aka Curse of the Demon
Director: Jacques Tourneur
By Roderick Heath
Headlights, burning the night like eyes of a spectral beast, light the way along a country road at night, branches etched in slivers of brightness against vast darkness. The car arrives before a great old house, and its driver, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), meets with the house’s owner, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in a state of clammy desperation. Harrington claims to have seen something, something terrifying enough to make the peerlessly rational researcher, who has been investigating Karswell and his cult worshipping black magic and old gods, come begging for his quarry’s aid in exchange for public apologies and repudiations. Karswell asks some seemingly calm and placatory questions, including about the fate of a scrap of parchment covered in runic symbols Karswell gave him. After learning the parchment was burned, Karswell assures Harrington that he should go home and leave everything to him. Harrington drives back home through the night. But as he’s pulling into his driveway, Harrington sees a spectral figure manifesting in the distance that drives him into a wild panic, causing him to crash his car into a power pole. The last thing Harrington sees as he twists up in the midst of power lines is a colossal, ferocious demon lurching over him and reaching down…
This opening has fineness sufficient unto itself, a miniature essay in form and style in a horror movie – the war of inky blacks and dazzling whites and grey shades in between, the judicious glimpses of a monstrous being at large in the quiet embrace of the English country night, the layered ironies of soft-spoken gentlemen bringing down ruinous forces from beyond. Although director Jacques Tourneur was frustrated by having to show the demon in literal form, the way the film handles its appearance still stands, 60 years later, as perhaps the best and worthiest ever use of a special effect in a horror film, a ne plus ultra in genre spectacle – the strange apparition appearing vaguely in the distance, wreathed in smoke and fire, two massive legs astride the writhing, desperate Harrington, and then a great, looming close-up of the demon’s snarling visage and terrible clawed paw splayed to grip its prey and prize.
Charles Bennett, who had been a top screenwriter for many years and is still perhaps best remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on projects like The 39 Steps (1935), laboured on penning an adaptation of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” for many years, and harboured hopes of directing the completed script. Bennett couldn’t get any studio to back him in this until, agonisingly, just after he had signed over the script to producer Hal E. Chester, who then proceeded to amplify his frustration by rewriting it to better fit Chester’s idea of commercial interests. Chester nonetheless proved himself wise in one regard, when he turned to Tourneur, recommended to him by another producer, to handle this tale of gruelling anxiety. Tourneur had not made a horror film in 14 years, although it was the genre that had made his name working with RKO maestro Val Lewton. Tourneur and Lewton’s partnership had laid down a blueprint for a style of horror not only followed by Lewton’s other stable-mates Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but which made a subtle but pervasive impact on the genre as a whole. The duo’s clarion work Cat People (1942) even purportedly saved RKO from bankruptcy. After extending the series with I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943), Tourneur had been rewarded with a swift rise to handling larger-budgeted and more prestigious films, turning out excellent noir thrillers like Out Of The Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948). Once Tourneur’s RKO contract expired he was free to pick and choose projects from different studios. But far from burnishing his reputation, the string of westerns and adventure movies he made throughout much of the 1950s are generally far less well-known than his foundational work.
Tourneur and Lewton’s collaboration had been rooted in their mutual status as immigrants who had each followed famous elder relatives to the US for work. In Tourneur’s case, his director father Maurice Tourneur, and in Lewton’s his aunt, the silent screen star Alla Nazimova. Both men found accord in this sense of tension between their experiences and their lives in Hollywood, as well as a shared humanist outlook. But they also diverged as Lewton’s romantic rationality was pitted against Tourneur’s interests in the mystic, a division that ultimately synthesised a penchant for ambiguity in their approach to the creepy tales they were obliged to create. Tourneur’s visual palette, influenced by his father’s famous and innovative use of light in his films, was delicate yet firm in its gradations and depth of field, aiding him in his gift for creating a sequestered mood, a state of subtle alienation and isolation from the everyday world. This talent was most famously evinced in such scenes as the swimming pool sequence in Cat People, but Night of the Demon quickly offers a less spectacular, but equally vital example of this touch at work after its fanfare opening. Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) and colleague Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), who don’t know each other in spite of their connection, frustrate each other as they fly over the Atlantic to London. The incidental meet-cute here is a bit arduous on the dramatic level, but also a model of mood control and audience conditioning: Tourneur evokes a hushed and somnolent corner of a noisy, zippy modern act, in flying aboard a propeller-driven passenger plane, introducing a story where the tension between the modern and ancient, seen and unseen, defines all. Joanna’s light, which annoys Holden, is an ironic beacon of wakeful vigilance where everyone else is trying to sleep, setting in motion the battle between her credulity as to the possibility of supernatural menace versus Holden’s conviction of its impossibility.
