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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 14: Night of the Demon (1957)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester, based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by Montague R. James
Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Dana Andrews:  John Holden
Peggy Cummins:  Joanna Harrington
Niall MacGinnis:  Doctor Karswell

Yes, yes, the title is Curse of the Demon on the poster up there. That's the American release title, for a movie that had fifteen minutes chopped out of it so it would fit on a double bill more easily. In the UK it was Night of the Demon and it's under that title that I'm reviewing it for HubrisWeen. Which means I'm getting the director's cut, or at least the "the studio put this together for release" cut. Because, as I'm about to tell you, the director didn't want to put a big obvious monster in it. Jacques Tourneur, as we all know from our reading and our horror movie watching, was a director fond of subtlety and innuendo more than stuntmen in monster costumes. Perhaps because he was French instead of American, but one of the hardest-to-watch scenes I've ever come across in my viewing is from a black and white French movie, so maybe not. Maybe he was just a subtle dude. 

At any rate, he wanted to make a movie about people being stalked by a demon or just being convinced they were in danger via the nocebo effect. The studio wanted a monster costume. See that grinning horned demon face on the poster? The studio won that fight. According to some reports, they won it by just filming scenes with the demon and putting them into the movie without asking the director. Always make sure you get final cut when you're signing your contracts, kids. Otherwise it'll lead to grief. And cool monster costumes. But mostly grief.

The DVD that I snagged from the Ann Arbor library's collection has both cuts of the movie, by the way, and if I wasn't looking down the barrel of the Dreaded Deadline Doom I'd love to watch Curse of the Demon and see how it works when they've cut a substantial part of the movie out. But 26 reviews getting posted in as many days (which means I'll be writing something in the neighborhood of 170,000 words before the marathon is over if I stay as loquacious as I tend to get) precludes my checking out the short version for the time being. ALAS!

I haven't seen enough black and white movies this time around for HubrisWeen (only two of the first half of the marathon were B/W, because it's really hard to get 26 October-appropriate films in alphabetical order; adding extra criteria would just make things more difficult for essentially no reason). So it's with a glad heart that I announce this movie is indeed in black and white. Just like an old monster movie should be. The film starts off with a narrator portentiously intoning about evil creatures, a world of darkness, Stonehenge and other topics. According to the magic voice playing over the start of the film, runic magic will give bog-standard human beings the ability to summon demons from Hell to do their bidding. Cults devoted to that very practice are at work in the (then-) present day, doing all kinds of Demon Summoning stuff. And probably dancing, smoking cigarettes, playing Dungeons and Dragons, practicing yoga and listening to rock and roll records while they're at it to prove their utter corruption.

Plenty of ominous low brass music on the score, with some woodwinds too. I think they're trying to mimic that "a storm is brewing" classical music that I'm too much of a doofus to actually know the name of and it sets the scene nicely. When the narrative starts, we see a man in a car speeding down a wooded road at night, his nerves obviously on edge--he keeps checking the trees above him as if expecting something to attack him from that unusual quarter. He drives to a big shmancy mansion out in the middle of nowhere and tells the butler (who arrives in response to his insistent knocking at the front door) that he needs to see Dr. Karswell immediately. He also gives his name as Professor Harrington, so--especially by the cultural coding of the time--he wouldn't be expected to fly off the handle or act strangely out of nowhere. Professors in this kind of movie are supposed to be the voices of reason, not twitchy with barely concealed panic.

The butler tries to say Dr. Karswell isn't at home, and then the master of the house himself shows up to put the lie to that fiction. He says that it won't take very long to deal with the visitor, who asks him to "call it off". Karswell says he can't stop whatever process he's put into effect, because there are some things that are easier to call up than put down. The professor says he's willing to make a full public statement that he was wrong about Karswell's occult powers, but it's to no avail. Karswell, speaking in a relaxed and sonorous voice, says the professor told him to do his worst, and he took Harrington's statement for an invitation to do exactly that. Karswell hears the clock chime nine in the evening, determines that a scrap of parchment that he'd written some runes on and given to Harrington has burnt up, and declares that he'll do all that he can to stop the fate in store for the professor.

