Movie Review: Night of the Demon (1957) (AKA Curse of the Demon)

Bianca’s Review:

curse of the demon

Easily one of the best horror films of the ‘50s, Curse of the Demon (1957) is completely devoid of camp elements often wrongfully associated with chillers of the era. The film features the proper amount of tension due to skepticism, amazing special effects, and stunning direction from the wonderful Jacques Tourneur. The film marked a return to the genre for Tourneur, who had been mainly focusing on westerns and noirs at the time. His wonderfully poetic looks at horror and suspense made Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943) some of the best horrors ever created due to their stunning camerawork and almost fantasy-like glimpses at reality. Who better to bring the title demon’s looming presence to life than Tourneur?

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Something that has seemingly divided viewers is the presence of the demon itself. Of course, the effects used are some of the best put on the screen and the demon is properly menacing, silent, and overpowering. What causes conflict is that the demon is shown at the beginning and at the end, rather than saving him entirely for the end effect like most classic horrors or not showing him at all. It isn’t a spoiler that the demon arrives at the end, we know he is coming again as the whole film leads up to his return. What makes showing the demon at the film’s opening as well as the end pure genius, in my opinion, is that we as the audience have no doubts of the existence of the title being. This adds much more tension than if we weren’t sure if it existed. We have seen this terrifying creature and know of the damage he can do, so when man character Dana Andrews denies that he will meet the same fate as a colleague, we fear for his safety since we know it’s real and that creates a great aura of tension throughout that would be lacking if we were unsure of too. Plus, the exposure of the demon isn’t overdone as it only shows up twice very swiftly.

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Another interesting factor included in this horror is a cultured villain portrayed by Niall MacGinnis. He is sophisticated and knowledgeable, but he possesses a dark side that has him seek vengeance on those he dislikes by summoning the title demon to destroy them. He does the same thing to Dana Andrews’s character by giving him a mark that he is unaware is on him (hieroglyphics on a piece of paper). This act is unforgiveable since the film’s opening shows a man be a victim of the demon due to MacGinnis, so we immediately know he is the villain and don’t like him, but he does have some nice qualities, such as his kindness towards children, which makes him a more rounded and developed villain than most from horror films. What also helps is that Dana Andrews is one of the most likeable actors of all-time, so we would automatically be on his side no matter what, which makes MacGinnis right away a villain to hiss at while still being interesting to watch. Like Val Lewton, there was always lots of emphasis on the morally ambiguous and wrongful characters as there was on the heroes of the piece.

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Curse of the Demon (1957) also manages to have a love story that is actually cute and that the audience roots for with the always wonderful Peggy Cummins, making Andrews’s life more valuable and creating more dramatic tension since we don’t know if this romance is doomed or not due to Andrews’s fate from MacGinnis’s curse. The budding romance along with further developments of MacGinnis’s character and Andrews dealing with skepticism/realization of the creature creates the middle of the picture that is perfectly bookended with the opening and ending scenes featuring the classic demon. While it was Tourneur’s intention never to reveal the monster, by doing so, it has created one of the most memorable movie horror villains and some of the finest special effects of all time. It further makes the picture much scarier than it could have been without the fear the audience has for Andrews’s life throughout the film. Curse of the Demon has remained a classic example of horror from the ‘50s and by remaining so it has managed to diminish improper stereotypes that horrors of the time were cheap and campy. Absolutely not, Curse of the Demon rivals anything done today and has intelligence and spectacle.

Virginia’s Review:

