This 1957 film is loosely based on M.R. James’s 1911 short story, Casting the Runes–a story about a warlock who sics a demon on his enemies by secretly passing them a slip of paper with a runic curse on it. The only way his victims can escape a horrible fate is by giving the runes back to him without him knowing it, so that the curse rebounds back on the caster. Although the plot and characters are altered from those in James’s story, this version is generally considered one of the best films adapted from his work, and one of the best horror films of its era.
It’s a British film with a mostly British cast, but with an American star to draw a U.S. audience, which was a common practice at the time. It was released in the UK under the title Night of the Demon and in the US as Curse of the Demon.
The DVD has both versions of this film on it: the 95-minute original UK version and the US release, which is about 10 minutes shorter. The order of the scenes are slightly rearranged in the US version, and two full scenes plus some other little bits here and there are removed.
Both versions of the film begin with shots of Stonehenge back when it stood alone on Salisbury Plain and wasn’t surrounded by wire fences, visitor parking lots, and gift shops. A solemn narrator tells the viewer:
“It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. It is also said that Man, using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols, can call forth these powers of darkness–the demons of Hell.”
A nervous-looking man drives through the dark lanes of the English countryside at night, and arrives at a lovely Georgian house. At the front door, he asks the butler if he can speak to Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis); the butler coolly informs him that Mr. Karswell is not at home, although from the way the camera is positioned inside the house, we can see that Karswell is home, playing cards with his mom. Karswell agrees to see the visitor and the two men go into another room to talk privately.
The visitor, Professor Henry Harrington, says that he’s come to apologize for casting aspersions on Karswell’s magical abilities. “I’ve seen it for myself,” he tells Karswell rather cryptically, not explaining what “it” is. We’ll see that for ourselves shortly.
Karswell is pleased to hear this abject apology, but chides the professor, “You said ‘Do your worst’–and I have.”
Harrington anxiously agrees to issue any kind of retraction Karswell would like and promises to leave him and his followers alone, if he will remove the spell he’s cast. When Karswell learns that the little slip of parchment he gave to Harrington was burned up, he only says that he’ll do what he can.
It’s an empty reassurance, but it’s enough for Harrington to leave stately Lufford Hall and drive home feeling relieved. But his sense of relief will not last much longer, nor will he. As he approaches his house, he sees some large, glowing object wreathed in smoke coming toward him from the opposite direction.
1950s British horror wasn’t coy about saving its monsters for later. Barely 7 minutes into this movie, a huge, winged demon is shown heading up the road toward the terrified Harrington. In his panic, he tries to turn around, backs his car into an electricity pole and breaks it, then accidentally electrocutes himself when he climbs out of the car and stumbles straight into the live wires. He’s probably already dead before we get a wonderful close-up of the demon reaching down toward the camera to seize him.
The film’s director, Jacques Tourneur, is supposed to have not wanted to show the demon at all and to leave the question of whether or not there really was one up in the air. But I like it. This is one of my favorite monsters of the era, along with Ray Harryhausen’s lizardy Ymir in 20 Millions Miles to Earth.* The demon figure may appear a tad puppetty when seen in full–but just look at that face!
This opening scene is a prologue. We are introduced to our film’s protagonists, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) and Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummings) in a meet-cute scene on a crowded overnight transatlantic flight.
Even in the 1950s, there were jerks who reclined their seats way too far back, but Dr. Holden is more irritated by Miss Harrington’s little reading light keeping him awake than she is at practically having his head on her knees while she’s trying to get some work done.
They go their own separate ways when they arrive in London, and learn individually about Professor Harrington’s death.
Joanna is this film’s version of Harrington’s brother from the original short story, converted into his niece. In James’s story, it was John Harrington who was killed and Henry was the brother who helped to turn tables on Karswell.
When I wrote my review of the modernized ITV adaptation of Casting the Runes, I wondered about the reasons for changing the sex of the character Edward / Prudence Dunning and if it meant that there would be a romantic pairing between Dunning and the surviving Harrington as they worked together against Karswell. It didn’t end up happening in that adaptation, but it does in this film.
