Curse of the Demon (1957) – A Retrospective Review

Known as NIGHT OF THE DEMON in its native England, this 1957 adaptation of “Casting the Runes” by noted ghost story practitioner M.R. James has a deserved reputation as one of the most intelligent and thoughtful horror films ever made. The screenplay by Charles Bennett (with an assist from producer Hal. E. Chester) effectively updates and expands the source material, crafting a wonderful meditation on science and superstition. Although providing plenty in the way of shudders, the emphasis is at least as much on portraying a dramatic conflict between two worldviews as embodied by the protagonist (Dana Andrews’ psychiatrist) and the antagonist (Niall MacGinnis’s occultist). Jacques Tourneur, a genius for balancing the tight-rope between two worlds, the real and the imagined, handles the material perfectly, although the result is marred by the inclusion of special effects depicting the monster, which undermine the otherwise carefully wrought ambiguity.

Dana Andrews stars as Dr. John Holden, an American psychiatrist who has come to England to contribute to a conference debunking belief in witchcraft. Unfortunately for him, one of his British colleagues, Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) has had a recent encounter with professed warlock Dr. Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis), whose curse precipitated the professor’s fatal confrontation with a demon. Professor Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) tries to convince Dr. Holden that he, too, is in danger, after Karswell contrives to slip him a paper scrawled with runic characters. Still skeptical, Dr. Holden investigates Karswell and his followers, even invading Karswell’s house, where a small cat apparently transforms into a panther in the dark; later, Holden is pursued through the woods by a glowing, smoky light, much like the one that presaged the appearance of the demon that killed Harrington. Holden dismisses these manifestations as trickery, but Joanna convinces him to go to the police, whose incredulous reaction embarrasses Holden. Eventually, Holden receives permission to perform a demonstration upon one of Karswell’s followers, who has been incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane since surviving an encounter with the demon. Under hypnosis, the man admits that, when the appointed time approached, he “passed the runes” onto someone else, who met the fate intended for him.


Realizing this is the only way to save himself from a similar fate, Holden tracks Karswell to a train carriage, where he has abducted Joanna. Holden agrees to recant his earlier skepticism if Karswell will call off the demon, but it is too late. Holden threatens Karswell, but the police (who have been tailing Karswell since Joanna and Holden lodged their complaint) intervene. In his eagerness to get as far away from Holden as possible before the demon strikes, Karswell eagerly grabs his coat from the hands of one of the police officers – realizing too late that Holden has placed the runic script in one of its pockets. Apparently with a mind of its own, the paper flutters in the breeze and out the door, with Karswell in pursuit along the train tracks. As a train races by and as the paper burns to an ash against one of the rails, Karswell is attacked by the demon that killed Harrington. Afterwards, it is unclear to Joanna and Holden whether Karswell was truly mauled by a supernatural force or merely struck down by a passing train, and Holden opines that in some cases, it is better not to know.

A plot synopsis of CURSE OF THE DEMON does not do the film full justice. The screenplay is actually very clever about balancing the phenomena it depicts, so that neither the scientific nor the superstitious viewpoint gains ascendancy; yes, lots of weird things happen, but the script wants to leave open the the question of whether any of them were truly supernatural. In a sense, the film is the prototype for THE X-FILES television show, focusing on the adventures of a male-female couple, one a skeptic, one a believer (although the gender roles are reversed in this case). One might also cite THE EXORCIST as another example of this theme, with its troubled priest (Jason Miller) trying to determine whether the possession of Regan (Linda Blair) is genuine or merely a case of split personality abetted by latent telekinetic powers.

In CURSE OF THE DEMON, this theme lies at the core of the plot. By focusing on a skeptic as the lead character, and by using a contemporary setting, the film sets up a convincing sense of realism that elevates the story to the level of a serious drama, not a conventional genre piece relying solely on spooky atmosphere and monsters. In fact, the film succeeds almost too well: some of its ninety-five minute running time seems almost dry and academic, relying on the occasional seance or eerie encounter to liven things up. But this is a small price to pay for a horror movie that takes its subject matter with an utter conviction rarely seen in the genre. This is definitely not a movie to see if you simply want a few giggly good scares. It wants to broach a controversial topic and leave you pondering the implications, preferably with a chill going down your spine as the light on the screen dims and you return to your everyday world.