He also quietly but firmly escorts the professor out of his house, which is a signal to the entire audience that "all he can" isn't going to amount to a hill of beans. Unfortunately, Professor Harrington is so relieved to hear what he thought he wanted to hear from Karswell that he leaves before he thinks to question the exact phrasing from what he heard. When he gets home a boiling cloud of infernal smoke presages the arrival of a demonic form; Harrington drives off like a bat out of hell, runs into a telephone pole and is electrocuted by a live wire mere seconds before the thing gets to him (although the monster still reaches for the camera in the universal symbol for "someone's getting messed up but good"). I'd have asked him to leave Casa Telstar myself if I knew that's what was coming for him. Back at Karswell's opulent mansion, he tosses a newspaper into the fireplace, immolating the headline "Karswell Devil Cult Expose Promised at Scientists' Convention". Presumably Harrington was the man planning to carry out the debunking session; good luck on that now, dude.

Meanwhile, on an airplane, there's another incredibly specific news headline:  "Prominent Psychologist Flies to London for International Convention" (did they print the story seconds before he got on the plane?). The story and photo about that particular story are on a newspaper being used as a crappy and non-working eye shield for the man in the photograph, who is trying to catch some shut-eye on the flight. He's got a case of the fidgets and can't sleep because another passenger has her reading light on; there's some physical comedy involving the range of motion that the psychologist's seat has while he's trying to get some rest while also irritating the woman who's got the light on; I didn't expect a tonal shift like that mere seconds after a fatal accident and demon mauling. The woman behind him is polite enough to want to change to another seat to help the situation out, but unfortunately there isn't an open one to be had anywhere on the plane (and she's got to wake the poor guy up twice--once to leave so she can ask the flight attendant and once to return back to her seat).

Once the stock footage of a passenger plane arrives in England, the psychologist disembarks and is greeted by Professor Harrington's assistant, and then a couple of people from the press who want to talk to him about for a human interest story (by sheer coincidence, I've now seen two movies this HubrisWeen that feature journalists talking to the main character of a film when he arrives at an airport). They also call him "Dr. Holden", so that's probably his name. The convention that Holden's going to attend is one about testing the veracity of various claims of paranormal activity from around the world. He says that as far as he's concerned there's a rational explanation for people who claim to be reincarnated, spirit communication, fortune telling, prophecy and the like. So he'll be the hard-headed skeptic that's going to be opposed by Dr. Karswell later on, we can all safely assume.

After Holden leaves the airport, the woman who formed a Mutual Annoyance Pact with him on the plane makes an unsuccessful phone call to Professor Harrington's place; the operator is properly apologetic about not being able to make a connection but the call can't go through. While she hangs up the phone and puts on the Concern Face, Dr. Holden gets the news about Harrington's death from his assistant (who, wisely, decided not to say anything within earshot of the newspapermen). Holden is understandably stunned by the news.

And then we switch scenes to one of the other psychological researchers, Mark O'Brien, flipping through woodcut pictures of demons, almost as if he was checking mug shots at a police precinct. He's looking into that "Karswell devil cult" as well. Dr. Holden was corresponding with the late Harrington about ways to disprove that Dr. Karswell had any actual supernatural powers. Their efforts were hampered by the arrest for one apostate cultist that had been actually talking to the researchers; he's in a mental hospital for the criminally insane as an accused murderer (and in complete catatonia) at this point. Karswell don't play.

Those woodcuts of demons were there for O'Brien to rifle through to see if any of them matched up to a drawing that the cultist had made in a hypnosis-induced burst of lucidity. That poor sucker blamed a demon for the murder he was accused of, and his crude sketch does look quite a bit like one of the woodcuts. Then again, in Western society, everyone knows that demons have scaly red skin, horns, claws, wings and tails. If a bright blue one with three eyes, no tail and spider legs crawled out of Hell people would think it was an alien because it didn't look like the demon they were expecting. A sketch that happens to look like every other drawing of a demon in the European mythic tradition isn't exactly ironclad proof. Holden takes a stronger stance on this than I'd expect from a movie that was supposed to be released in America. After all, if you're saying that demons and Satan are a pile of garbage for fearful rubes to worry over, at the same time you're saying the same thing about angels and JHVH.

Those pictures the hypnotist has been referring to go back millenia instead of decades, though, and they're taken from Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian myths. He seems to think this thing with wings, horns and a tail could never be imagined by an illiterate farmer in the UK, but I'm willing to bet the least educated folks out there know the most about what a generally-accepted supernatural creature's supposed to look like. Around the 1990s everybody "knew" that aliens were the size of a child, had pale grey skin and large heads with enormous black eyes. And around 2016 there's a lot of deeply ignorant people who "know" about Satanic conspiracies that go right to the highest levels of our government, or "know that Jews run the media, or "know" that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization that wants to destroy America. And I bet they all "know" just what an angel looks like and just what a demon's supposed to look like too. Get a dozen of 'em to try and draw a hopping vampire or a penanggalan and you'll get a dozen different pictures, because they're not in the American myth cycle right now.

