B&W, 1957, 95 mins. 45 secs. / 95 mins. 34 secs. / 82 mins. INDICATOR (1.75:1 Transfer) INDICATOR (1.66:1 Transfer) INDICATOR (Short Versions) WILD SIDE
Directed by Jacques Tourneur / Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD) / WS (1.75:1/1.66:1) (16:9), Wild Side (Blu-ray) (France R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Mediumrare (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Firmly cemented as one of the greatest of all horror films, this atmospheric classic from Jacques Tourneur is, along with Robert Wise's The Haunting, the most notable offering from the disciples of suggestive horror pioneer Val Lewton, the producer of such gems as Tourneur's Cat People and Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim. Here the Lewton principle is applied to a sterling adaptation of "Casting the Runes," a short ghost story by M.R. James and skillfully embellished here with additional characters and situations that never betray the tale's literate approach.
Professional skeptic Dr. Holden (Andrews) arrives in England for a conference on psychology and the paranormal where he encounters his colleague's niece, Joanna Harrington (Gun Crazy's Cummins). Distraught over the death of her uncle who was killed under violent and mysterious circumstances, Joanna believes dark forces may be at work. The chief practitioner of evil appears to be Julian Karswell (MacGinnis), an aristocratic dabbler in the occult (and occasional children's entertainer) who resides with his mother at a remote country estate. Holden scoffs at Karswell's contention that the supernatural is a real, powerful entity, even after Karswell craftily passes to Holden a strange runic parchment that marks him for certain death. As uncanny events accumulate and Holden learns that he only has three days left to live, he and Joanna race against time to unlock the secrets behind Karswell's demonic plans.
Largely treated like a typical horror programmer in its day, Curse of the Demon has acquired a solid fan base among the horror crowd since the 1970s and is now regarded as a watershed supernatural narrative. Obviously its impact on viewers since the matinee monster movie age has been significant, with the film turning up in pop culture references ranging from The Rocky Horror Show to Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love. Since then it's also been highly influential more modern horror films as well, particularly the Final Destination series and Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. No mere matinee filler, this is one of the classiest and most intelligent terror films around, even with the presence of a controversial demon (a combination of puppetry and a truly horrific monster make up concoction) that may or may not betray the Lewton aesthetic, depending on which accounts one chooses to believe. In any case it's a killer monster design, but the film has bigger scares up its sleeve on both an intellectual and visceral level. One hypnotism scene offers a wonderfully orchestrated jolt, and Andrews' eerie encounters alone in forests, empty hallways, and desolate farmhouses evoke a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere. The production design by Ken Adam (who notably did Dr. Strangelove and many of the James Bond films) is an effective blend of British antiquity and striking modernism, especially in a subdued but effective library sequence. Though not the most lauded of his peers, Tourneur operates at full throttle with this film and keeps events moving at a fever pitch that makes one wish he had these kind of resources with every project.
The first DVD of this film arrived in 2002 from Columbia (now owned by Sony) with both the extended British cut of the film (under its original title, Night of the Demon), which had circulated with the U.S. title sequence attached through the home video and repertory theater circuit for years, along with the long unseen shorter U.S. cut which truncates much of Karswell's character development (and his mother's as well) along with the entire, very creepy farm visit sequence. The film's moderate 1.66:1 framing has usually fared well on video anyway, but the more generous widescreen presentation here adds subtly to the little visual tricks Tourneur plays on his audience. (The film usually screens at 1.75:1 theatrically, at least with U.S. prints, but the more spacious headroom here is welcome.) While both cuts are certainly enough to justify this disc, it's odd that Columbia didn't see fit to include any ancillary materials -- not even the theatrical trailer, which has appeared on numerous public domain compilations. The first Blu-ray release appeared in France from Wild Side in 2013 (under the evocative title Rendez-vous avec la peur), featuring a 1.66:1 transfer of the uncut and U.S. versions with zero extras but packaged with a very hefty scholarly book in French only.
