‘Curse of the Demon’

Tom Doty Times Columnist

November 29, 2013

A debunker of the occult winds up questioning his stance on the supernatural when he is placed under the titular enchantment.

The opening sequence of this film is a whopper. A nervous guy is driving home through the English countryside. We don’t know what he is anxious about, but he appears to settle down when he reaches home and opens his garage. He exits the vehicle and is about to go in the house when he spies something. A tiny cloud appears to be growing larger off in the distance and the crickets are chirping like mad. The cloudy substance begins to disperse as it nears the ground and we see a large creature inside of it.

The man panics, screams like a Justin Bieber fan, and rushes back into his car. He backs out of his garage too quickly and slams into a utility pole. The monster approaches as electrical cables splay over the vehicle. The man stumbles over a sparking wire in a vain attempt to scramble to his feet, but now it is too late. The ogre has him in its grasp and we see the clouds were actually smoke being expelled from the creature’s lungs.

The movie pauses for a breath now as we meet an American psychologist, Dr. Holden, who is having trouble resting on an airplane bound for London. His main problem is the young lady behind him, who keeps having to adjust her tray and position. Turns out she is the niece, Joanna, of the man we saw earlier. She trails Holden to a conference on the supernatural.

Several men at the conference sequester Holden and beg him to look into a Dr. Karswell. He leads a cult that worships black magic and Joanna is convinced that he murdered her father by planting a parchment on him. The rules of this parchment are that you need to pass it on to someone else or you will die when satanic forces come looking for it in three days.

Holden agrees to look into the doctor but his motivation gets a boost when he discovers a parchment in his luggage. He almost loses it when a breeze grabs hold of the ancient paper and blows it towards the fireplace. He manages to rescue it and sets out to prove Karswell a fraud.

Things don’t go as planned and Holden begins to think there might be some truth to the curse. Unfortunately, his skepticism slows him down until hours before the demon is set to appear. Now Karswell is on the run, determined to stay away from him since he has a demon on his tail. It all leads to a train station showdown and the second, and even more terrifying appearance of the monster.

This is spooky stuff. Director Jacques Tourneur knows a thing or two about setting the mood. He had directed several classics by this time and was a master at manipulating shadows and using fog to emphasize scares more than obscure them. He is wise to imply more than he shows but some of the stuff he hints at is scarier that way. Such is the case of Karswell, who comes across as someone who has sacrificed personal freedom for power and become a monster himself. You learn that he feeds others to the demon so that he can continue to reap the rewards of controlling it, but he isn’t foolish enough to believe that he is doing anything but holding on for dear life.

Tourneur brings all of his skills to bear on this tale, and that’s saying something, since this guy had already made “The Cat People.” The demon is the best achievement and its appearances are always accompanied by the eerie sounds of crickets chirping frantically. The final image of the beast rending a victim apart was downright traumatic for the few who saw it before the film was knocked off the airwaves for generating too much scare-mail about its fright content. Great stuff and it still hold ups.

Bets line: “I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them.”

1957, unrated.