The conversation on demonic attributes and English agricultural-class ignorance gets put on hold for the time being, though, when an Indian man named Dr. Kumar joins the group. Regrettably, and as was the standard practice of the time, Kumar is played by a white dude. In fact, looking over Peter Elliot's IMDB page, he appears to have been typecast as an all-purpose Foreign Guy for the BBC (character names like "Kwan Li", "Rudolfo Berreeni" and "Manuel" are all people he portrayed, and those three were for the same series!), . Kumar believes utterly in the existence of supernatural creatures like devils but before Holden can go any further on the subject Dr. Karswell calls his hotel suite ("Speak of the devil," Holden says when he hears the caller identify himself). Karswell tries, in the least friendly manner possible, to get Dr. Holden to step back from the conference, even telling him (truthfully!) that the late Prof. Harrington was planning to do the same. Holden doesn't buy it, though, and tells Karswell that he'll still try to debunk the cultist's claims of magical abilities. Karswell hangs up on Holden, since there's just no convincing a skeptic about this sort of thing over the phone.

Dr. Holden's next plan of action is to try and get the catatonic cult member, Hobart, released from the hospital so the various psychologists can give his brain a once-over and see what information he can give them, if any. Holden also plans a trip to the library of the British Museum, and having seen its massive shelves arrayed out in a long shot, I want to go there and never leave. The True Discovery of Witches and Demons, a book he requested, is nowhere to be found in their archives. The librarian tells him that they're supposed to have a copy in the "restricted" stacks, but someone either misfiled it, swiped the incredibly rare and valuable tome, or possibly ate it while nobody was looking. Harrington apparently consulted the book during his own researches, but somehow or other it's gone missing. A polite man that we in the audience recognize as Dr. Karswell offers to let Holden view his own copy of that very book, though. The occultist says he's got the finest archives on Earth concerning matters supernatural and demonic.

After Karswell introduces himself to Holden at the library, he tells the scientist that it has to be a complete coincidence that they met where they did, because nobody followed Holden from his hotel room (or so Karswell swears). It's obvious to the audience that the magician's doing something or other to learn where his rival is going to be, but what exactly that is, well, at least so far the movie isn't telling. Holden says if he can't find what he needs from the books the British Museum does have, he'll be glad to visit Karswell House out in the boonies and check out that rare and ominous-sounding tome. Holden also says he won't be dissuaded from his mission, and that he's still gonna debunk the heck out of Karswell's powers. That investigation will either show Karswell to be a phony or a man with legitimate magical abilities; that's what being open-minded to possibility is all about.

The occultist contrives a way to knock a folder off Holden's study table after handing over his personal calling card (to which he has added a notation:  "In Memoriam Henry Harrington, allowed two weeks", whatever that means). Holden stands up to confront Karswell but the man's already walking off--and the frame looks blurry in a movie that hasn't used that camera trick for anything yet. Beyond that strangeness, the librarian who stops by to see if Dr. Holden needs anything else didn't see anyone there talking to him a moment ago. And when Holden asks the librarian what he thinks of the handwritten note on the card, it's vanished. If Karswell is just a stage magician, he's an uncommonly talented one; the chemist that Dr. Holden asks to examine the card can't find anything on it but the typed words that were there while and after the handwritten inscription was visible.

That evening, Dr. Holden goes to pay his respects to his late colleague and has a sort of meet-cute with his niece, Joanna. They both recognize each other from the fiasco on the airplane. Joanna says she's got to talk to the American psychologist once she finds out who he is and goes to call on him at his hotel room that evening. After some pleasantries about Joanna's trip to America, she gets down to brass tacks. Miss Harrington thinks that Dr. Holden is in danger and should stop looking into Dr. Karswell's affairs. Professor Harrington kept a diary, and in its pages the late scientist recounts that he bumped into Karswell at a concert and the occultist gave him a concert programme to replace the one he'd accidentally lost. In the programme that Karswell gave him, Harrington found a piece of parchment with runes written on it. Holden doesn't ascribe any occult powers to runes on their own; he says they're just a very old alphabet and that some people think they're magical because of their age and that they look nifty.

