Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!
Classics like Curse of the Demon aren’t just gems because of their quality but because they can teach a little by watching them. Granted, Friday night frights aren’t typically selected for their continuing education potential. However, few films encapsulate the potency of cinematic storytelling, demonstrating how every facet can come together to influence an audience. Also known as Night of the Demon, this is that rare blend of masterclass and entertaining feature all rolled up into one. In other words, a viewer can learn from it or simply enjoy watching the film. Either way, it enhances seeing any other horror movie afterward.
Curse of the Demon follows Dr. John Holden, played by Dana Andrews, who arrives in England intending to expose a cult led by Dr. Julian Karswell, portrayed by Niall MacGinnis. Ever the skeptic, Dr. Holden intends to prove the sinister satanist is a dangerous fraud. After all, there’s no such thing as the supernatural. This conviction, however, is steadily chiseled away after Karswell seemingly curses Holden. Meanwhile, Joanna Harrington, played by Peggy Cummins, endeavors to persuade Holden the unearthly evil is real before time runs out.
If that feels like well-trodden territory, keep in mind, it’s never the story so much as how it gets told that matters. Technically, Jaws is three guys who don’t like each other forced together on a fishing trip (ripping off “Moby Dick”) but on screen, it’s a very engaging story. Cinema can convey so much more than mere plot, and in that regard, Curse of the Demon shines.
Based on a short story by M. R. James entitled “Casting the Runes,” the resultant horror movie comes alive in the hands of director Jacques Tourneur. It doesn’t hurt that the source material is from a progenitor of the modern ghost story. M. R. James excelled at bringing the past into the present, turning what seemed out of date into contemporary terror. Curse of the Demon does this as well, in essence, taking witchcraft out of the woods and placing it in all too familiar settings.
Drawing from the short story’s central premise, writers Hal E. Chester and Charles Bennett crafted a twisting suspense tale seasoned with supernatural spices. The latter no doubt drew from his experience as a frequent, if not highly influential, collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock. The result is a story of modern witchcraft in plain sight. Conceptually, it’s an idea that would echo thematically for decades, seen in films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Wicker Man (1973), and Suspiria (1977).
Still, a solid foundation is just something to build on. Thankfully, a moviemaker like Jacques Tourneur knew exactly how to help Curse of the Demon rise above. The director’s film career began in 1931 but really gathered steam when MGM dropped him. Legendary producer Val Lewton quickly caught the falling star and threw him back into the sky helming low-budget horror flicks. Together, the two made movies for RKO pictures which went on to be, not only box office hits but high marks in horror.
With Cat People (1942), they crafted the modern concept of the jump scare. The film also raised the bar on tension building within a movie, using sight and sound to heighten anxiety. In I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Tourneur made sure “lighting, shadows, exotic setting, and music all contribute to the immensely disturbing atmosphere.” Using such details to manifest mood then came into play when Tourneur directed Out of the Past in 1947. Film critic Roger Ebert called it, “one of the greatest of all film noirs” and it set several standards for the genre even to this day.
These successes combined into a cinematic style Tourneur utilizes to maximum effect in Curse of the Demon. The movie possesses a palpable atmosphere. Mood seeps off the screen. Chiaroscuro lighting and creepy audio turn ordinary halls into nerve-crackling corridors. Woods come alive while remaining dark and foreboding. Even certain daylight scenes manage to have menace.
Under Val Lewton, Tourneur learned to maximize the impact of moments. Since their budgets never got high enough to allow for convincing creatures on screen, they learned to imply an ominous presence in the shadows. Working alongside cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, another noir pioneer, over several films, Tourneur developed a visual stylization that would mark his best cinematic endeavors. In that regard, his horror could almost be called gothic noir, an element apparent in Curse of the Demon.
Sketching a Venn diagram, the movie falls into a mix of creature features and cosmic horror. Although some dreadful entity is stalking the protagonist, the real menace is the increasing realization that Holden’s idea of reality is entirely wrong. Those things which go bump in the night may in fact be monsters, while the shadows are full of entities made only of teeth and eyes. Worse, whatever intellectual arrogance has blinded him to this truth is slowly falling away. Beyond the veil of reason, he can’t see anything except the horror of the greater cosmos surrounding him. And performer Dana Andrews does a splendid job portraying stubborn adherence to skepticism even as the maddening truth creeps in.
The very history of horror coats every aspect of Curse of the Demon. From its literary source material to its visuals inspired by German Expressionism, the film is a product of the past while feeding horror’s cinematic future. Masterfully subtle, filmmaker Martin Scorsese called it, “one of the best horror movies ever made.” Sam Raimi’s 2009 supernatural thriller Drag Me to Hell mirrors the premise to the point of being an homage, a reflection if not a copy. Curse of the Demon has an influence so deeply ingrained that people don’t even realize they’re borrowing from it.
Director Jacques Tourneur proved low budget doesn’t have to mean low quality, especially when the whole cinematic palette of sights and sounds is used to full effect. That’s why it’s well worth adding this horror gem to any Halloween watchathon. Curse of the Demon is sure to stir something sinister.