Dr. Holden replaces Edward Dunning; like the late Professor Harrington, he researches and debunks parapsychological phenomena. He’s an American coming to the UK for a conference of like-minded individuals, although none of the others he meets at his hotel are as hard skeptics as he is. Both the experts from Ireland and India believe in demons, and believe that Karswell played a part in Harrington’s death. The three of them intend to interview via hypnosis a currently catatonic man accused of murder, a former member of Karswell’s cult who may provide useful information if he can only speak.
Following up his late colleague’s work against Karswell, Holden visits the rare books collection at the British Museum to look at a 400-year-old book that Harrington referenced in his notes, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons. Holden is told that this book has mysteriously disappeared from the shelves, but an affable gentleman steps forward and says that he has another copy that Dr. Holden is welcome to borrow. Since they haven’t been introduced, Holden wonders how this stranger knows his name. You know my name too, Karswell replies, and tells Holden who he is.
Dr. Holden says he’d be glad of the loan, but it won’t affect his continuing Harrington’s work and investigating Karswell and his cult–which is just what Karswell wants stopped.
Before he exits in a weird effect that looks like it was shot in a wavy mirror’s reflection, Karswell also give Holden his card. On it, in addition to his name and address, are handwritten words in phosphorescent ink: “In Memoriam Henry Harrington Allowed Two Weeks.” These words disappear after a few seconds, and of course Holden naturally assumes it’s some sort of invisible ink, but the chemist friend he asks to analyze the card finds no traces of any likely substance.
He and Joanna meet again at her uncle’s funeral and remember each other from the plane. She believes fully in the curse that killed her uncle, and makes it her mission to see that John Holden doesn’t die the same way.
John is still puzzling over the disappearing ink trick when he and Joanna call on Lufford Hall the next day. They find that Karswell is holding a children’s Halloween party and is dressed as a clown as he performs conjuring tricks for the kids, pulling a whole litter of puppies out of a hat and making chocolate bars appear out of thin air. Seeing Karswell’s skill with this kind of magic convinces John Holden that he’s found the key to Karswell’s more complicated stunts. It’s all slight of hand.
There is a description of a magic lantern slide-show at a children’s party in James’s story, but that Karswell wasn’t as kindly disposed toward his neighbors:
“Because this Mr Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then … the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out. All the slides he showed… were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked them he could not imagine.
“Well, the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park—Lufford, I mean—in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.”
Karswell introduces his mother to his guests. Mrs K is what the British would call an “old dear” and offers them some of her homemade ice cream. She also makes an amusing stab at fixing her son and Joanna up once she discovers that the young lady isn’t married.
Since Joanna is a kindergarten teacher, she agrees to help Mrs. Karswell and the various mothers present with managing the children while Karswell and Dr. Holden take a walk around the grounds and verbally fence about black and white magic, conjuring up demons, and the board game Snakes and Ladders; regarding the latter, Karswell says that he always liked sliding down rather than climbing the ladders. Holden says that that must mean he’s a good loser.
“But I’m not,” Karswell informs him with utter sincerity. “Not at all.”
To demonstrate, he calls up a windstorm that nearly blows both men off their feet and sends the women and children at the party running for the shelter of the house. It’s all the more ominous that the man who takes credit for this sudden storm is still wearing clown make-up.
When the two men also get into the house, they find Mrs. Karswell and Joanna looking over the very same book that Holden has come to see. The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons has some interesting illustrations of demons, but the text is some kind of cryptogram that requires translation. Karswell is working on it, but he isn’t happy that Mom’s been showing it to anyone even if they can’t read it.
Of the two scenes removed from the American version, the first one is to me the more interesting. After Joanna Harrington and Dr. Holden leave Lufford Hall, Karswell warns his mother against trying to help them, pointing out that he manages to keep such a lovely house for the two of them by using his black magic. She could ruin it all if she works against him:
I can’t stop it. I can’t give it back. I can’t let anyone destroy this thing. I must protect myself. Because if it’s not someone else’s life, it’ll be mine. Do you understand, Mother? It’ll be mine.”
The wild wind is still blowing the next evening when John Holden and Joanna meet at her home for dinner. John tells her about the pages that have been ripped out of his day planner after October 28th, and Joanna says that the same thing happened to her uncle, only the date was the 22nd. In James’s story, both John Harrington and Edward Dunning had 30 days “allowed” before the curse destroyed them; Holden only has 3, which really makes his situation more urgent and picks up the pace of the film.
