NIGHT OF THE DEMON aka CURSE OF THE DEMON
One of my favorite movies is considered a minor film of the 1950s. It starred Dana Andrews who portrays an American skeptic (Dr. John Holden) investigating a quasi-religious organization run by one Julian Karswell, played by Niall MacGinnis. NIGHT OF THE DEMON is based on the Montague James short story "Casting the Runes", it's an effective take on that brief bit of weird literature.
Among the film's few claims to ever-lasting fame is the image of the demon that is actually conjured by Julian Karswell. The figure is genuinely hideous, and gave many a kid (and adult) nightmares over the decades since it first appeared on the silver screen. Today, the movie is principally looked upon as a "cult" film. But it deserves a far wider audience than that back-handed compliment would seem to provide.
The movie was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who had produced many great films with the former German talent Val Lewton. This movie contains all of the atmosphere one would expect from Tourneur's former efforts alongside his old mentor, and is so well shot and directed that I've never been able to find any fault at all in those aspects of the film.
Dana Andrews gets the lion's share of the screen time, and hogged most of the screen credits. He was, after all, the main draw for the public, even if he was on a downhill slide at this point in his career. He does a more than admirable job as the scientist investigating Karswell's organization. His portrayal as Dr. Holden is strong, personable, and even-keeled. I get the impression that he fully understood both the supernatural plot of the film and the ironic nature of his character having to be a skeptic in the face of the inexplicable weird going on around him. Seen in that light, I've grown more impressed with this role of his than I was the first few times I've watched NIGHT OF THE DEMON.
And, yes, although curmudgeon that I am, I must admit that I've seen this movie at least eight times. Maybe more. It's one of those films that tugs at me when I chance across it while channel-surfing. Even though I own the DVD, I feel compelled to sit and watch it whenever I encounter it on one or another network.
The main reason for this fascination with the movie is the acting of Niall MacGinnis who portrayed the character of Julian Karswell. Karswell seems to be a thinly-veild version of Aleister Crowley. At the opening of the film, we see that Karswell has built quite the profitable cult--rich in both followers and cash. He does not look kindly upon those who would try to "expose" him as anything but what he claims to be: a type of holy man. Niall MacGinnis gives what I assume to be his finest acting job in this movie. His acting is flawless, and it's a shame that he wasn't more well known outside of his native Ireland and UK. Perhaps better known for his turn as Zeus in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, this was his best opportunity to shine as an actor. He eclipses everyone else in the movie, including the film's star, Dana Andrews.
While it would have been very easy for any actor portraying Karswell to picture him as a total monster, MacGinnis instead imbues the man with many facets. He is both ruthless on the one hand, willing to conjure demons to destroy his enemies; and very kind on the other, taking the time to entertain the children of some of his followers with magic tricks, greasepaint, and ice cream. He always seems to offer his enemies an out, but they generally wait too long to accept the escape route. And so be it. He even has a doting mother whom he is only too happy to spoil with, perhaps, more patience than he should exhibit.
One thing that I quite like about this film is its chain of logic. Yes, logic. How can a movie about a man who can conjure a murderous demon be logical? Well, yes, there's that. But one does have to set aside a bit of disbelief in order to be able to enjoy such a movie. Having done that (as I do every time I see it), I still expect such a movie to contain its own logic, and to stick to it. THE CURSE OF THE DEMON does just this. It sets up a premise, follows it along a certain track, and it maintains that singular route to the very end.
And I feel obliged to mention Peggy Cummins as the romantic interest in the film. She doesn't get a lot to do other than speak a few lines, move the plot along a bit, and look fantastically pretty, which she did quite astoundingly.
Yep, this one's a keeper.