The diary entries, however, recount that the parchment flew into a fireplace (seemingly of its own volition, if Prof. Harrington's writings can be trusted). And after that, Harrington saw weird shapes in the distance, getting closer. He felt cold all the time, and eventually (as the viewers all know) the monster that Dr. Karswell summoned showed up to kill him. As far as Dr. Holden knows, of course, it was just a horrible accident and he tries to tell Joanna that as kindly as he can. Turns out she has a degree in psychology as well, and doesn't take to being humored particularly well. Perhaps it's partly the shock of her uncle's death speaking, but Joanna's willing to believe that Karswell put out a supernatural hit on her relative for the time being. She also not willing to stay in Holden's presence any longer since he doesn't care to listen to her warnings. Before she can get out the hotel door, though, Holden's en-suite telephone rings. It's the chemist, calling to tell him that there's no physical trace of anything on the visiting card that Dr. Karswell gave him. Well, if Holden won't listen to Joanna, he might well listen to someone with an advanced degree in chemistry...

Cut to Dr. Holden and Miss Harrington driving up to Karswell's mansion. The psychologist remarks that whatever it is that Karswell does, he's making out like a bandit at it. Karswell, dressed as a hobo clown, is doing stage magic for the village tykes and wrapping things up by pulling a puppy out of his battered top hat. He says it's for the Halloween party, which means it's a movie quite suited for when I'm watching it. Karswell excuses himself from the kids' table at the party and goes to greet his visitors (and tells Holden that he used to be a professional stage magician under the name "Dr. Bobo"). He's also as courteous as he can be to Joanna while offering his condolences--dressed as a clown, one can only look a little sincere, unfortunately. He introduces the visitors to his mother, who made ice cream for the party herself and who is delighted to know the academics will be staying for dinner.

Joanna wanders off with Mrs. Karswell while the occultist gives his guest a tour of the manor. While observing a couple kids playing snakes and ladders, Karswell states that he always preferred sliding down to rising up--which means he's a good loser, according to Dr. Holden. ("I'm not, you know. Not a bit." No kidding!) While rambling about the front lawn, Karswell said that deciphering the unknown language that his rare old magic book was written in took decades of his life, and that the powerful magicians who wrote those secrets down wanted to ensure that Joe Random couldn't walk up and start using the secrets of the ages. During their conversation / argument, Holden states that voodoo hexes and lethal curses are imaginary while Karswell says that belief and reality are a spectrum, not a binary state. Where Karswell finds his power is at the boundary state between objective reality and the dream-states of the mind and imagination.

Holden also knows at least enough about the occult to point out that Karswell isn't just a stage illusionist and conjurer--he's a practicing white magician as well as someone who knows black magic. The cult leader says the kids in the audience for his show much preferred chocolate bars being pulled from behind their ears to a demon from Hell appearing on stage with him. Karswell says that without a protective circle, the demon would simply tear him and anyone near him to pieces--and that would certainly ruin the party. Instead, he pinches the bridge of his nose for a second and the wind picks up to dangerous levels. Lightning strikes a nearby tree and Dr. Holden tries to be cool about everything but makes for the mansion once the storm hits in earnest. Karswell takes credit for the storm, even pointing out that cyclones are not native to the UK.

After Dr. Holden scoffs at Karswell's storm-summoning claims the occultist has to go for the big guns to prove he really can perform magic; Karswell tells Holden that he will die at exactly 10 PM on the 28th of October, three days from when Karswell made his prediction / threat. Holden's still really smooth in the face of the threat of death by demonic forces. In response Karswell turns around, and, with his clown makeup toweled off, plays for the cheap seats as he tells Holden that he's got three days of increasing fear and panic to look forward to and then the creature--which has been following Holden from a distance since they met at the museum--will murder him. During those three days Holden will become more and more aware of the thing that's going to kill him until at the very end he will believe in its existence with all his heart. And by then belief won't be enough to save him.

Anyone think Sam Raimi's seen this movie a time or two? Yeah, so do I.

Over in the study, Mother Karswell is showing his grimoire off to Joanna; the words are gibberish but there's a diagram or two that might mean something to the professor's niece. Joanna's trying to figure out what the runic symbols are for, but without a cryptographical key the book's just a thirty pound paperweight to her. Karswell informs Joanna that she and Dr. Holden may now leave (though they don't get to take the book with them). Back in the study, Dr. Karswell informs his mother that no power is given to anyone freely; he is consumed with fear every waking moment as a fragment of the price that he has to pay for his magical skills. The demon that he summoned is going to kill someone, and he can't call it off. According to Karswell (and he would know), if the demon can't find a chosen victim it'll attack the magician that summoned it. And, well, Karswell's a tubby balding academic. It'll be the demon in one round if it comes down to an actual physical contest. In contrast to the shouts and bluster when Karswell was trying to intimidate Dr. Holden, his conversation with his mother is very quiet and matter-of-fact. In a way that makes it even more convincing and frightening; the man who set events in motion is frightened of what's going to happen, and he's supposed to be in control of the creature.