Joanna’s been reading her uncle’s diary and shows John a passage in which Professor Harrington described how he ran into Karswell during a concert and was given a copy of the program after he lost his own (this incident is taken directly, if not verbatim, from James’s story). The professor was sure this was when Karswell must have passed “it” to him.
The couple goes through the contents of his briefcase until they find a thin strip of parchment with runes on it.
The window is open and a gust of air sends the slip of parchment flying toward the fireplace; it catches on the screen and flutters as if it’s struggling to reach the flames and destroy itself. John takes his time in closing the window, but the parchment continues to struggle for a few more seconds even after there’s no wind (he attributes this to a chimney updraft), then it drops down suddenly to the hearth. He can’t explain why it did that.
The one point on which a more ambiguous cut of the film would have worked better is in its hero’s firm skepticism. In the real and not-demon-haunted world, everything he says about the idea of being under a curse and his explanations for Karswell’s tricks sound perfectly sensible. But we know what kind of movie he’s in and we’ve already seen that demon for ourselves, so his refusal to believe that he’s in danger seems overly stubborn and foolish.
In the second scene cut from the US version, Holden visits a hostile and suspicious family on a farm and asks to see Hobart’s mother. He and the other psychical research experts need her written consent to hypnotize her son. Mrs. Hobart is indifferent to her son’s true guilt or innocence, but she agrees to sign the form. The other people at the farm say that Hobart killed a “brother”–not another son of Mrs. Hobart, but a co-member of Karswell’s cult. If these are the kind of people Karswell was getting money from with magical threats, there must be a lot more of them. This family doesn’t look like they had much money to begin with and a good many would need to contribute to support Karswell’s home and lifestyle.
Learning that Hobart also received runes, Holden starts to take the parchment out of his billfold to ask them about it. When they see that he has one too, they react with alarm and say that he has been “chosen.” They want him out of the house immediately.
“Let no man raise a hand to defend him,” says the mother. As he leaves, Holden notes magical signs for protection painted on the farmhouse door.
Next, Holden drives over to visit nearby Stonehenge, as seen at the opening of the film. He compares the runes carved on one of the upright stones with the ones on his slip of parchment to see that they are identical.
Note: there are no runes carved on the actual stones at Stonehenge.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Karswell and Joanna Harrington are still working to help the skeptical doctor, whether he wants it or not. To that end, Mrs. Karswell invites the pair to join her at the home of a medium, a friend of hers, to hold a seance.
I love a seance scene, and this one is a wonderful, absurd example of the classic Victorian Spiritualism type. The medium’s wife and Mrs. K sing a high-pitched chorus of “Cherry Ripe” for the spirits, and the medium Mr. Meek uses some extremely bogus accents as his Scottish and Indian-Chief spirit guides speak through him. Dr. Holden says little during the proceedings, but he certainly makes his feelings about this nonsense clear.
Then Meek begins to speak in what sounds convincingly to Joanna like her uncle’s voice. Harrington’s spirit urges John Holden to abandon his investigation against Karswell and describes the last thing he saw before his own death: “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” (If you remember the Kate Bush song, “The Hounds of Love,” this is where that sampling bit at the beginning comes from).
This is the last straw for Holden. He’s sure now that Mrs. Karswell is doing this to support her son. In disgust, he breaks the seance circle, waking the medium, and hauls Miss Harrington out of there.
But later that evening at Joanna’s insistence, he returns to Lufford Hall to break in and have a look at Karswell’s translation notes for that demonology book.
Karswell is already at home, waiting, although he doesn’t make his presence known to the intruder right away. We get a couple of great, spooky little moments as Holden goes down the staircase and into the study; a sharp musical sting emphasizes the appearance of Karswell’s hand on the banister unseen behind Holden’s back. But in the reverse shots up the staircase, Karswell isn’t there.
This is the low point of the movie for me, as poor Dana Andrews tries to wrestle convincingly with a large stuffed animal.
