Monday, October 21, 2013

"THE COLD LIGHT OF REASON"

"Sometimes it's better not to know"

I first encountered the classic British horror film CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) when the demon from the film was depicted on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #38. I bought the issue and devoured the article about the film but it was years before I finally saw the movie. I've since seen it several times over the years. I watched it again yesterday and I was once again struck by what a literate, well-made little shocker of a film it is.

Loosely based on the the 1911 story "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James, CURSE is the story of  American scientist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who journeys to London for a conference on the paranormal. Holden is a major league skeptic who believes that there is a scientific explanation for so-called "paranormal phenomenon" and that things such as witchcraft, hexes and curses are all hogwash and absolute rubbish.

The trouble is, he's wrong. At the beginning of the film, we're shown the death by demon of Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), who has been investigating the goings-on of a satanic cult led by the supremely charming, urbane and oh-so-evil Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Harrington's death looks like an accident (he appears to have been electrocuted by falling power lines) but how to explain the fact that his body was mutilated? Besides, we the viewers know what really happened as we are shown the demon in all his horrific glory at the very start of the film.

Holden and Karswell quickly cross swords and Karswell manages to pass onto Holden a piece of paper with runes written upon it. He also tells Holden the exact day and time of his foretold death. Holden, aided by Prof. Harrington's niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins) investigate Karswell's threat. Joanna believes Holden is in real danger after what happened to her uncle while Holden continues to scoff at the fantastic claims until he's finally forced to confront the truth.

A race to the death ensues between Holden and Karswell. Holden manages to transfer the rune script to Karswell which marks him for death by the demon, a dramatic denouement that takes place on railroad tracks with trains whizzing by. Karswell is killed by the demon but onlookers think he was struck by a train. But how do you explain those claw marks on his body? As Holden says to Joanna, "sometimes it's better not to know."

Originally released in Great Britain under the title NIGHT OF THE DEMON, the film was cut from a 95 minute running time down to 83 minutes and released in the U.S. as CURSE OF THE DEMON. The version I watched yesterday is the original British cut of the film. Director Jacques Tourneur does a great job of evoking atmosphere and everything is played extremely straight. However, Tourneur did not want to show the demon in the film, preferring instead to leave the creature's appearance up to the imaginations of viewers. After principal production was completed, producer Hal E. Chester had scenes of the demon shot and edited into the film. While I usually object to an artist's work being tampered with, I must confess that I rather like the appearances of the demon in the film. They're well-staged and imaginatively shot with some very nice special effects work.

CURSE OF THE DEMON is a straight-forward horror story, a clash between science and the supernatural. The script, by Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester and an uncredited Cy Endfield is first-rate as is the cast (MacGinnis is superb). The production design is by Ken Adam who would go on to do career defining work on DR. STRANGELOVE and the first few James Bond films.

CURSE OF THE DEMON gets my highest recommendation. If you've never seen this sharp, intelligent horror film, you're in for a treat.



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