Back at the hotel, Joanna drops Dr. Holden off and tries once again to convince him that he's in danger. Holden responds by saying he's not brave, but he's also not gullible. For the time being, at least, he's not going to be conned by Karswell's theatrics and intimidation. His current plans are in fact just to get dinner and go to sleep. He also asks Miss Harrington if they could have dinner the following day, and she accepts. But for all his cheerful bravado, Dr. Holden stops to see if something's pursuing him when he's in the ridiculously cavernous hallway of his hotel. Dr. Kumar and Dr. O'Brien are just wrapping up their own day in the hotel, and join Holden for a drink (O'Brien) and conversation (Kumar) that evening. And their appearance startles the heck out of the protagonist and the audience, which is a nice touch.

Dr. Holden is still convinced that all of Karswell's powers can be explained by the power of suggestion and by applied psychology, but he's still confining himself to that which can be seen, heard and felt rather than just inuited. Holden also wants to know if the men recognize a tune he's got stuck in his mind; both of them say it's old folk music and Dr. Kumar adds that it's from an enchantment from India while O'Brien thinks it's related to a song from his country. But there hasn't been any music played in Dr. Holden's presence--at least not on camera. So whatever it is, it's gotten stuck in his head as an external influence. While the audience is pondering on that, Dr. O'Brien says that all the pages after October 28 in Holden's day planner are ripped out, and wants to know what's up with that. Well, I bet you that Dr. Holden wants to know what's up with that as well...

At dinner over at Joanna's that night the wind keeps blowing; the storm knocked out power in her neighborhood and whether or not it's romantic to have a candlelight dinner, it's chilly at the Harrington residence. While Joanna and Holden enjoy a little brandy, Miss Harrington points out that her uncle was alarmed by what he thought was going on after his contact with Dr. Karswell, and that he underlined a couplet from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner about fearing the things following behind and getting closer. Joanna's trying to convince her guest that things are serious and when she mentions her uncle's desk calendar missing all the pages after his date of death, Holden just thinks it's another trick--someone who's got great skills with sleight of hand might well be able to pick a lock and tear pages out of a day planner, after all. And there's no reason Karswell couldn't have sent someone else out to perform that little errand for him while he remains close by Dr. Holden as a perfect alibi.

Holden thinks that it's just a way for Karswell to try and unnerve him (and it's working, at least a little bit) but Harrington's diary says that for the demon-summoning spell to work a parchment inscribed with the fatal runes must be passed to the victim without their knowledge. Thank goodness that can't have happened to the psychologist (except that it probably already did at the British Museum). Joanna's description of her uncle's body--mutilated as if by a large animal, instead of just burned by the power lines--unnerves Dr. Holden, as of course it would, but he's still telling himself that he's in control of his mind and emotions at this point.

Under Joanna's patient questioning Dr. Holden realizes that the parchment, if he's got one, would be in his notes from the museum, and that those notes are in his briefcase. He fetches the briefcase in a dark, ominous, shadow-drenched shot that makes the hallway loom over him menacingly (Tourneur and his cinematographer do a magnificent job of amping up the weirdness after the rather staid first act). While the score gets louder and louder, Holden reveals the parchment covered in a runic inscription, and then a sudden gust of wind from outside blows the scrap of paper towards the fireplace. If it is just the wind playing hob with a bit of paper about a foot long and an inch wide, Holden, why is the parchment still battering at the fireplace grate after you closed the window? The paper stops trying to throw itself into the fire and drops to the floor; Holden, possibly starting to believe he's seeing something that can't be explained, tucks the parchment into his wallet.

The next morning, Dr. Holden goes to the Hobart farm, hoping to talk to the wife of the man who's currently in the asylum as a murderer. The farm hand tries to kick him off the property but the woman decides to talk to Holden before that can happen. Holden tries to explain himself to Mrs. Hobart (and the group of other people apparently under Dr. Karswell's control)--he needs the permission of one of Hobart's relatives in order to examine him. The various cultists say that Hobart wasn't the killer, but he made the death he's blamed for happen. He was a designated victim, but handed the curse off to someone else who was destroyed by it, and the shock of witnessing that drove him completely mad. Mrs. Hobart signs the paper, saying that the outsiders and skeptics need to know what her son saw. She's comfortable in her faith (and I can't help but wonder if this scene would be as creepy as it is if the movie was made without an obvious demon in it--I bet it would be, or very nearly would).

