaks into Karswell’s mansion and has a vicious battle with a floppy stuffed animal! BUT, despite the sometimes less than realistic effects, the film is very enjoyable, and does examine several worthwhile concepts.
One thing about the movie that bugs me, however, is Holden’s character. He’s supposed to be snarky, charming, and skeptical, as the “clear thinking” American scientist, but often his confidence comes across as…well, as him being a smug asshole. I get it. He’s a skeptic. (So am I.) But he’s also aggressive, self-righteous, confrontational, quick tempered, pretentious, and rude. In one scene, Ms. Harrington drags Holden to a séance, (against his will), and during the medium’s “performance,” Holden gets angry, turns on the light, insults everyone, and storms out. As a psychologist, as a “scientist,” (he is called this by several characters in the film) he’s supposed to be skeptical and to require solid evidence before believing any far-fetched or fringe claims, but I would think he would welcome the opportunity to observe a ritual performed by folks who genuinely believe in the legitimacy of the activity, if for no other reason than intellectual curiosity. He doesn’t have to be convinced that it was REAL, just not be a total dick while the show is still going. Instead, he disrupts the performance, which is just rude—whether he thinks the medium is legit or not. And he’s like this, confrontational and quick tempered, throughout the film…until he starts to be convinced that maybe there IS something to the curse and that his life might actually be in danger!
Despite my criticism of Holden’s personality, this is still a very fun movie, (and again, despite the scenes in which we’re forced to watch Holden mercilessly hit on Ms. Harrington, who is about fifteen years younger than him AND grieving for her recently deceased uncle.) The film itself is a thought-provoking exploration of the intersection between belief and skepticism, AND it’s got a giant monster in it. A beast from the depths of Hell (or some other, infernal realm.) I LOVE the giant monster puppet! Some folks might think it looks silly and think that having the creature in the film CHEAPENS the movie by giving us a definitive answer to whether or not magic is “real,” but I disagree. (The monster could just be a psychotic figment of the victims’ terrified imaginations.)
More than this, I argue that the monster is essential to this film. The monster is the visual representation of the completely UNKNOWN, which we are all afraid of—and not just the mysterious POSSIBILITY hidden in the dark that might POTENTIALLY be there, but the shocking, visible representation of the ultimate mystery. Death incarnate. The element that we can’t compute. It’s the monster that makes this a truly great horror film and not just a noir thriller. (And, truth be told, if there wasn’t a monster in this movie, I probably wouldn’t have thought the film was nearly as much fun.) Whether the creature is literally, physically there doesn’t matter—even a figment of the imagination is enough for me. It’s important to have that symbol of something OUTSIDE of human experience, something we can’t control, that can devour us if we don’t learn to fight against it. The monster makes the movie!
Oh, and if you get a DVD that has both versions of the film on it (like mine does), I would watch the Night of the Demon cut. It’s only a few minutes longer than the American version, but the extra bits help the film make a TINY bit more sense. The version I originally bought on VHS tape, Curse of the Demon, is still fantastic (so if that’s all you can find, it’s still definitely worth watching,) but you get just a few more mysteries explained in the British version, and for me, that makes the movie just a tiny bit more interesting!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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The minds a terrible thing to taste…lol