Sunday, April 23, 2006

Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon

"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?"

For as long as there have been horror movies the question has been asked: should the terror be merely suggested or should filmmakers “go for the grossout,” as Stephen King has been known to put it? While there is certainly room at the table for both quiet and extreme horror, this 1957 film makes a valid argument for the former.

The opening shots set the mood beautifully. We see a car hurtling down a lonely stretch of road in the middle of the night, trees forming eerie silhouettes in the headlights. The driver, a tense, nervous looking man, is Professor Henry Harrington and he’s on his way to see Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), the leader of a demonic cult. Though details are left delightfully vague, Harrington begs Karswell to stop what he has put into motion.

Some things are easier to start than stop, as Karswell points out, and before the night is out Harrington is slaughtered by a gigantic, spike-headed, bat-winged demon that could easily have sprung from the pen of H.P. Lovecraft. Soon our hero enters the fray in the form of Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews). Holden arrives in England where he is to take part in a seminar debunking allegedly supernatural phenomena. Chief on his schedule is an expose of Karswell’s demonic cult, a project he had been working on with Harrington.

Holden meets, and begins falling for, Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins). Joanna insists Karswell has somehow caused her uncle’s death. Holden scoffs. In fact, he does a lot of scoffing in this movie. He is a scientist and believes there is a rational explanation for everything.

While doing some research at a London museum, Holden is visited by Karswell. Despite Karswell’s request, Holden refuses to call off his expose. Karswell slips Holden a parchment bearing runic symbols, and the plot is off and running. Holden refuses to believe that the parchment has marked him for death at the hands of the same creature that killed Harrington, but evidence to the contrary begins to mount, and we’re soon on our way to a confrontation between the worlds of logic and the supernatural.

A lot of what happens in this movie happens below the surface, and not just the supernatural elements. The verbal sparring between Holden and Karswell works particularly well. For the most part they maintain a believable fa├žade of cordiality to one another, despite the fact that we know--as do they--that they will soon be at one another’s throat. Only at the points where one of the characters has angered the other to the point of an outburst do we see the true nature of their relationship.

Tourneur’s use of subtlety is masterful. One of the film’s highlights is Holden’s journey through the woods at night near Karswell’s estate. As the date of Holden’s predicted death approaches the demon comes closer and closer to manifesting. We don’t see the creature yet, but a hovering cloud of angry smoke follows Holden, and we see the footprints of some monstrously huge creature forming in the ground.

Tourneur never intended to show the demon, and the slimy beastie we see in the movie was added at the studio’s insistence. A lot has been said over the years about how the inclusion of a visible, tangible creature ruined Tourneur’s original idea, which was to leave the viewer with a sense of uncertainty as to whether anything supernatural had actually occurred. The last 45 years, however, has seen more graphic depictions of cinematic horror than you can shake a gratuitously severed limb at. The demon that was foisted upon Tourneur’s film is shown sparingly, leaving far more to the imagination than would a film made today. In light of this, Night/Curse of the Demon is in some ways truer to Tourneur’s vision today than it was when it was originally released.

Not only does Curse of the Demon bear up well 49 years after its initial arrival in theatres, but it has never looked as good on the small screen. Columbia Tri-Star’s DVD presentation presents a crisp picture with only minor specs and scratches. Unfortunately, the film is so sharp looking that the wire dragging the rune parchment that is supposedly trying to escape on its own is painfully clear.

The film is presented in two versions. Night of the Demon is the original British version, and runs 95 minutes, while Curse of the Demon, the American release version, was trimmed to 82 minutes. The only extras are trailers for The Bride and Fright Night.


Mark said...

Excellent review.

I love this film. You can really see how Tourneur was influenced by his old producer, Val Lewton.

Though the "monster" is admittedly a bit silly, I don't think it compromises the film too much. However, I can understand why Tourneur objected to the beast. It certainly detracts from any ambiguity the movie may have suggested.

I've not seen the original British release. I'm looking forward to watching the extra footage!

Matt Bradshaw said...

Thanks for the kind words.

The monster is, I think, fairly effective in closeup. It's when we see it from a distance that the technological limitations of the period become evident.

The extra footage in the British version was actually included in the version I taped off one of the Turner stations about twelve years ago, so this missing footage has actually been in circulation here in the U.S. for some time.

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