Saturday, July 7, 2007

Curse of the Demon (1958)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Originally released in 1957 under the title “Night of the Demon” in the U.K., this is the re-cut, 1958 U.S. version that’s a mixed bag of stylistic direction and sci-fi elements that unquestionably must have looked better on paper. Jacques Tourneur may be the best director most people have never heard of. The story of this film however, seems less than suitable material for him. But Tourneur manages to keep the film engaging despite its goofy premise and special effects.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is an American scientist who arrives in England to investigate the strange goings-on surrounding the death of one of his colleagues, who was investigating a devil worshiping cult. John is very skeptical of anything supernatural, and believes there’s a reasonable explanation for everything. In England, he hooks up with his colleague’s niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins). Joanna compliments John’s personality by remaining open to the idea that the devil cult had something to do with her uncle’s death, and wanting to investigate all possibilities. Together, John and Joanna are a couple of supernatural sleuths that must have been the model for Mulder and Scully of “the X-Files”. The only reason that this premise becomes a little shaky is that we know right off the bat, and are constantly reminded throughout the film, exactly what's happening in terms of the supernatural phenomena we're witnessing. We see the actual demon in the opening scenes, so it’s only a matter of time until John finally comes around, but we (the audience) will just have to wait it out. It would have been much more effective if the techniques Tourneur used so effectively in “I Walked with a Zombie” had been used a little more to keep us in the dark as to what was really happening, and allowing us to fill in the blanks for ourselves. It almost becomes a cartoon when, right before our eyes, John starts running from a giant, hairy demon puppet, and battling a cat that magically transforms into a stuffed animal that someone must have won from a carnival ring toss game. It doesn’t help that the special effects are so dated and silly that they almost take you out of the picture completely. They’re still interesting to look at, though (I thought the demon looked kind of cool, actually... until he started to move, that is. He reminded me of Animal from "the Muppets"). At any rate, if you attempt to pound these puzzle pieces into the rest of the movie (whether it's by using your fist, or inevitably brandishing a hammer of some sort), your brain will tell you to laugh out loud when you were supposed to be hiding under the covers. The following thoughts may forcibly take up residence in your unsuspecting mind: "Why is John running away from a Muppet?" or "Watch out for that plush-toy, John!!" Please save your comments or questions until the end of the feature. Thank you.**

Several things save this film from becoming the cheesy B-movie that the producers must have insisted on it becoming, against Tourneur’s wishes. One thing is the performance of Niall MacGinnis as the devil cult leader, Dr. Karswell. He’s a mixture of Auric Goldfinger and Hugh Hefner (sans Playboy Bunnies) with a dash of C. Everett Coop. He comes off as friendly and casually threatening all at once in several memorable scenes. Karswell seems Bond villain-ish with his polite treachery and luring of unsuspecting flies into his parlor. This probably wasn’t the best kind of character for Tourneur to utilize, since he’s not exactly ambiguous with his motives or behavior. With all that said, his performance is the most interesting to watch in this film, and much more engaging than the one-note performance of Andrews as the lead, Dr. John Holden. John never clearly makes a change between belief and unbelief. He seems to have simply switched like we all knew he would do from the beginning. Other things that help the film are the set pieces and locations, mostly due to Tourneur's stylistic design concepts, and eye for the visually interesting. The story is similar to that of “the Ring”, or more accurately the abysmal “Ring 2”, in where John has a curse put on him by Karswell due to a parchment inscribed with ancient runes that Karswell surreptitiously passed to him. Now John’s days are numbered, unless he can pass the parchment back to Karswell. (And John didn't even get the standard "seven days" that the victims in "the Ring" got. He only got about three, due to budget cuts.) The story’s a little too simple and straightforward to add up to a thrilling conclusion, and it ends up playing out more like a noir detective story than as a terror-inducing, horror one. That's obviously not a bad thing on its own, but it's very anti-climactic given the rest of the film, even though the demon does make a final appearance. But this time, instead of being scared, you'll probably feel more like he's an annoying house guest that just won't go away -- "Look, do you need a ride home or something, Demon? 'Cuz I really have to go to bed now."

There are a few sequences that stand out. As John sneaks into Karswell’s mansion to figure out what he’s up to, he is pursued by a hand that moves along the banister. As we see John creep down the staircase from behind, a hand enters the frame in the foreground. Cut to a reverse angle, and we clearly see that no one else is on the staircase. They do this several times to chilling effect. There’s a séance that pokes fun at, and then uses to great effect the mediums and their rituals, with John (obviously) playing the voice of reason. It’s probably Andrews’ best acted scene. The scene involving Karswell psychically conjuring up a storm, and John and Joanna taking refuge in Karswell’s mansion on the surface sounds silly, but ends up being a real diamond amidst this rough story. This sequence features howling wind and lightning sound effects encircling the candle-lit set that creates an appropriate, and desperately needed, “ghost story” atmosphere. And even when John and Joanna venture deeper into the belly of the mansion, the muffled winds of the storm never stop, creating the feel that something relentlessly menacing is surrounding them even when we can't see the storm itself. It’s definitely not Tourneur’s best example of fright and terror, but it does show that even within a cheesy premise he was able to create unforgettably creepy moments in an otherwise forgettable film. "Oh, Great. Quick! Shut the blinds! That damned Demon is back again."

** Editor's Note: Even after the feature's over, don't ask questions. To quote the movie, "Sometimes it's better not to know."

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