Thursday, October 03, 2002


It's October, the time of year when a young man's (or even a middle-aged man's) fancy turns toward ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Every October, I re-read my favorite stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, so I thought this year, I would try to review some lesser-known classic horror movies (and maybe re-visit a few old favorites) and devote most of my October blog entries to them.

First up is this British classic, directed by Jacques Tourneur, director of several of Val Lewton's low-key horror classics of the 40's. The film may be best known in this day and age as the inspiration for some key lines in ROCKY HORROR'S opening number: "Dana Andrews said prunes/ Gave him the runes/ And passing them used lots of skill." Andrews is an American psychologist who comes to England to participate in a conference at which his colleague (Maurice Denham) plans to debunk a witchcraft cult led by the charismatic Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). However, just before Andrews' arrival, Denham is found dead, electrocuted and mangled, apparently dispatched by a demon conjured up by MacGinnis. Andrews and Denham's niece (Peggy Cummins) continue with Denham's work, and MacGinnis threatens Andrews with the same fate. The abovementioned song lyric was inspired by the method of conjuring: MacGinnis plants a piece of parchment inscribed with mysterious runic symbols on his intended victim, sets a time for the death, and waits for the demon to do its thing. Andrews moves from total rationalism and skepticism to eventually being convinced that there is indeed something to MacGinnis's witchcraft as he tries to break the curse of the runes.

Perhaps because of Tourneur's use of subtle suggestion over explicit horror in movies like CAT PEOPLE, there has always been controversy over the appearance of the demon here. We see the demon, once at the beginning and again at the climax (an exciting one aboard a train racing through the night), and some fans are sure that Tourneur never really intended us to see the demon at all, that he wanted to keep it just a suggestion. But I think we are meant to believe in MacGinnis's powers; a scene where MacGinnis conjures up a fierce windstorm out of a clear blue sky can't really be explained away without resorting to belief in his witchcraft. My only problem with the demon is that the close-ups are disappointing, just like King Kong's close-ups. When the demon is materializing far off in the sky, the effect is actually quite creepy and effective, perhaps the best Satanic special effect in movies (except for THE EXORCIST). Andrews gives his usual clunky performance, and Cummins is bland, but MacGinnis gives full life to his character, seemingly based at least a little on real-life witch Aleister Crowley. He's not some indestructible comic book villain, but fully human, even a tad likeable at times, although he also seems to be something of a mama's boy. The lovely black and white photography is quite striking, and sometimes reminded me of some of the effective widescreen compositions in the original THE HAUNTING. This is the uncut British version which runs about 12 minutes longer than the American one (CURSE OF THE DEMON), but either version is actually worth seeing. This would make a good Halloween week pick!

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