THE SOURCE MATERIAL

“Casting the Runes” is one of M.R James best efforts – which is high praise indeed for a man widely regarded as one of the great authors of Victorian ghost stories. The short story is also slightly atypical of James work. The author’s strength lay in his wonderful use of setting to convey atmosphere, in his uncanny ability to gradually intrude the supernatural element upon the apparently normal lives of his unfortunate characters, and in the disturbing (and for its time fairly radical) implication that the victims have done nothing to deserve their cruel fate. (Whether intentional or not, Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON films, including THE GRUDGE, evince a similar attitude.) A typical James tale features an antiquarian scholar on holiday who stumbles upon some artifact or ruin, accidentally unleashing some malevolent force, often with dire consequences. Despite James reputation as an author of ghost stories, these manifestations usually are not mere disembodied spirits: they are more tangible than that, and James often made good use of tactile sensations to convey thier presence (e.g., a slimy, unseen appendage wrapping around a protagonists face as he finds a hidden treasure trove in a dark well).

There is little of the dramatic in James’s work. There are no ghost hunters or Van Helsing characters out to defeat the unleashed forces of darkness; in fact, there is usually not much for his characters to do besides get as fast and as far away as possible, and hope for the best. “Casting the Runes” is different in that it has a human villain and a hero who is trapped in what Hollywood people like to call a “time-lock” situation; that is, he has three months to live after Karswell slips him the runes.Thus the story plays out like a thriller as our hero (an Englishman named Dunning in the story) contrives a way to slip the runes back to Karswell.

The story is set in the early 1900s, and it provides the essential plot elements that would form the spine of the screenplay: Karswell claims an early victim named Harrington; a second victim is marked for death in a similar way but teams up with Harringtons’s relative (a brother instead of a niece) and outwits the sorcerer. James plays his usual clever games, keeping the supernatural agency mostly off-screen, relying on atmosphere and creaking doors to suggest its presence, except for an alarming moment when Dunning reaches for some matches in the dark and instead places his fingers on a furry, tooth-rimmed mouth. In fact, Karswell’s demise is rather ambiguous in the story: he is killed by a falling stone while visiting an old church under repair.

There are also considerable differences between the story and the script. The most significant being that “Casting the Runes” lacks the science-versus-superstition theme that energizes CURSE OF THE DEMON. In the story, Dunning is an expert on the subject of alchemy who runs afoul of Karswell when he rejects a manuscript that Karswell submits. After teaming up with Harrington, the brother of Karswell’s previous victim (who died after writing a scathing review of Karswell previous literary effort), Dunning shows little or no skepticism regarding Karswell ability to strike down victims through magic.

Also, as is par for the course in James, the characters are simply drawn. Dunning is a scholar with the leisure to pursue his studies; we’re only interested in him because he has been targeted by Karswell, not because of anything intrinsically interesting in his personality. Harrington is little more than a plot device – a necessary ally to tell Dunning what he needs to know to turn the tables on Karswell. And Karswell himself is little more than a shadow – a figure only briefly glimpsed in the story, whose sense of menace is manifested almost entirely in the sinister reputation he has earned.

This is more than enough to work on the page. “Casting the Runes” is a triumph of suggestion – a frightening story in which very little happens that is actually frightening. It is the implications that disturb us as they gradually become clear, leading us to horrible conclusions about what must have happened to Harrington, what is supposed to happen to Dunning, and what finally happens to Karswell. But truth be told, a careless reader, or one interested only in more overt horror, is likely to miss the point, or at least dismiss it. In any case, the filmmakers wisely knew that some changes needed to be made to adapt the tale for the big screen.

RE-CASTING THE RUNES

The screenplay for CURSE OF THE DEMON turns the Dunning character into Holden and makes him an American, adding the “stranger in a strange” land element to his experiences in England. As embodied by Dana Andrews, he is also aggressively skeptical of others beliefs, almost to the point of rudeness. This is a clever gambit, making the character a good point-of-view into the film’s world: he seems like a real person, and he expresses the sentiments we would probably express if we found ourselves in similar situations; yet at the same time, he is so blind to any viewpoint other than his own that we know he is being set up to be slapped down – that is, confronted with proof of something he does not want to believe. Andrews is perfectly cast, his good looks and polished appearance clearly identifying him as our audience surrogate, even when his scientific arrogance borders on making him unlikable.