Holden is heading to London to chair an academic conference of investigators into anthropology and folklore, at which Harrington intended to discredit Karswell, whose cult activities seem to have driven at least one member of the faithful to go mad and commit a murder. Both Joanna and Holden are met with the news of Harrington’s death upon touchdown, but Holden wastes no time in retracing Harrington’s steps in pursuit of Karswell. Trying to track down some of the research tomes Harrington had listed in his investigations, he goes to the British Museum’s reading room, but cannot find the book listed entitled The True Discoveries of the Witches and Demons. A stranger claims to overhear and offers to show Holden his copy. The stranger is Karswell, who introduces himself in affable manner and gives Holden a card as well as a bundle of his own papers accidentally toppled from his work desk. The card promises, “Allowed three days” in handwriting that vanishes without trace even to a chemist’s eye. Intrigued, Holden decides to accept Karswell’s invitation, taking Joanna, who visits his hotel room to warn him about her uncle’s slow-mounting dread before his untimely end. Holden thinks he has Karswell pegged as a “harmless faker” when he sees Karswell entertaining children as a clown and magician, so Karswell attempts to wipe the smugness from his face by taking credit for a vicious windstorm that suddenly descends and churns the party to chaos.
Karswell claims success in translating portions of the encrypted True Discoveries and gained unique insight into and power over the supernatural world with it, power he has wielded to gain himself a flock of intensely credulous yokel followers, and enriching himself in the process. He also predicts Holden’s imminent death. The stage is set for an extended battle of wills between Holden and Karswell, the stiff-necked rationalist slowly whittled down to size as he finds himself dogged by mounting signs that something terrible really is now dogging his footsteps, manifesting in menacing sounds in his hotel corridors, fits of blurry vision and hallucination, pages vanishing from his diary after the date of his anticipated demise, and pursuit by a smoky apparition when he ventures alone through the woods neighbouring Karswell’s house. Joanna becomes convinced quickly that her father’s dread was based in something substantial; Holden resists her entreaties to pay heed to his example whilst also trying to romance her. Karswell’s elderly mother (Athene Seyler) also attempts to convince Holden he’s in danger, and invites him and Joanna to a session with a medium, Mr Meek (Reginald Beckwith). Meek seems to channel Harrington and his desperate implorations from beyond, but Holden is left more annoyed and sceptical than ever. Meanwhile Holden’s colleagues, O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and Kumar (Peter Elliott), are arranging to medically examine the mad cultist, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), and use hypnosis and drugs to extricate the truth of what happened on the night of his supposed murder.
Night of the Demon was released at almost the same time as Terence Fisher’s pivotal work for Hammer Films, Curse of Frankenstein, and like that film it reclaims the imagery of looming, destructive chimera from the world of science fiction and restores it to the embrace of horror’s darker, more intimately troubling world, announcing horror’s resurgence as a vital genre. At the same time, where Fisher’s gore-spiked, gothic fairytale approach was actually a jolt of harsh modernism, Tourneur’s film mediates two eras with intricacy and also some strain. Part of the power of the approach Tourneur and Lewton took in their horror trilogy was rooted in their exploration of the consequences of modern rationality with its weapons of science and psychology, grappling with old figurations for the understanding of the world. Their template refused to entirely demystify those figurations but more often fighting them to a draw in recognising that the cold light of reason never dispels the power of the irrational, even if it only lurks in the recesses of the mind. The possibility of supernatural action in Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie was mediated through the very real and immediate conspiracies of damaged and damaging people, whilst the storyline of The Leopard Man self-consciously invoked the notion of a human lunatic using a primal force, in this case an escaped wild animal, as a black alibi for his predations.