Dr. Holden promises to let everyone know what his results are and the parchment tries to escape from his billfold when he puts the release form back in his coat pocket. The cultists immediately know what's up, and Mrs. Hobart says "Let no hand be raised to defend him," which is the least reassuring thing you can hear when you're under a death hex. He leaves the farmhouse and the door gets shut in his face. I don't remember those alchemical symbols being painted on the door earlier, but maybe I missed them in the long shot.

After leaving the Hobart place, Dr. Holden swings by Stonehenge and checks out the runic letters chipped into the rock. If nothing else, it'll tell him that the runes on his Doom Parchment are actually copied from somewhere. But whatever he learns there, he leaves without saying it out loud. He joins Joanna back at her place (and says he saw a note from her at his hotel room, but the movie wisely doesn't show us Dr. Holden's arrival at his hotel, finding and reading the note, and calling a taxi). It turns out that Mrs. Karswell wants to help Dr. Holden avoid his fate if she can, so she's set up a meeting with a Mr. Meek at a small flat in London. Mr. Meek's a spirit medium who hopefully will be able to break the spell that Dr. Holden's trapped in; failing that, he might be able to find out some way to avoid the demon or send it back (I doubt it could be killed without air support).

Mr. Meek is a cheerfully dotty man who starts the seance right up when his wife cranks a gramophone into life. Then there's a singalong to a song called "Cherry Ripe"; apparently it's quite popular on the post-mortem hit parade. Holden is somewhere between bemused and appalled, and even more so after Meek has a phony-looking seizure and then Mrs. Karswell claims that Crimson Eagle, a Native American spirit guide, will be guiding the spirits from beyond into Mr. Meek's voicebox that evening. After Mr. McGregor (a deceased neighbor of the Meeks) invites Joanna and Dr. Holden into the circle, the child's voice issuing from Mr. Meek's voicebox turns much more convincing than the previous two. And when Professor Harrington arrives, wanting to talk to his niece, Holden reverts to his previous rock-ribbed skepticism.

Harrington wants his living colleague to give up on fighting the demon, since it can't be defeated without an incantation from Karswell's grimoire. Then Meek-speaking-as-Harrington experiences his own death at the hands of the summoned monster, screaming in fear. Holden's consumed with disgust and wants to leave that very minute. He walks out to Joanna's car, and when Karswell's mother follows him outside to try and talk to him, her son pops the car door open and asks her to come back home with him (courtesy of their uniformed driver--I bet the talk in the back seat of their roadster is going to be really, really uncomfortable).

Joanna decides to sneak into Karswell's mansion and look for his English translation of the runic grimoire, She's hoping to be proved wrong, but if there is a counterspell or something in that book, ideally she and Dr. Holden can use it to save his life--he's only got about a day and a half left before the demon shows up to rip him to pieces. It would be a great relief to her to find out that everything was a scare campaign aimed at the American psychologist--especially because that would mean her uncle wasn't butchered while he was still screaming by a beast from Hell. Holden sets out into the woods that surround the Karswell mansion and sneaks up to the house. I flinched during this shot because his shadow loomed up on the brick wall of the manor and it looked like something else for a second there (another great use of space and darkness by Tourneur). He climbs some ivy and lets himself into a second-floor window, winding up in a cluttered attic full of domestic debris of the covered-furniture style. Then he just sneaks his way through the dark mansion of the magician that summoned up an unstoppable demon to kill him as a way to prove he's got magical abilities. No pressure.

Oh, and the shots of the hand moving into frame on the staircase bannister following Dr. Holden around will make you jump twice. And the cat in the manor library sees something in the room behind the psychologist and flees. But eventually our protagonist finds the handwritten translation of the runic text (with several pages torn out). When his match burns out, the doors to the library close on their own and Karswell's housecat turns into a leopard to attack Dr. Holden in an unfortunately goofy-looking sequence. Karswell himself turns on the lights just as Holden's about to beat the leopard to death with a fireplace poker (I can see the note Holden would have to leave now:  "Leopard dead. Details later."). Dr. Karswell goes into dangerously toxic levels of smugness as he explains that he left his book out so that Holden would find it if he broke in, and reiterates a couple times that there is a demon set after his rival, and that Dr. Holden will die the following night. The psychologist takes his leave of Karswell and goes off into the woods, despite a warning that it wouldn't be the healthiest choice he could make.

