Thursday, October 24, 2013

Horror of the Demon

Always on the list of absolutely-can't-miss-or-Halloween-can't-come Halloween picture shows — right up there with It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — is  Jacques Tourneur's 1957 classic Curse of the Demon (or, as it was originally known across the pond and increasingly on these shores, Night of the Demon). Since I first saw it sometime in my teens, I have considered it my favorite horror movie, and each yearly viewing renews my appreciation for it.

That cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland right there. Yeah, that one, issue number 39. That did it to me. Long before I ever saw the film, I saw that cover — probably around age ten — and if you've been reading this blog, you already know I was the world's most terrified kid. That image freaked me out like few other images ever have. Something about those burning eyes, the gaping maw with all those teeth, the horns, the fiery crimson backdrop....

Some people hate the inclusion of the monstrous demon itself in the film; director Tourneur had no intention of any such thing and essentially disowned the movie after the thing was inserted at the behest of executive producer Hal E. Chester. Chester was a showman, a drive-in-monster-movie-type producer, while the film as Tourneur made it was atmospheric, cerebral, and, as far as the existence of the driving demonic force, quite ambiguous. The special effects, masterminded by the ubiquitous Wally Veevers, were done on a shoestring budget, and, in the finished product, it shows.

That's if you care. Me, I love the monster. For all its flaws, it still generates a little shudder, draws the events of the movie out of the psychological realm and drops them squarely into the supernatural. I do so like that. While the film as Tourneur originally made it might well have been a masterpiece, I doubt, seriously doubt, that for me personally, it could ever have been as satisfying as knowing that, within the scope of this motion picture, the demon is real. For all the skepticism of psychiatrist Dr. Holden (Dana Andrews); the rational refutations of all things paranormal; the careful examination of facts, theories, and possibilities under the cold light of reason; and the mounting evidence that the almost lovable villain, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) is merely playing psychological games with Holden and his attractive young ally, Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the supernatural forces reign absolutely in this picture — rendering us, as human beings, very small, ultimately helpless things rather than the more highly evolved rational beings we think we are.

Some feel that having prior knowledge of the demon's existence cheapens the drama, making moot the point of the thoughtful investigation, the convincing scientific discourse. I believe it does not. We see the human mind doing what the human mind does best; for Tourneur, this was delving, questioning, weighing evidence. But what it amounts to in the film as it exists is us fooling ourselves into thinking we're smarter than we are — making it, in my view, very much a Lovecraftian story, even if the source material really is not.

From the opening scene of Professor Harrington's drive down a dark, ominous country road; to the revelation of Julian Karswell's multi-dimensioned character; to Holden's scary venture through the woods outside Lufford Hall; to the suicide of devil cult member Rand Hobart; to the final appearance of the gigantic fire demon, Curse of the Demon is all dark atmosphere and a relentless sense of foreboding. It is the perfect Halloween movie.

And my favorite horror movie. Ever.
Dana Andrews as psychiatrist Dr. Holden and Peggy Cummins as Joanna Harrington
The almost-lovable villain, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) with familiar Greymalkin
Dr. Holden hears eerie sounds in the corridor of his hotel.
"It's in the trees! It's coming!"
Beware the casting of the runes! Dr. Holden at the home of Karswell devil cult member Rand Hobart.
Karswell's attempts to eliminate Dr. Holden appear to have backfired.
What a happy boy.


James Robert Smith said...

I never get tired of talking about this film. For too many reasons to list. It's that rarest of rarities:

the perfect movie.

Greg Hill said...

Guess it's time to go rent and watch that one. :)

Anonymous said...

One of my favorites, Mark. A huge influence on me.