The film also called Curse of the Demon (1957) is based on Casting the Runes by M.R. James. This is a classic, but absolutely. It is a grown-up horror film. There are no dead teenagers or gore. The terror lies in the utter hopelessness of the hapless victims. There is a lesson, too. Stay the hell away from the occult, it’s not cute or sexy. You so won’t like what happens because evil has a way of biting you in the ass, big time.
Before the credits even begin there is an excellent introduction. A stone circle (could be Stonehenge) is shown and the narrator says there has always been devil worship. And really there always has been because there’s always been evil, and human nature being what it is, the two come together sometimes.
Whether there is a devil or there isn’t, there is certainly evil and people who are attracted to it. That’s a given. In the film, Niall MacGinnis plays Dr. Julian Karswell, a master of the occult. He’s sort of an Alcester Crowley type, head of his own coven and satanic maven. He serves something and it isn’t anything good.
At the beginning of the film a desperate Professor Harrington comes to plead. He will call off an investigation of Karswell’s cult if he just calls off ‘what he has started.’ No go. He is ushered out, and the horror is set in motion despite Karswell saying he will do what he can.
When we see it’s too late, we are already feeling the power of this film. The genius of it lies in the terror of the parchment. Take it, and you are stuck (to put it mildly). Once you have it, you have it. The demon will get you whatever you do. There are runic symbols written that summon the demon.
There was some debate about whether the demon should be seen. There are those who think it’s a bit wonky and those who love it. I’m in the ‘love it’ camp. Of course I was pretty young when I first saw it and was, frankly terrified! I mean it was the worst kind of death anyone could have! My parents had given me a t.v. set for my room and I remember watching horror films 24/7 if I could. I overdosed on them and writing horror was a given!
Dana Andrews stars as Dr. John Holden, an American psychiatrist who has come to England to contribute to a conference debunking belief in witchcraft. He is to meet with Prof. Harrington who got topped by the demon. No meeting. But Dr. Holden meets Harrington’s niece at his funeral (Peggy Cummins) who tells him all about the parchment and the horror it holds.
Still skeptical, Dr. Holden investigates Karswell and his followers, even invading Karswell’s house, where a small cat apparently transforms into a panther in the dark; later, Holden is pursued through the woods by a glowing, smoky light, much like the one that presaged the appearance of the demon that killed Harrington.
Holden dismisses these manifestations as trickery, but Joanna convinces him to go to the police, whose incredulous reaction embarrasses Holden. Eventually, Holden receives permission to perform a demonstration upon one of Karswell’s followers, who has been incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane since surviving an encounter with the demon. Under hypnosis, the man admits that, when the appointed time approached, he “passed the runes” onto someone else, who met the fate intended for him.
Realizing passing the parchment is the only way to save himself from a similar fate, Holden tracks Karswell to a train carriage, where he has abducted Joanna. Holden meets Karswell who slips him a parchment.
There is a great irony at the end and what with the overall suspense and menace, well, this is what horror is all about. If you want to see a film that has all the elements horror should have (in my humble) then see this film. The film was shot in black and white it’s stark. It’s as stark as the runic symbols on the parchment.
Stark, dark and scary. This is one horror film that has aged well.