Tourneur keeps the camera in front of his leading man for the sequence where he goes through the woods, so that the audience is always looking behind him for the creature that's following him and getting closer (which doesn't show up at first, though a Spring-Loaded Branch pops into frame). But then there's that ball of smoke and the demon's footprints sinking one by one into the soft earth and smoking as they do so. The score gets a little overpowering here, truth be told, but Dr. Holden gets out of the woods safely and makes his way back to Joanna (and thence to Scotland Yard, where the detectives are politely skeptical about the whole thing, and who also point out that they don't have anything in their remit to cover threats from the spirit world--and that they properly won't be able to get involved as investigators until after Holden's death). By now, Holden's seen things that made him at least a little bit of a believer, and he's in the uncomfortable position of having to convince someone else of a thing he found ridiculous only a few hours before.

Joanna doesn't particularly want to watch Dr. Holden get killed by the monster that killed her uncle, and it's already 3 AM on the 28th. Barring some kind of divine intervention, it's not looking too great for the psychologist. There's a low-key moment where one of the police inspectors talks to his supervisor about Holden thinking there's a death hex targeting him and how the same thing happened to Professor Harrington. The men look at each other, baffled and stone-faced, when the junior inspector points out that the curse supposedly said Harrington would die on the 22nd and that did in fact occur. So maybe after the fact, the police will try to do something about Dr. Karswell. After all, if he made a death threat and that threat was carried out, it would look rather suspicious to the proper authorities.

Unfortunately, once Dr. Holden has a little time to get a hold of himself, he decides that he's just being manipulated by more trickery from Karswell and that Joanna is an unwitting accomplice in the "freak Dr. Holden out till he has a stress-induced coronary" scheme. To quote Jack Burton, John Holden is a reasonable man who's just seen some very unreasonable things. But he keeps thinking that there has to be a rational explanation and he's talking himself back into danger over and over by this manner of thinking. It's actually the most atheistic I've ever seen any character in a movie be, and I'm sorta amazed that an American character in a movie from 1957 has that mindset. I mean, yeah, he's wrong, but the very fact that this film got released in the first decade of the Cold War with a capitalist-society hero who has that outlook boggles my mind.

Dr. Holden goes on at some length about how he views religion and superstition as snares for gullible fools and Joanna, not unreasonably, decides she's heard enough of his arrogant bullshit, especially because she feels that she's the target of a largish portion of the doctor's scorn. She leaves, and Holden decides to declare the entire business a misguided Halloween prank and go back to his hotel.
His allies are all camped out in his suite and Holden's plan is to get everything for the conference done that day, then leave for the States--he's apparently talked himself back into thinking it's all got a perfectly rational explanation again. When Mrs. Karswell calls him he blows her off; when she calls Joanna, Mrs. Karswell is told by another source that Holden's just on his own for the time being. It turns out that Karswell's mother is sickened by the thought of her son using demons to murder people at will, and that Rand Hobart--the catatonic mental patient--can hip Dr. Holden to what he needs to know in order to live through the rune curse.

As soon as she's off the phone to Joanna, Mrs. Karswell tries to confront her son, who just walks off after telling his mother she doesn't understand what's going on at all. Meanwhile, Joanna decides that as much of an off-putting clown as he is, Dr. Holden probably deserves her help in avoiding death. But just as she gets into her car to track him down, a man walks out of the nearby shadows and enters her car from the passenger side. ALSO meanwhile, the ambulance attendants from the asylum have brought Rand Hobart to the conference so that Dr. Holden can oversee the hypnosis session that he'll be going through.

Dr. O'Brien takes the wheel at this point, explaining that he had to figure out how to hypnotize a catatonic person (he's having Hobart shot up with truth serum, which apparently works). Under the influence of the pentathol, Hobart wakes up to the point where he screams in panic and tries to run out of the room. But Dr. O'Brien and a hefty orderly take mental and physical control of him--in that order--and then we get a late-in-the-narrative Exposition Bomb from Hobart as he recounts what happened to him and why that trauma made his conscious mind run away for a while. Rand Hobart was a member of Karswell's devil cult, and pissed off the leader and was told that after a certain time he'd be killed by a demon. He tells Dr. Holden that he had a cursed parchment, but after passing it to the cult member that stuck him with it, the demon killed that dude instead. After spilling the details of how to avoid getting ripped apart by a demon, Hobart screams in terror at the sight of the parchment in Holden's billfold. Before anyone can stop him, he throws himself out of a window and plummets to his death rather than risk getting killed by the demon that Karswell sicced on him.

