Tonight at 8:00 EDT Turner Network Television is showing a very underrated movie from 1957, Curse of the Demon (also released as Night of the Demon), directed by Jacques Tourneur. It’s based on a very fine horror story by M. R. James, "Casting the Runes."
James’s metier was in creating horror stories that depended on strong characterization, a solid story with sensible motivation, great skill at conveying atmosphere and suspense, and some real intellectual power. He stayed away from sensational effects, and his stories were much more effective for it.
Tourneur’s film does likewise, building suspense by setting up a situation which is disturbing but certainly not terrifying, and then giving us steady doses of additional information to suggest the full implications of the situation.
Dana Andrews, a solid actor who starred in the first and best film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays the lead character, an American college professor who is investigating an Engish devil-worship cult led by a sinister figure based on the English goofball occultist Aleister Crowley. The latter character, Dr. Julian Karswell, is perfectly played by Niall MacGinnis, who conveys both his absurdity and his great power derived from dark forces. A particularlly powerful scene has Karswell invoking a powerful storm to break up an outdoor children’s fair.
Critics have largely praised the film, except for one aspect: whereas throughout most of the movie the power of the demon is shown through its effects, as in the scene cited immediately above, at the end of the film it is shown in physical form, a characterization that can be seen as either frightening or risible. I think it works, and I believe that the film is stronger for it.
Also highly effective is the use of something very small—a tiny piece of paper on which runic symbols have been written—to convey the immense power of the demon. As this bit of paper moves about the countryside and both sides pursue possession of it, the high stakes and the sinister, hidden nature of the great evil it can call up are powerfully expressed.
Curse of the Demon is an effective, suspenseful, truly serious film about a subject typically handled with hamhanded sensationalism in the cinema. It is well worth seeing, and more than once.
After Curse of the Demon, beginning at 9:45 p.m. EDT, TNT is showing three very effective, highly atmospheric horror films produced by Val Lewton during the early 1940s for RKO. All three were directed by Tourneur, director of Curse of the Demon. The three films are The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and my favorite of the lot, The Leopard Man. The latter was based on a non-supernatural story by Cornell Woolrich, and is a very good little crime-suspense film with supernatural undertones.