Night of the Demon, by contrast, allowed Tourneur to step back into horror cinema by making that tension between the rational and irrational worldviews the basic matter of the drama. The story concerns the constant dialogue of belief and scepticism that is at the heart of so much of the genre. James’s stories were usually built around such a gap in understanding, mediated through James’ own scholarly habits, his fascination with dust-caked esoterica, transmitting through layers of media a sense of a world lost and just beyond grasping where the laws of the universe was understood in a different way. James’ approach, with his falsified testimonies and second-hand accounts, borrowed from and also augmented the epistolary style of writing, a mode with much in common with contemporary cinema’s love of found footage gimmickry, in terms of trying to convey a charge of verisimilitude. Night of the Demon doesn’t try to reproduce this layered effect, but Bennett did an expert job of transposing James’ story from a late Victorian setting into the mid-1950s. Perhaps, indeed, it found the setting it always demanded, the age of planes and atomic bombs and bright, sterile lights, amidst which the shadows sometimes seem all the darker, more abyssal and witholding. Holden’s conversations with O’Brien and Kumar, who are rather more metaphysically-minded than him and variously open to belief in the supernatural – Kumar in particular – see them engaging in jocular but weighty manner on the ways of understanding such phenomena. Kumar refuses a drink O’Brien offers, calling alcohol the “devil’s brew.” Later, when O’Brien jokingly notes the devil has something with his pleasant drink, Kumar notes “That’s when he’s most dangerous – when he’s being pleasant.” And of course, Karswell is the most pleasant gentleman around.
The charm of the English story, acknowledged early in the film when a local journalist wryly asks Holden to “go easy on our ghosts – we’re rather fond of them,” exudes from a land where the modern lives cheek by jowl with the works of unseen generations, moulded into the everyday habits of the land, dogging memories of ancient convictions and loyalties still infesting the edge of a world otherwise getting on with business. Many moments in Night of the Demon record the essence of this parochial style, particularly the riotously strange séance sequence in which Meek’s wife (Rosamund Greenwood) and Mrs Karswell sing the chirpy ditty “Cherry Ripe” to induce the right spiritual mood, seeing the medium begin to grunt and toss as he connects with the astral plane. Meek passes through a variety of possessions, including of a kindly Scottish gentleman and a small, frightened girl in search of her doll, before finally Harrington enters him and frantically tries to warn Holden and Joana about the demon even as he screams in terror at its looming presence. Holden shatters the mood, and Meek’s trance, by getting up and turning on the lights (“I feel sick.” “You’re not the only one.”) in a conscientious act of effrontery to the construction of credulity enforced by the showmanship of the séance. The film’s most vital performance is also the best conduit for this contrast of English eccentricity and the truly uncanny, in MacGinnis as Karswell.
The Irish-born actor, once a rugged heroic type in films like Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1938) and Anthony Asquith’s We Dive At Dawn (1943), was balding and portly by the time this film came around, and so he slipped into the skin of this character to present conjure master and necromancer, patterned after that eternal fount for horror writes Aleister Crowley, not as sepulchral supervillain (a la Boris Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat, 1934) or suavely sinister man of the world (Charles Grey’s Mocata in The Devil Rides Out, 1967), but as a bluff and genial former performer who’s nice to kids and helpful even to mean, old scholars who want to persecute him. Truth be told, Karswell bears more likeness to L. Ron Hubbard than to Crowley, as entertainer turned religious leader, carefully feeding out fragments of his revelations gleaned from supposed ancient texts. Bennett and Tourneur seem to have noticed grounds for such a figure to flourish in an age increasingly wary and inclined to reject modernity’s apparent lack of order and calm.
Karswell also anticipates Psycho’s (1960) Norman Bates as a figure of destruction lurking in a big, old house with his mother, one who could be seen as coded queer (though he seems to gain designs on Joanna eventually). But Psycho would announce the proper birth of the modern horror film with its knife-wielding serial killer as monster, Night of the Demon still has a foot in an atavistic world, its momma’s boy headcase bringing down death with justified conviction that he holds the secret reins of the world, whilst, of course, living with the risk they might be tugged from his grip. Karswell makes plain to his mother his way of thinking and his motivation for destroying Harrington and Holden – to protect the worldly and otherworldly success he’s obtained. MacGinnis is great fun as he veers through conversations with alternations of affability and tossed-off threat (“Unfortunately you won’t be able to explain away your death on the 28th of this month so easily, with my prediction of it at this moment,” he mentions airily whilst taking off his clown make-up). He manages to simultaneously imbue Karswell with a genuinely malevolent edge, shading his sweetly tempered voice into deeper, sterner intonations, fixing Holden with cold-blooded stares and triumphant smiles as he stands unmoved during the pulverising wind storm he conjures. MacGinnis also expertly traces Karswell’s undercurrent of genuine awe and trepidation, his all-too-credulous certainty that the terrors he can wield are dangerous, and his awareness of the basic law of magic, “nothing for nothing,” that every cause has an effect and every cup taken from the well must be refilled one way or another.