Karswell puts a stop to it. He calls off his kitty-familiar and tells Holden that Graymalkin wasn’t meant to be a guard. He left the notebook of his translations lying where Holden would see it (even though he also tore out one or two important pages).
Holden, deeply embarrassed at being caught housebreaking, only wants to get out of there. As he heads back through the woods to where Joanna is parked outside the gates, he hears an odd chirping, clicking noise like mechanical crickets. A sparkling light in the darkness expands into a glowing ball of mist or smoke, which pursues him until he stumbles over a tree root and falls down–then it withdraws as swiftly as it appeared. It’s not his time yet; he still has one more day before he meets his doom.
Holden has heard the clicking, chirping sound before and felt as if he were pursued by an unseen presence, but dismissed it as the power of suggestion. This episode is a little more tangible, even though he hasn’t seen the actual demon yet. At least, he admits that whether Karswell has placed him under a real curse or is playing an elaborate conjuring trick, he is in danger.
They go to the police, who find the whole story even less plausible than the skeptical doctor does. Feeling like a fool for going to them, John Holden withdraws the request for police aid and decides to tackle Karswell on his own terms.
But first, we have that experiment in hypnotism we’ve been hearing about since Dr. Holden first arrived in London. The catatonic prisoner Hobart is brought to the psychical researchers and, once he enters a trance, is able to speak. He tells them how he passed the runic curse on to someone else to save himself, then witnessed that other man’s terrible death.
Holden is most interested in that part about passing the curse on and shows the slip of parchment to Hobart–but Hobart has wild hysterics at the sight. He accuses Holden of trying to give the curse back to him. Breaking free of his guards, he flings himself out of the nearest window and falls to his death.
So this case won’t be coming to trial, and I seriously doubt that the prison authorities will be agreeable to letting other researchers repeat this kind of experiment.
Mrs. Karswell phones to say that her son is catching the boat train for a trip to Europe. Now that he knows what to do to defeat Karswell, Dr. Holden dashes to catch that same train. He finds Karswell sitting in a compartment with Joanna Harrington, who is under hypnosis herself as a hostage to see that Karswell can escape without interference.
Holden tells Karswell that he’s a believer now, but since his time is almost up, he’s not going anywhere. He refuses to let Karswell leave the train compartment either. The two of them are going to be together when the demon comes and it’ll get them both.
The police have been keeping an eye on things after all, following Holden since he came to them, and they step in now to protect Karswell from what they perceive to be a threat from the perhaps-loony doctor.
It’s only a couple of minutes before 10 o’clock, the hour at which the demon is expected to appear. Karswell jumps up and says that he’s getting off at the next stop. Joanna, now free of the hypnotic state, says that isn’t true–Karswell bought a ticket to go all the way to Dover. But the police are willing to let Karswell get off the train.
Karswell refuses to take the book and bag he left on the seat, which Holden tries to offer him, but in his agitation does accept his coat; one of the policemen picked it up, but Holden also has his hands on it.
The minute Karswell takes it, he realizes that the runes have been passed back to him. He takes the slip of parchment from his coat pocket–and it flies out of his hand and goes fluttering down the train corridor, always just out of his reach.
Karswell then hears that clicking chirping sound and looks up to see the demon coming for him.
The ending is rather gruesome. With a demon coming at him from one direction and another train headed up the tracks in the other, Karswell chooses to run toward the train. It doesn’t hit him, but he falls down alongside it as it races by. The demon catches up with him and as the train continues to rush past, we see the demon standing behind it, clawing the little ragdoll figure of its victim into smoldering chunks and flinging the mangled body down when it’s done. No one but Karswell has actually seen the beastie.
The train’s engineer, who did think he hit the man on the tracks, has braked by this time, and he climbs out to meet with the police and the railway staff from the nearby station to look at what remains of Karswell.
Back on the station platform, Joanna tries to restrain John Holden from joining them. “It’s better not to know.”
But he just has to go and look. He walks closer to hear the debate about whether or not the man was run over by the train–the body isn’t on the tracks, but how else could it have been torn up like that?
John returns to Joanna. “Maybe it’s better not to know,” he agrees.
*Even though they have nothing else in common but my fondness for their respective monsters, it turns out that these two films were first shown in theaters as a double feature.