As I started to think about how I wanted to begin this review of Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, I decided to go find the movie poster first. And what I found is awesome. This poster does more to make my point about this film than I could have imagined. At first glance, the image of the demon is laughable, but stare at it for a minute. The dark, scraggly fur, the yellow eyes, the absolutely molten lower jaw; there is still something threatening about this goofy looking monster. Yes, the monster does appear in the film, and yes, this film does still deserve that giant banner simply stating “HORROR!”
The note at the bottom of the poster reading “Skeptical?” is really what this movie is about. The protagonist, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), is a scientist attempting to disprove and debunk claims of witchcraft, the dark arts, and the powers of Satan. Unfortunately, when his colleague is mysteriously killed in an “accident” (mauled by a giant demon), Holden refuses to give up his investigation and is targeted by his colleague’s murderer, the nefarious Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Stuck in his stubborn American ways, Holden dangerously shrugs off the continually mounting evidence to the existence of demons and dark magic. When he finally begins to believe, it becomes a race against the clock to prevent his own death.
Something that interested me was the presence of both a monster and a villain. What we get in Karswell is a man doing everything he can to seem normal despite being open about his interest in witchcraft and use of the dark arts. He is charismatic in his ease, and he would almost be likeable if he didn’t live in a mansion, dress like a hobo clown, and have an evil beard. Seriously. Someone asked “How would you groom the most evil beard imaginable?” and they got one hell of a good answer. Oh, and Karswell just hangs out with his ice cream-making mom. But what’s cool about Karswell is that he is the puppet master. We don’t have a rampaging monster in the movie; the demon is being controlled and aimed at a target. That is one terrifying crosshair to be caught in.
Alright, let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room, or rather the demon in the film, as it were. Something that Curse of the Demon does that is simply a fantastic move is that it doesn’t save the monster for a big reveal towards the end of the film, like it easily could have done. Instead, we get the big beastie on screen and killing someone within the first 10 minutes of the film. When the demon appears, slowly moving towards its victim and towards the screen, it is quite cool and effectively terrifying.
The creature is back-lit, perpetually smoldering and smoking, and thoroughly demonic. However, when we get a closeup, there is no way around a good laugh.
The thing is, the monster’s appearance does nothing to ruin the horror of the scene though. The music still dooms and trills, and the utter panic of Professor Harrington is more than enough to rattle you. He is so terrified of the coming beast that he backs his car into a utility pole and then climbs over the sparking transformers in a desperate attempt to escape. And on top of that, while the makeup might not be up to today’s standards, there is still something darkly gruesome about the beast. It is absolutely the right move to reveal the demon this early in the film, because, quite frankly, it gets the laughs out of the way and allows for acceptance of the still-present terror before the monster’s big finish.
Music doesn’t often catch my attention in movies, but it quickly caught my attention in this movie and then started to stand out for the wrong reasons. It was the demon’s first approach scene that stands out the clearest. As I mentioned, the music is loud and panicky in the scene, and it is not necessarily good or unique. But nonetheless, the music defined the mood and added to the scene. On top of this was also a very cool sound effect, almost like the persistent squeak of a rusty wheel. It was the signature sound for the demon, and I felt it was effectively disturbing. So, early on I thought that the music and sound effects were making the movie for me.
My opinion on the music changed as the movie played on. I was okay with the dramatic nature of the music; it is to be expected from a 1950s horror movie. My problem was that it wasn’t always used properly. The first scene that really bugged me was the scene in which Holden discovers the parchment in his papers. The loud horror music begins as soon as he remembers that he has the papers with him when the music should clearly have waited to induce panic until he discovers the runic curse. And in a later scene, the music roughly shatters silence as a hand slips onto screen (not once but twice) indicating that Holden is being followed. The music wasn’t necessarily out of place, but it was over-dramatic and displeasing.
Lighting plays a significant role in the atmosphere of the film. Darkness is a horror film’s best friend, but all too often the older movies spend way too much time on brightly lit sets. That is not the case here. More often than not scenes are dimly lit and very dark. Much of the lighting felt very noir to me, with identifiable sources of light illuminating dark rooms. The lighting really is a treat.
And when you take the darkness, the sound effects, the music at its better moments, and some cool visual effects and roll them together, you get some really cool scenes like this one:
Final Thoughts: Despite sometimes over-dramatic music, a comical appearance to the demon, and an epic ass of a protagonist*, Curse of the Demon excels as a horror film. The lighting is dark and moody, the plot is simple but compelling, the acting is solid, and the demon attack scenes are shot in such a way that you can do little else but sit back and say, “Okay, that was cool.” A lot of thought was put into explaining and exploring witchcraft, but this is not a film of cerebral horror. It is about being marked for death. It is about powers that you can’t explain. And it is about a giant freaking demon coming to rip you to pieces.
Final Grade: B+
*I expect The Man in Black to cover this by doing more than just insulting the character like I would.