Dana Andrew and Peggy Cummins - the Scully and Mulder of their generation.

The late Harrington’s brother becomes instead neice Joanna, allowing for some romantic interaction between her and Holden. This lifts the story out of the dusty antiquarian mode of James’ writing and adds another layer of believability, giving the character a motivation to help Holden, beyond her concern over what happened to her uncle. Peggy Cummins is pretty in the role, although perhaps a bit too bland; she’s obviously sympathetic, but she never ignites many real sparks in her scenes with Andrews.

Perhaps most interesting is Karswell, who emerges almost as a jolly fellow, a man very comfortable in his own skin.There is even a suggestion of class resentment: his sorcery has earned him wealth, making him a member of the nouveau rich. The establishment’s rejection of his belief in witchcraft almost symbolizes their rejection of a lower-class man daring to drag himself up into their police society. Typical for the time, he is also loaded with quirks that suggest a link between homicide and homosexuality: he’s a middle-aged bachelor with no interest in the leading lady besides using her as a pawn in his conflict with Holden, and on top of that (like Norman Bates) he’s a momma’s boy to boot. MacGinnis plays the role to the hilt, making us enjoy the character even as we fear him; he truly deserves the sobriquet “the man you love to hate.”

Of course, the biggest change between the story and the film is the titular demon, which comes very close to undermining the obvious intent of the script, which is to present a series of incidents that can be interpreted in either of two ways depending on your preference for belief or skepticism. The actual film, on the other hand, almost immediately erases all doubt when it shows Harrington pursued and crushed by a Kong-sized monstrosity.

This explicit intrusion, into a story trying to milk ambiguity, has drawn its share of warranted criticism. Rather like the 1956 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, CURSE OF THE DEMON is a great film in spite of some obvious flaws, one in which the director’s intent, through force of style, survives the unwanted additions forced on the film by producers.

It has become accepted wisdom that director Jacques Tourneur did not want to show the demon at all. However, in an interview in Cinefantastiquemagazine (Volume 2, Summer 1973), Tourneur clouded rather than clarified the issue:

“After I left, the producer put in a monster scene at the beginning. The only monster I did – and this is how I wanted to do the whole thing – was the scene in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by a cloud. That’s how I wanted to do the entire film. Then I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom – did I see it or didn’t I? People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw. But after I had finished and returned to the United States, the English producer made this horrible thing, cheapened it. It was like a different film. But everything after the opening was as I had intended. “

There are several problems with interpreting this statement in terms of what actually transpired behind the scenes of CURSE OF THE DEMON. Most obviously, although Tourneur blames the producer for inserting a monster in the beginning, and claims that the rest of the movie was what he intended, the monster also appears quite clearly in the ending. Also, the cloud effect that Tourneur mentions appears three times in the film: at the beginning with Harrington, in the middle with Andrews in the woods, and at the end with Karswell on the train tracks. In the opening and closeing sequences, the demon is clearly silhouetted in the cloud in such a way that it could be the real thing or perhaps only an optical illusion. In the middle sequence, we get at most a hint of a silhouette, because Holden’s appointed time with the demon has not yet arrived (this is just a preview for him of worse things to come).

Then there is the evidence of the film itself. The special effects of the demon seen in long-shot, at both the beginning and the ending, are well integrated with the live-action footage; they do not appear to have been tacked on after the fact. One should also note (as does David Pirie in his book A Heritage of Horror) that these effects shots are actually pretty high-quality for the era in which they were filmed; only their reputation as an unwanted, last-minute add-on has earned them the additional reputation of being sub-par.

What does appear to have been inserted at the last minute are a handful of dreadful close-ups of the demon looking directly into the camera. The rather obvious puppet head is filmed against a neutral dark background that gives no hint of its surrounding location, so that these shots could be cut into both the opening and closing sequences – even though the two settings are completely different. The limbo-land look of the footage, coupled with the intrusive way it is cut into the film, clearly identifies these shots as last minute additions, thrown in so that the advertising campaign could prominently features the demon’s drooling face in close-up on the poster art.

The close-up of the monster, inserted at the insistence of the producer.