Holden meanwhile visits some of Karswell’s followers, who seem to live in an entirely different epoch to him and everyone else, when he needs permission from Rand Hobart’s relations to treat him. These people subsist on a farm without any sign of technology, speak in ye-olde-isms, and seem sternly subservient to the old forces of the earth and beyond Karswell has facetiously mastered but they have adopted with iron belief. There’s an intriguing echo throughout Night of the Demon of one of Tourneur’s best-regarded, if least well-known films, Stars in My Crown (1950), as that film’s gentle and empathetic portrayal of a religious warrior trying to win over a rustic community gives way to a man of staunch disbelief confronting an enclave of septic holdouts from a radically different faith. Aptly, Holden’s attitude slowly reveals itself as every bit as monomaniacal as any religious fanatic’s, and sourced in a similar anxiety as to what mysteries an alternative world view open up. This dichotomous aspect is evinced as Holden expressly detests the sensation of being robbed of not only certitude but also forthright sovereignty by the possibility of the supernatural: “It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner – if this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well all give up right now.” To which Joanna ripostes that the existence of forces that cannot be repressed doesn’t necessarily mean being ruled by them. If the essence of the ’50s science fiction film had often been conjuring colossal fears to be defeated by the end, Night of the Demon pointedly refuses the notion that all anxieties can be so defeated, but also suggests the evil forces tend to consume those who invoke them.
Without going too far out on a limb, it’s possible to regard Night of the Demon as a vital signpost in the souring in the postwar sensibility, counterpointing Curse of Frankenstein’s ruthless commentary on unhinged science conjuring monsters where none existed before. The feeling that Night of the Demon was pitched in part as something of a commentary on the waning scifi creed and flagship for horror is bolstered, as Holden is given explicitly Jungian attitudes linking the sightings of flying saucers with the many similar types of demons O’Brien keeps a collection of as evidence of the possibility the demon is real, branding them common archetypes. Holden himself is of the same species as the square-jawed, he-man scientists who could solve all the world’s problems in such films. Night of the Demon hinges on the observation that just because not all fears can be plumbed doesn’t mean they cannot be controlled or reckoned with. The object at the heart of the narrative, the paper inscribed with the mystic runes that serve as summons and beacon for the demon, is a blind tool of supernatural forces, capable of bringing down the demon’s wrath on anyone who holds it, a device that ultimately gives Holden his ticket to defeating Karswell.
Night of the Demon has always been a knotty work to me. I’m often left with the feeling after watching it that with a few tweaks it could have been an unrivalled pinnacle of the genre, but a few vital elements consistently frustrate me. Some of this seems to stem from the tension between the three main contributors to its making, Bennett, Tourneur, and Chester, whose revisions to Bennett’s script resulted in a story flow that doesn’t always seem properly structured, and awkward switchbacks in the style and attitude of the characters, like Holden’s oilier efforts to romance Joanna. Clifton Parker’s often crashing score is another facet that annoys, as well as the frustratingly overpitched performances by the usually reliable Andrew and Cummins. That said, the mood of strained and brittle self-consciousness both actors exude accords with the slowly ratcheting, jump-at-shadows disquiet inherent in Holden’s plight. Moreover, Tourneur’s direction relentlessly accumulates signs of menace, pulling jolting moments out of his hat just as Karswell plucks puppies from his, like a famous moment when two small boys wearing creepy masks leap out from a tree, interrupting Karswell’s quietly menacing conversation with Holden: just two kids at play, but it comes with such perfectly unexpected jaggedness that it still startles after umpteen viewings. Less agreeably, Tourneur’s method here, revising the art of the “bus scare” he developed with Lewton that hinged on utilising jarring cues of sound that prick the audience’s susceptibility with false scares, also anticipates the modern reduction of horror cinema to a series a jumps induced by assaults with volume.
