Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Monster Serial: CURSE OF THE DEMON, 1957

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Bigfoot!  Yetis!  The Bermuda Triangle!  Donnie and Marie!  High weirdness everywhere!  Run for your lives!

It was all possible in the Seventies. 

But such an age needed heroes.  Other kids had… well, I don't know who they had.  Some rock star or sports goon.  Me?  My hero was the Amazing Randi.  Talk about a fighter.  A tiny imp of a smartass, he used the secrets of stage magic to expose nefarious psychic frauds.  Why was that so important to me?  I grew up in that odd, 1970's golden age of Vaguely Credible Weirdness, with Hans Holzer books at the grocery and IN SEARCH OF as a Saturday night staple.  Like Fox Mulder, I did and do want to believe that the universe is full of wacky stuff.  Finding anyone abusing the potential for these wonders was like finding the worst lie possible.  But there he was to save the day, James Randi!  And my fondness for Randi fed into my love for the Really Big Guys like James Burke and Carl Sagan. 

Caught between the romance of Fortean wonders and the power of the scientific method, I was a John Keel fan one day and an Agent for CSICOP the next.  This made me the least likely demographic for any film that could possibly be conceived.  Well, unless we're talking about CURSE OF THE DEMON.  It balances a professionally skeptical, level-headed hero and a charming mama's boy of an occultist-bully-badguy over dangers that are beyond both of their powers of reckoning.

 Balding, fastidious, and cheerfully pompous cult leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) has begun a bizarre assassination campaign against the skeptical scientists opposing him. His method?  By passing a slip of runic symbols to his victims, he summons a demon that will consume them in a week.  (Not just a ghost or a monster, but a DEMON!  From the start, the film goes big!)  And, along the way, he psychologically terrorizes them, mounting their expectations for the doom to come.  His latest vicarious murder, though, summons the interest of Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a cross between Sagan, Randi, and a hint of Nathaniel Branden.  He is, perhaps, cinema's greatest skeptic hero.  Now in England, the brash American takes on Karswell, who retaliates by passing the strip of runes to to him.  The rest of the film is a clever detective story with witty and unusual twists at every turn.  Karswell may simply be using the power of suggestion, but that theory becomes more and more unlikely as Holden encounters supernatural terrors that slide from the mundane to the malevolent.  By the end, although the film could have gone the route of total ambiguity, it is clear that Holden faces a paranormal threat most real. 

So, what would James Randi do in a situation like this?  The same thing as Holden.  He knows that reason and cool thinking will win the day, even if the day includes a titanic demon.  And they do.

Ambiguous words like "moody," "unsettling," and worst of all, "atmospheric," are slathered around movie reviews (often by yrs. fly.) like Miracle Whip on a cheap ham sandwich.  But CURSE is constructed so carefully and thoughtfully that each applies.  Directed by Val Lewton vet, Jaques Tourneur, the timing of many of the scares creates "boo" moments of surprise that actually contribute to the story.  They increase the tension, rather than pull a psychological spike-and-release.  In THE EXORCIST, it seems clear that Friedkin studied this film quite well, juxtaposing silence and noise, light and darkness, all to paint a universe much larger than any of the characters can conceive.  Using Ken Adam's gorgeous period sets, the film takes on a size worthy of the Stonehenge that metaphorically dominates the story.

Threading it together is a screenplay that surprises not just in shocks and suspense, but in charm.

Karswell is an endearing villain who makes excellent points about the plus side of being naughty.  His doting mother?  She tries to help Holden by taking him to nutzo seances.  This is a film that gives and gives to audience members, and is a wonderful glimpse into what that James Randi film franchise might have been like.

There is nothing predictable in CURSE OF THE DEMON.  Nothing we've seen before, or since.  Just the power of the human mind to take on and defeat the occult. In an age when the agents of evil always seem to win, CURSE OF THE DEMON feels more revolutionary than ever. 

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation. 

1 comment:

Stacey E. Lemmon said...

Love This Film...!!!
One of our favorites since early childhood.... the movie "Drag Me to Hell" did an updated "take" on this story-line as well
A very Happy Halloween from the "Crypt"....

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