In this context, one should also note Andrews struggle with the cat in Karswell’s house. Although filmed in shadows masking the action, so that it is hard to tell exactly what – if anything – he is fighting, the the fight is preceded by a dissolve that clearly shows the ordinary house cat replaced by a predatory wild cat. As with the shots of the demon, this explicit visual undermines the ambiguity of the script, clearly showing us that the supernatural is at work, when we are supposed to be left not quite sure one way or the other. The scene also goes on a bit too long, giving us enough time to suspect – even if we cannot definitely see – that Andrews is simply swinging a stuffed animal around in the dark.

In spite of these flaws, CURSE OF THE DEMON is more than strong enough to overcome a few seconds worth of intrusive explicitness, easily earning our respect. The script is strong, and Tourneur was a master of suggestion, his visual style the perfect cinematic equivalent of James’ writing. It has become a cliche to point out that Tourneur cut his directorial teeth working on three of producer Val Lewton’s subtle 1940s horror films (THE CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and THE LEOPARD MAN), and CURSE OF THE DEMON seems to be Tourneur’s attempt to recreate the Lewton formula: the emphasis on solid scripting, the use of shadows to suggest horror lurking in the dark, the dramatic depiction of belief versus skepticism, with a central character relinquishing his scientific outlook and succumbing to the supernatural.

But there is a significant difference: none of the Lewton-produced films ever endorsed a belief in the supernatural; in fact, superstitious beliefs were often equated with mental illness, and those who succumbed to them came to tragic ends, as acting on their belief proved futile at overcoming their problems. In CURSE OF THE DEMON, on the other hand, although Dr. Holden charts a similar course from skepticism to belief, is not portrayed as a man sinking into madness. In fact, acting on his new-found belief saves him from a horrible death, as he manages to turn the tables on Karswell.

This approach probably represents Tourneur’s attitude toward the supernatural; in any case, it makes the appearance of the demon somewhat more palatable. Yes, the script wants to leave events open to the rational explanation, but underneath that comforting interpretation, it really wants us to shudder and think that demons are real, and we deny them at our peril.

NIGHT VS. CURSE

As if the insertion of a puppet demon head were not insult enough, Tournuer’s British-produced film suffered an additional indignity when it was released in the United States. Retitled from NIGHT OF THE DEMON (a phase actually used in the dialogue) to CURSE OF THE DEMON, the movie saw its running time reduced from 95 minutes to 82 minutes. To some extent, this was understandable; the pace of the original version is a tad slow, and after the initial glimpse of the demon, it takes a while for the supernatural to manifest itself again. But the cuts created some notable omissions that detracted from the impact, diminishing the love story sub-plot and short-circuting the trail of clues that leads Holden to find the truth.

In at least one case, the cut is visibly transparent, even to a viewer unfamiliar with the film’s history: A later scene of Holden sensing a sinister presence in a hotel corridor was moved up to earlier in the film, but the scene immediately preceding it was dropped. Unfortunately, the two scenes had been bridged by a lapover dissolve, and in order to retain the the beginning of the second scene (with Holden exiting an elevator into the corridor), the dissolve was left in, creating a jarring jump cut.

The missing footage was eventually restored to America prints, but CURSE OF THE DEMON remains the official title when the film is screened on television or in revival houses in the U.S.

When released on DVD, CURSE OF THE DEMON and NIGHT OF THE DEMON were sold as a “double feature.” One side of the disc contained the uncut British version NIGHT OF THE DEMON; the other side offered the truncated American version CURSE OF THE DEMON.

 TRIVIA

For the title song of her album Hounds of Love, singer-songwriter Kate Bush excerpted a brief soundbyte of dialogue from CURSE OF THE DEMON: “It’s in the trees…it’s coming…” In the film, the line is spoken during a seance as someone has a vision of the demon’s attack.

The sorcerer Carswell (Niall MacGinnis) pets his possibly demonic cat Grimalkin: 'They were used in witchcraft, you know.'

CURSE OF THE DEMON(British title: “Night of the Demon,” 1957). Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester, based on the story “Casting the Runes” by M. R. James. Cast: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Maurice Denham, Athene Seyler, Liam Redmond.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

One Response to “ Curse of the Demon (1957) – A Retrospective Review ”

  1. Good review. I want to add a comment that if Peggy Cummins is bland and does not ignite sparks, it is a directorial choice. If you see her in the 1950 film DEADLY IS THE FEMALE (aka GUN CRAZY) director Joseph H. Lewis gets some real sparks from her. It is almost hard to believe it is the same woman.

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