Curse of the Demon

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 06/18/07 19:00:37

"The fear of what's behind you."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Curse of the Demon (or Night of the Demon as it's known outside of the US) is a great example of why producers should leave films to the directors. Director Jacques Torneur (The Cat People) wanted to have this supernatural horror/mystery not show the titular demon at all. The producers disagreed and insisted that he not only show the demon, but show it in the opening 5 minutes. The effect is that of Jaws if it opened with Bruce instead of Chrissie.

There's no getting away with it, the demon looks exactly how you'd expect a 40 foot monster to look in a 1957 film. Take the opening sequence for example, when it hunts down and kills its first victim. The effect of a stormy cloud breaking into the night sky from nothing is actually incredibly effective, and even if the demon was seen only in long shot, at least then it would have an eerie mysterious quality to it. But, no, we're forced to see it in an extreme close-up with it looking as scary as the 1970s King Kong. If Tourneur had got his wish and been able to edit around the demon, and to only suggest at its appearance, then the opening and the end would have been much more effective - as would a scene where a stuffed leopard has to stand in for the real thing in a less than convincing attack.

But wait, I have come to praise Curse of the Demon, not bury it because dodgy special effects aside, it is a creepy, chilling horror that has been unfairly forgotten over the years. It focuses upon Doctor John Holden (Dana Andrews) a psychologist who arrives in England for a conference determined to disprove as many elements and theories of supernatural behaviour as he can. When he gets there he finds that Dr Harrington, also due at the conference, has died in horrific and mysterious circumstances. Meeting up with his niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummings), she tells him that her uncle was convinced that he was going to die after a spat with Dr Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a firm believer in all things supernatural - particularly in the existence of demons which Joanna is convinced is the cause of her uncle's death. Holden remains steadfast in his scepticism, until he too runs foul of Karswell and finds his beliefs challenged to their very core.

The reason Curse of the Demon works so effectively is that it is approached not with a sensationalist tone, but one of scientific seriousness. Holden's character is key to this, as he is not a gullible, shrieking teenager, but an intelligent, rational man whose rationality is the driving force behind him. It's because Holden's belief (or disbelief rather) finally starts to shake that the film is so convincing with what could have been a silly William Castle-esque set up (and consider again how much more interesting the film would have been, if we never see the demon - particularly at the beginning. The shroud of ambiguity would have been a hell of a lot more effective). Instead, because Tourneur never directs this like a typical horror film, it becomes much more of an unsettling, disturbing experience. Sure, the fog bound woods are as spooky as any other director has ever made them, but Tourneur creates a Hitchcockian situation here, where the scares come in unexpected ways. A conversation in a cottage late at night is terrifying not just because they're discussing things that go bump in the night, but because of the lighting and the sounds of the horrendous storm outside. A children's party interrupted by a sudden storm becomes a subtly chilling scene, because Tourneur renders the supernatural implications of it so matter of factly.

It also gains a lot from Macginnis' portrayal of deep rooted malice. If Andrews and Cummins are dull leads, then MacGinnis with his tubby and balding frame, is a picture of urbane evil. Never raising his voice, never overacting, he's never scarier than when dressed as a clown for the aforementioned children's party, and is utterly convincing as a master of satanic arts, grounding it in a deep believability.

It's a film that, like The Exorcist say, works best not with shocking reveals of a monster, but with suggestion. The suggestive fear of what's behind you, the fear that there's something just wrong with that empty hotel corridor stretching into the distance. Psychologists have often said that humans are programmed to find faces in random objects such as clouds, wallpaper patterns and cliff faces for example. It's a notion that Tourneur plays on brilliantly with an intricately designed production design that constantly throws up suggestions of demonic faces behind the characters. This is arguably conjecture on my behalf - one person sees a face, another sees a random shape - but the film has a paranoid, uneasy atmosphere of always being watched and stalked. For example, keep an eye on the scene where Holden returns to his hotel room after being a specific deadline by Karswell - in particular the clouds at night that you can see out of his hotel window...

Curse of the Demon is a film that has unfortunately not got the critical reputation it deserves partly because of the interfering producers, but also because of the hacked about running time which saw the US release lose about ten minutes from the much better European release. In dire need of a directors cut, it is a great example of how studio interference can turn a brilliant film into a merely great one.

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