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Schlock & Awe: CURSE OF THE DEMON

Schlock & Awe: CURSE OF THE DEMON

During Christmas, I told everybody about a series of one-off ghost stories on the BBC that I find super amazing. (Read about Ghost Stories for Christmas here!) Most of these were based on short stories written by the early-20th Century scholar turned author M.R. James, whose stories were all fairly contemporary to the Edwardian or late-Victorian eras, and as such, the idea of adapting them to modern day can be hit or miss. However, to date, only one of James’ stories has been turned into a theatrical feature film, and it’s a doozy. It was made in 1957 and was called Night of the Demon in Britain, and cut down and called Curse of the Demon here.

The story in question by James is entitled “Casting the Runes,” which doesn’t quite have the same pop to it as either of the Demon titles. In any case, and especially in the longer British cut, the film hews quite close to the original story, which might go down as one of James’ best plots. His shorts were usually quite high on atmosphere and creepiness, but usually focused on a single scholar investigating some antiquity and find it to be haunted. The plot of “Casting the Runes” actually has a definite villain, and a propulsive, troubling timeline.

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This film version was written by prolific genre screenwriter Charles Bennett (who wrote several early Hitchcock films and B-noir flicks) and directed by the great French ex-pat director, Jacques Tourneur (he of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and War-Gods of the Deep). Most of the tension is built around the character interactions but Tourneur is able to mine many weird and disturbing moments out of it, bookended by two surprisingly well done effects sequences, all the more impressive given the way most low-budget British horror films of the time were done.

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The movie opens with a man named Harrington (Maurice Denham) visiting another man, a Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), and pleading for him to call off whatever he has planned. Karswell, we soon learn, is an occultist who had been discredited by Harrington’s investigations. Harrington swears he’ll print a retraction and call off his investigation if Karswell will stop the threat he gave him. Karswell agrees, but when it’s learned that a piece of parchment Karswell had given him has disintegrated, Karswell smugly shrugs and tells him it’s too late. Harrington leaves, terrified, and is soon overtaken by a huge demonic beast with flaming wings.

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We are then introduced to Harrington’s American colleague, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), who was coming to join Harrington in a conference about the non-existence of the supernatural, as well as Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), both of whom start looking into Professor Harrington’s mysterious death. Harrington was going to expose Karswell at the conference, and Holden’s only link between the death and the cult leader is a man named Rand Hobard, an accused murderer who has fallen into a catatonic stupor. Karswell meets Holden at the British Museum’s library and offers to show him a particular book at his mansion, which the American accepts. Though Joanna is wary, and show’s Holden her uncle’s diary which shows just how scared he was of Karswell’s power, she and Holden go to the mansion.

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Things start to get extra weird at the Karswell mansion, where the mysterious man is dressed as a clown to entertain children with magic. Later, he and Holden belittle each other’s beliefs and a sudden wind appears, seemingly caused by Karswell himself. When Holden continues to mock him, Karswell predicts Holden will die in three days. Thereafter, strange and troubling occurrences begin following Holden everywhere, and it’s learned that Karswell evidently passed Harrington a parchment inscribed with runic symbols shortly before his death. As the time ticks down, Holden discovers that he too had been given runic symbols on a piece of parchment, and investigation into that leads him to realize it’s an ancient celtic curse.

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While Holden doesn’t believe in the occult or the supernatural at all, he can’t help but be worried about the timeline and what happened to Harrington. He has a colleague hypnotize Rand Hobard for information, and he learns that the accused murderer is no criminal at all, just a follower of Karswell who objected to the man’s methods. The only true way to stop Karswell is to pass the runic symbols back to him, without him knowing, before the three days are up. Because the demon needs a victim, no matter who it is.

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I find this movie intensely creepy, and very exciting, especially for the time. While Hammer Films were making sumptuous Gothic horror flicks in dazzling technicolor, Night of the Demon makes the most of its black & white photography, making every long hallway, set of stairs, or even STONEHENGE look insanely scary. The scene at Karswell’s mansion, with him in his hobo-ish clown makeup, is also intensely creepy, and it very nicely conveys just how superciliously evil the man is. Like a lot of the best villains, he’s unfailingly polite, but never, ever kind.

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All of that leads us to talking about the two big effects sequences, where we do indeed see a demon, making the reality of such an entity completely unambiguous. The original story, and indeed the desire of Bennett, Tourneur, and star Dana Andrews, was to never show anything overtly supernatural, thus making the audience have to decide if the deaths of certain characters was due to accident, coincidence, or a real demonic entity. However, the film’s producer, Hal E. Chester, was adamant that the movie needed a real demon to give it the punch it needed. While I can see both sides of this argument, I do want to applaud them for the puppet they used, and the way it was filmed, which made it tangible and worth fearing. There’s also a very brutal moment when the demon picks up its final victim and claws their dangling body viciously.

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So if no other M.R. James story ever gets turned into a feature film, I think at the very least, 60 years ago they did a great job with this spooky little movie. I actually think “Casting the Runes” could do well today, if the right tone was struck. It’s rumored that the great Joe Dante could be mounting a new version, but not much has been said about it since 2013, when Simon Pegg was attached to star. Let’s hope it one day happens; I would like to see that. As for now, you can get a very inexpensive and barebones DVD of both Night of the Demon and Curse of the Demon; not ideal, but the movie’s worth it.

Images: Columbia


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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