Saturday, November 26, 2011

#121: Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

Jacques Tourneur was born in Paris nine years after the invention of cinema and brought to the United States by his father Maurice nine years after his birth. He and the movies grew up together. Maurice was a silent film director, notable for The Wishing Ring and The Last of the Mohicans, (though he made some sound films toward the end of his life) and when Jacques was old enough, he began working on his father's films as a script clerk and editor. Jacques eventually directed films of his own, mostly shorts and documentaries, until his debut feature in 1939, a noir film called They All Come Out.

Maurice Tourneur was a great director, and Jacques was even better. He was good at everything. Horror, noir, westerns, dramas, action/adventure. The younger Tourneur directed enduring classics in all these genres. Most famous for a trio of atmospheric horror classics for producer Val Lewton in the early 1940s (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man) and the Robert Mitchum-starring noir classic Out of the Past (1947), Tourneur is a master of mood, light, shadow, and perspective. I haven't seen The Leopard Man yet, but the three other films I mentioned are among my favorites, and so is the little-seen small-town family drama Stars in My Crown (1950), starring Joel McCrea as a minister in a tight-knit town coming apart thanks to an outbreak of scarlet fever and the persecution of a sharecropper by a mining interest wanting his land. These are all great movies I strongly recommend to anyone who loves this era of film.

After a long break from horror, Tourneur came back to the genre in a big way with Curse of the Demon in 1957. An American/British coproduction based on an M.R. James short story, Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon) stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist attending an international conference in England, the purpose of which is to debunk claims of the paranormal and supernatural. Holden was working closely with a British colleague to expose the manipulations of a self-styled Satanic cult guru and expert in black magic named Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), but his colleague died in a mysterious accident the night before Andrews arrived. Or was it an accident? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Karswell places a curse on Holden by surreptitiously sneaking onto his person a parchment with ancient runic symbols on it. According to the curse, Holden will die two days later, at ten p.m., at the hands of a scary demon. Holden thinks the curse is nonsense, but the parchment seems to have a mind of its own and tries to fly away or into a fire, sealing the curse onto Holden before he can pass the parchment to someone else. The remainder of the film sees Holden struggling to reconcile his education and logic with his fear and superstition while he tries to find out more about the delightfully evil Karswell. (In a bit of inspired storytelling, the Satanic Karswell lives with his kindly old mother, who wishes the committed bachelor would quit black magic and settle down with a nice girl.) Holden is joined in his adventures by Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummin), the niece of his deceased colleague.

Though the central conceit of the film is a common horror trope (superstition and faith vs. science, logic, and education), Curse of the Demon is more complex than most of its counterparts. Though the film makes clear the curse and demon are real (against Tourneur's wishes), the film never discredits science and knowledge. Every character is complex, intelligent, and flawed. Curse of the Demon instead makes the argument that an open mind and a healthy curiosity are virtues and that there are things we may never understand. Andrews' unbending, rigid skepticism and Karswell's overwhelming belief in the supernatural are presented ambiguously, making the film more unsettling than more simplistic films handling similar themes.

Alongside the effective story and performances, Curse of the Demon is visually beautiful. Edward Scaife's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is a masterpiece of light and shadow. Tourneur directs some amazing setpieces with gracefully gliding camera work (including a windstorm scene at a children's party) and uses a varied but narratively coherent selection of shots and perspectives, including medium shots, closeups, high and low angles, moving and still cameras, first-person and omniscient perspectives, and an effectively controlled use of space (open and claustrophobic) to eerie effect. This is such a great movie, made by people who are really good at what they do.

I hinted earlier that Tourneur didn't want to show the demon. As filming drew to a close, the producers decided the demon needed to be shown at the film's beginning and conclusion. A pissed-off Tourneur was forced to sacrifice some of his film's ambiguity for the sake of crass commercialism. To his credit, the demon looks great from a distance, an expressive, shadowy evil hovering in the sky, surrounded by smoke. The closeups of the demon do not look great. He looks like a child's stuffed animal. These closeups are one of only two flaws that mar an otherwise excellent movie. (The other is a small, domestic cat that turns into a large jungle cat. The effects are unconvincing and Andrews is clearly fighting with a floppy stuffed animal. It's a minor gripe, a nitpick, and doesn't hurt the film too much.)

The film played in most countries as Night of the Demon but was edited down from 95 to 82 minutes and retitled Curse of the Demon in the United States. The edit removes two scenes, a trip by Andrews to Stonehenge and a visit to a family of one of the cult members, in order for the film to play on a double bill at drive-ins and Saturday matinees. Both versions of the film are available on DVD.

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