The failure of the séance to convince Holden of his danger leads him to try breaking into Karswell’s manse to get a look at the True Discoveries. It proves an abortive mission, as Karswell senses his intrusion, and Holden is mauled by what seems like a terrible monster in the dark, but proves to be only a pet cat when the light is switched on – or, as Karswell mockingly suggests, a cat possessed by a guardian spirit to protect the house. Holden takes his obtuseness to a new level when he declares his determination to leave the way he came, treading back through the woods neighbouring the house in spite of Karswell’s appeals not to. But his journey becomes a magnificent opportunity for Tourneur to stretch his scaremongering sinews. Holden becomes increasingly jumpy and finally starts running in panic as mysterious footprints of an invisible fiend start pocking the ground, and a glowing ball of smoke seems to chase the panicky scientist through the aisles of skeletal trees and clinging bushes. There’s another echo of a recent scifi film here: the invisible “monster from the id” in Forbidden Planet (1956) left the same footprints, even though the structure of the scene is far closer to the scenes of phobic isolation and anxiety that had been a hallmark of the Lewton series. Like the opening, this sequence is an island of perfection, an ideal representation of a horror filmmaker’s art, conjuring conviction of threat from the most minimal of signs and hints, conveying the way the secure bastions of Holden’s mind are giving way before the spell of the dark.
Tourneur’s irritation in being obliged to make the demon appear is entirely understandable in this regard, because it seems to diffuse the opacity he had laboured carefully to engender through such sequences. That said, just as the ball of fire that chases Holden could be a figment of his imagination, so, too, could the demon itself. The contradiction Tourneur doesn’t shy away from is the problem of knowing, whether the mind creates its demons or merely records them, and ponders if the difference is actually all that important. The modern medicine turned upon Hobart (a performance of incredible, sweat-sodden intensity from Wilde, who would later become well-known playing an amusingly different part on the TV show Porridge) excavates primal terror from the pathetic man who proves to avoided his own, ordained fate to die by the monster by passing the runes onto a fellow. Hobart imbues Holden with vital knowledge for avoiding his own fate, but at the cost of his own life, as Hobart hysterically attacks the doctor in thinking he’s trying to pass his own runes on, and hurls himself through a high window. Holden makes a dash to catch Karswell, forewarned by his mother about his travel plans, and catching him aboard a train with Joanna under his hypnotic control. Holden soon measures the level of Karswell’s fear of him, and when two policemen, tracking Karswell, ironically because of Holden’s complaint about him, barge into their compartment, Holden successfully returns the runes to Karswell under the guise of handing him his coat. The sorcerer immediately realises what has happened and is forced to chase after the parchment, which seems to have a life of its own, until it seems to spontaneously catch fire and burn by the railways tracks.
Karswell finds himself caught between the demon and an oncoming train, a circumstance that allows Holden and Joanna a chance to withdraw from the scene with at least a sliver of ambiguity still in their minds – “Perhaps it’s best not to know,” Holden says, echoing the “they tampered in God’s domain” homily at the end of many a ’50s scifi film. But, of course, the film privileges the audience with Karswell’s viewpoint of a colossal monstrosity that picks him up and claws him with vicious, punitive disdain. The climax delivers a truly nightmarish image; the demon, viewed towering behind a speeding train, wreathed in smoke, Karswell’s body jangling upon its claws before being tossed lifelessly down to lie smoking and bedraggled upon the rails. Again, this moment is so spectacularly achieved I just can’t find it in me to condemn it. Today, most genre filmmakers would much rather have their monster even if they have no conviction about the supernatural or deep feeling about its metaphorical potency. These things have all become tropes now. Demystifying endings were, however, rather common back in the day in fare like the various versions of The Cat and the Canary and other films with their proto-Scooby Doo endings. At least Night of the Demon sustains a note of voluble dread from its manifestations. It might even have helped give it the potent effect it had on the resurging popularity of horror as a movie genre, as it imbues the film with a lively, gleefully ferocious aspect in hindsight. Night of the Demon, in spite of its faults, still stands as one of the truly great horror films.