Night of the Demon

Among classic film buffs, Night of the Demon aka Curse of the Demon (1957) is considered a horror classic. Even though the film has a rightfully high reputation, much debate takes place between two camps. One camp believes director Jacques Tourneur’s original concept for having a horror movie with the monster completely off-screen would have been better while the other camps believe the executive decision to put a monster in the movie was the right choice. Personally, I can understand where both camps come from. I see both arguments as I think the tension of whether the monster is real or not could have been quite suspenseful, yet I love the design and appearance of the monster itself. I really like the demonic animal-like look of the film’s main monster who we see at both the beginning and ending of the film. You also got to love the way he enters the film by emerging through the sky and descending to the earth to claim his victims. It is a haunting and frankly epic image. As far as which camp you will personally fall into or have already fallen into if you’ve seen this film, it will likely depend on how you like your suspense handled. Does suspense work better when the audience is just as confused as the main hero or does it work better when the audience knows what the hero doesn’t so they spend the film yelling to believe it? Alfred Hitchcock argued that the audience knowing the danger is what helps create suspense. Hitchcock usually started by leaving the audience in the dark but having them come to realize what is going on before the heroes in the film. Think about how the audience’s knowledge of the situation in Psycho (1960) switches from Marion’s point-of-view to Norman’s and you can see what Hitchcock meant by this statement. While there is still a twist at the end of Psycho, Hitchcock lets the audience in on the danger of the Bates Motel before the rest of the characters who must tackle it head-on. In the Hitchcock-style Night of the Demon mostly succeeds. It does reveal its main threat at the film’s opening which usually isn’t done in most thrillers/horror movies as it usually must have some form of build-up first, but in the way Night of the Demon is structured this early reveal makes a lot of sense with the film’s use of tension.

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The two-camp controversy aside, let’s look at what the bulk of the film deals with when the monster is off-screen. Dana Andrews plays an American professor who goes to London for a conference but ends up having a hex placed upon him by a satanic cultist played by Niall MacGinnis. Andrews is a perfect set-up as he does not believe in black magic being the realistic scholar that he is. A good portion of what makes this movie so interesting aside from the tension abound is MacGinnis’ character. He is a threatening force, yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find any devil-worshipper in cinema as nice as he is. MacGinnis is more threatening in a subtle way as some of his on-screen time is dedicated to him throwing parties for local children and taking care of his elderly mother. In fact, those scenes are how Andrews is introduced to him. MacGinnis may play a satanic cult member, but he is far away from Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934), Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and the satanic groups in both The Seventh Victim (1943) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Could you imagine any of them throwing harmless parties for children which includes them dressing up as a clown? Despite MacGinnis’ offbeat portrayal as a Satanist, he is still a proper villain as he not only places a curse on our hero, but he puts him in a danger the audience is familiar with as we saw it take place in the beginning of the film. MacGinnis’ character may put on shows for kids and watch over his mother, but he certainly couldn’t care less about hexing a total stranger which he knows will lead to his death. This may make MacGinnis even more of a threat as he seems harmless but is much more dangerous than he looks. Echoing from before, Norman Bates anyone?

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Tourneur may not have gotten the product he wanted out of his original vision for the film, but despite the executive decision to practically rewrite the whole vibe of the film from his first idea it never seems like Tourneur doesn’t care about the film he is making. The film has a lot of effort put into its thrills and intense atmosphere all while keeping it in the real-world which helps set it apart from many other horror movies involving a monster villain. As much as we enjoy movies starring vampires and black lagoon creatures, those movies tend not to take themselves as seriously and they sometimes feel like they come from a different world despite taking place in the same world as our own. This is where Night of the Demon differs in that it always feels like it takes place in our own reality. Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins feel like real people as does our human villain as well as the directorial tone and setting Tourneur has set-up for us. This realistic feel makes the film hold a different sense from many other classic horror movies and it could make it scarier to viewers watching.

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Let’s not beat around the bush, this isn’t the movie Tourneur wanted but it is the film we got and the film we all hail as a classic horror today. Everything has an adult sense to it from the realistic characters and actors all the way to the handling of the monster itself. While some people may scoff at the idea of revealing the monster too early or even at all, the monster itself is one of the greatest-looking beasts in all horror. The creature’s image captivates us from the very moment he enters the screen and allows us to keep our attention throughout the film’s run. The movie also benefits from some offbeat touches including Niall MacGinnis’ take on a Satanist, but the movie holds onto a down-to-earth tone throughout even though this is a movie where giant monsters appear from the sky to respond to black magic curses. This is a horror film that takes itself seriously and is rewarded for it as it can pay off with what it promises without ever feeling campy or outdated. Horror aficionados love it and even those not keen on horror I still recommend giving it a shot. It deserves the attention it gets.

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