by Allan Fish
(UK 1957 96m) DVD1
Aka. Curse of the Demon
Cherry ripe, cherry ripe…
p Frank Bevis d Jacques Tourneur w Charles Bennett, Hal E.Chester story “Casting the Runes” by M.R.James ph Ted Scaife ed Michael S.Gordon m Clifton Parker art Ken Adam
Dana Andrews (Dr John Holden), Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington), Niall McGinnis (Dr Julian Carswell), Athene Seyler (Mrs Carswell), Brian Wilde (Rand Hobart), Maurice Denham (Prof.Henry Harrington), Ewan Roberts (Lloyd Williamson), Liam Redmond (Prof.Mark O’Brien), Reginald Beckwith (Mr Meek), Charles Lloyd Pack (chemist),
“It has been written from the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said, man, using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols, can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of hell.” The opening words, spoken over a shot of Stonehenge, may slip ever so slightly into the over-emphatic world of the corny, almost into the realm of the straight-faced spoof. Yet the director whose name comes up on the opening credits should be ample enough warning that this is no spoof. Here was the great Jacques Tourneur’s last dip into the black light of night, the world that had so dominated his earlier horror classics for Val Lewton, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and it deserves its place in any list of the great horror films produced in the British Isles, indeed in the world as a whole.
John Holden is an American paranormal specialist and general sceptic sent to the UK for a conference with a Professor Harrington, who has been in the process of trying to expose one Julian Carswell, a renowned specialist in the dark arts, as a fraud. He arrives to find that the said professor has met a most gruesome end, and is even more disturbed when his niece, Joanna, a schoolteacher with whom he flew across the Atlantic, warns him away from this Carswell. Her seemingly irrational fears are backed up by several British colleagues, but he ploughs on regardless, which leads to a seemingly accidental meeting with Carswell in the British library.
Those of a certain age might remember the popular ghost stories for Christmas produced by the BBC in the early and mid seventies. In addition to a memorable version of Dickens’ The Signalman with Denholm Elliott, that most eclectic of ghost story writers, M.R.James, was to the fore. I fondly recall - from recent repeats on BBC4 – their versions of A Warning to the Curious and The Stalls or Barchester, yet still this fifties film remains the best adaptation of his work. It isn’t a perfect film – Andrews and Cummins are solid rather than especially memorable as the leads, and Tourneur was distraught at the crass sensationalism of the studio that forced him to show his demon in the opening scene, let alone the closing showdown – but what comes in between remains an unforgettable descent into a physical and mental hell. The opening scene immediately captures the urgency and fear of the piece, with Harrington’s fateful journey to Carswell through the forest. Simple use of car headlights in a wood, but you can sense the terror in the air. A sequence matched by that later in the film when Andrews is himself cast through the self same woods, running for his life. The terror and general disquiet helped no end by two superb supporting performances; firstly from Seyler as Carswell’s believing but generally naïve mother, and most memorably a truly imperious and sinister MacGinnis, in his greatest role as Carswell. The matter-of-fact menace with which he tells Andrews “you won’t be able to explain away your death on the 28th of this month so easily with my prediction of it this moment.” He “doesn’t like to expose his magic, black or white“, so try to discredit him at your peril. He’s no megalomaniac, not even a truly evil man, rather someone aware of the powers of darkness and their ambassador in sceptical times; that very inner quiet makes him all the more chilling a threat. But for the unfortunate glimpses of a rather feeble demon that bookend the film, it would be perfect, but it’s still unforgettable. Time allowed…ninety-six minutes.