It's unlikely that anyone will ever top the 2018 two-disc Blu-ray edition from Indicator, one of the most lavish treatments of a single genre film you're likely to see. Along with being loaded with extras, it contains multiple versions of the film reflecting its various running times and aspect ratios. Disc one features the uncut Night of the Demon version in both 1.66:1 and the more commonly projected 1.75:1 aspect ratios, along with the full U.S. Curse of the Demon reissue version that played theaters in the early '00s, here with the same 1.75:1/1.66:1 choices. (Due to the lack of a BFI restoration card and variations in the main titles, it runs slightly shorter at 95m22s). Seamless branching is used so each 1.75 and 1.66:1 version looks the same; the former is darker and moodier looking (and, as mentioned, is sourced from a BFI 2013 restoration); the 1.75:1 has a bit of extra vertical info while the 1.66:1 swaps out that amount for more on the top and bottom, so try both and see which one you prefer. The English DTS-HD MA mono audio for all of the variations sounds excellent, with optional English SDH subtitles. The sole extra on disc one is a new audio commentary by Tony Earnshaw, author of Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon. (Good luck finding a copy.) It's a superb, beautifully informative track from start to finish as he covers the strong conflict over the depiction of the actual monster (including some claims that get debunked here), the involvement of blacklisted writer Cy Endfield, the evolution of Joanna's character in various script drafts, the humorous elements that were gradually whittled away during production, and the casting of all the principal roles.
Moving on to disc two, the film's significantly shortened theatrical cuts can be viewed in both the U.K. (82m5s) and U.S. (81m43s) variations, also of excellent quality (again, seamless branching so they look the same with what looks like more sharpened grain than the other versions, and framed at 1.66:1) and this time featuring an isolated music and effects track (the first time the soundtrack has been accessible in any kind of separate form). "Speak of the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon" (20m4s) features Cummins, Adam, Earnshaw and Jonathan Rigby laying out the groundwork for the film's turbulent creation with a focus on Tourneur and producer Hal Chester, including issues with the hiring of Andrews and his drinking problem. "Cloven In Two" (22m40s) takes a detailed look at the film's various versions over the years including its dealings with the BBFC even before it was shot, with the original running time tampered with on both sides of the Atlantic to make it more double-bill friendly and to make it more accessible to younger viewers. It also details the many differences that persist today, right from the different opening narrations (or lack thereof in the short U.S.) and different credits.
An "Appreciations" section houses no less than eight separate appraisals of the film: "Christopher Frayling: The Devil's in the Detail" (35m58s), "Chris Fujiwara: Horrors Unseen" (27m6s), "Kim Newman: Sinister Signs" (20m32s), "Ramsey Campbell: Under the Spell" (18m21s), "Scott MacQueen: The Devil Gets His Due" (22m51s), "Roger Clarke: The Truth of Alchemy" (21m45s), "David Huckvale: The Devil in Music" (10m53s), and "Scott MacQueen: A Note of Fear" (9m58s). All of them are excellent and tackle the film from very different angles, with a few zeroing in on M.R. James and his literary impact (Clarke's piece is the best place to start there) while others assess its placement in horror film history and the impact it had either through encounters on the big screen or a late night TV screening. The last two are particularly rewarding for film score buffs as Huckvale (whose superb contributions to Indicator's Hammer set are essential viewing) breaks down the occult and disquieting elements of score and MacQueen pulls apart the "Irish folk tune" approach that weaves in and out of the larger tapestry. (Both also do their own piano demos, too.) It's also fascinating to hear the takes from Campbell and Newman, both horror writers in their own right, who explain how James translates to the screen but also has a uniquely potent method of unsettling the reader that's unique to the printed page.
Then an "Archival" section houses four bonuses from much further back, starting with a Hal Chester interview (51m4s) with Gil Lane-Young that covers pretty much his entire life story from childhood through his tenure in show business. Though recorded on VHS and limited by its age, this is a fascinating snapshot of the man who was most responsible for showing one of the screen's most indelible monsters. A vintage Dana Andrews interview with his wife Mary Todd comes from a 1972 recording in conversation with MacQueen (9m28s), casually chatting about memories of the film and sharing very frank thoughts on the demon in no uncertain terms. Then you get two versions of "Casting the Runes," one read by the great Michael Hordern (52m54s) and then a radio adaptation for Escape (29m35s) from 1947. (If you aren't runed out by then, a fascinating and very divisive 1979 version is also out on DVD in the U.S. and in the U.K.) Finally you get the theatrical trailer, a condensed Super 8 silent version (6m58s), and a 66-image gallery including stills, posters, and production design sketches from the Deutsche Kinemathek’s Ken Adam Archive. The limited 8,000-unit boxed set also includes a double-sided poster and an 80-page book featuring a new Kat Ellinger essay, a James piece on ghost stories, an oral history of the production culled from archival interviews, a bio of witchcraft consultant Margaret Murray, an additional history of the BBFC dealings to get the film made and released, further notes on the different version, Charles Bennett's original scripted ending, and review excerpts.
Updated review on October 11, 2018.
B&W, 1957, 95 mins. 45 secs. / 95 mins. 34 secs. / 82 mins.
INDICATOR (1.75:1 Transfer)
INDICATOR (1.66:1 Transfer)
INDICATOR (Short Versions)