Well, that's the last jigsaw-puzzle piece that Holden needs to fall into place to start believing how much trouble he's in, and it's about goddamned time. Actually, we had that exposition delivered twice to Dr. Holden--once by the cult, and then again when Hobart tells him. So he borrows a car from one of the other psychologists and heads back to Karswell's mansion to return a little something to the cult leader. Dr. Kumar tells Holden that Mrs. Karswell tipped him off about her son's travel plans (the 8:45 train to Southampton), and from there it's a race by car and on foot to the train station so Holden can get on board. He does still say "please" when he buys his ticket, of course; he's in mortal danger and terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought, but he's not a jerk. With less than fifteen minutes to go until the deadline, he finds Karswell in a compartment in one of the train cars, with a hypnotized Joanna keeping him company.

The occultist is just about as scared as Dr. Holden is at this point, and refuses to take the signed statment from Holden that testifies to Karswell's power and abilities. At six minutes to ten, he's not grabbing anything from anyone. Holden faces his death with equanimity, apologizing to Joanna for being a jerk and to Karswell for not believing him. But when the occultist tries to leave the compartment, Holden blocks him from exiting--he wants Karswell right next to him whenever the horrible mutilations take place. Police interference (at Karswell's request) means that the cult leader can leave the compartment and the train, but when he gets his coat and hat from Dr. Holden he realizes that he's been played. The runes, of course, are in his pocket but he has to act normal in front of the cops so he can't refuse to take his own property from the man he's trying to present as the unstable weirdo. Which means he has to run like a bat out of Hell down the train hallway chasing after the piece of parchment, and winds up on the train tracks looking for a small scrap of parchment as the wind carries it away from him and towards the thing that's coming for him.

The parchment bursting into flame on the ground is overtly supernatural, as is the arrival of the demon in a cloud of luminous smoke. Karswell can run, but he can't hide, and his scream of terror blends with a train whistle as the monster picks him up and claws at him (that beast is the size of a small kaiju, as it turns out, and holds Karswell in one huge hand and rakes him repeatedly with the claws of the other one). When the police and train officials take a look at what's left of Karswell, they decide he must have been hit by one of the trains and dragged along the ground, because they can't make any sense of what else could have put his body in that condition. We--and Dr. Holden--don't get a look at the body, though, because the psychologist decides to live with just a little mystery in his life and because the Hays Code meant we wouldn't be getting a look at any torn up bodies in 1957.

Ahhh, it's always nice to catch a really good movie during HubrisWeen, and especially right after the midpoint. The steadily building menace, the audience that catches on earlier than the protagonist--but in a good way, and the fantastic performance that Niall McGinnis turns in as the jovially menacing Karswell:  Absolutely wonderful. And now that I've seen this movie, I want to give Drag Me to Hell another spin, because it's an updated take on this same material, with a skeptic, a cursed object that can be passed to someone else, and even an ending at a train station. Man, I'm kicking myself that I didn't see this sooner and that I couldn't just enjoy it as a movie rather than watching it for HubrisWeen.

And that monster costume is the business. I had no idea it was going to be as huge as it was in the film. Instead of the threat being smaller than the protagonist thought it was, it was ten times larger than the audience expected and it startled and scared the heck out of me. I even felt bad for the poor evil son of a bitch that got annihilated by his own plan. Highly, highly recommended. But I don't know if I could say the same about the short version. Might as well stick with the not-quite-director's cut. And as much as the cinema purist in me hates to say it, the suits who decided to put a big creepy monster in the film and on the poster were absolutely right.

"And now you understand that line in "Science Fiction Double Feature" about Dana Andrews and runes!"


  1. "Holden takes a stronger stance on this than I'd expect from a movie that was supposed to be released in America. After all, if you're saying that demons and Satan are a pile of garbage for fearful rubes to worry over, at the same time you're saying the same thing about angels and JHVH."

    This is probably acceptable because by the end of the film, Holden is proven to be completely clueless about matters occult and/or numinous. Plus, don't forget that it's a British film, and the approach to that sort of thing has always been a little different in Blighty.

    I've seen both versions (because I own the disc and didn't suffer from deadlines); the shorter one isn't awful, and if one only has access to it it's not the end of the world, but it's not like the situation with Godzilla/Gojira. The narrative is essentially the same in each.

  2. I was really tempted to watch the shorter one just because it's shorter (and therefore I'm done with it sooner), but Night of the Demon is the longer cut. And since it was so magnificent, I'm fine with having seen it. :)