Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon (region 1 edition)

Starring: Dana Andrews, Niall MacGinnis, Peggy Cummins, Maurice Denham
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
RRP: $24.95
Certificate: PG (Canada)
Available now

An international team of psychologists sets out to debunk the claims for satanic magic made by Dr Julian Karswell (MacGinnis). But one of their number suffers a hideous 'accident', and soon after their leader John Holden (Andrews) is secretly given a runic message. Even the extremely sceptical Holden starts to believe that passing the runes back to Karswell may be his only chance of overcoming a violent curse. Based on
Casting the Runes by M.R. James...

Don't let the box fool you. This is not a double bill. Instead, the disc features two different versions of the same cult classic: the one originally released during 1957 in the UK (Night) and a 15-minute shorter version that appeared a year later in the US (Curse).

Both Ridley Scott's Legend and Terry Gilliam's Brazil have recently emerged on Region 1 DVDs in similar packages. As with those 'lost' films, there is a long-standing controversy over the 'producer's cuts' of Curse/Night of the Demon that initially made it to cinemas.

The biggest 'issue' concerns the demon itself. In the original script, the monster was never seen. For director Jacques Tourneur, this approach referred back to the atmospheric and imaginative chillers he worked on at RKO in the 1940s (most notably, 1942's Cat People and 1943's I Walked With A Zombie). For screenwriter and former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, it was the keystone of an attempt to make a 'monster' movie where the greatest emphasis was on the psychological battle between the antagonists.

Unfortunately for them, producer Hal Chester was an exploitation showman in the William Castle vein. In Bennett's eyes at least, Chester destroyed the film by adding a man in a rubber suit not just at the climax, but, even worse, at the very beginning. And having done that in the British cut, Chester sliced more material out of the US release that offered some sympathy for the devil, or, at least his acolyte, Karswell.

Looking back, the Karswell cuts do greater damage. In the longer version, you can set aside the demon itself - a surprisingly nightmarish creation for a 1950s chiller, anyway - to enjoy the interplay between Andrews' and MacGinnis' characters.

The UK cut creates much of the tension by developing MacGinnis' Karswell not as a beetle-browed megalomaniac, but a man who has been totally enslaved by the forces he has unleashed. He acts more for his own protection than in some bid to spread the satanic creed. Andrews, a long underrated actor, matches this by making Holden credibly shift from aggressive rationalist to hunted believer. Another part of the game is that the polite and softly-spoken Karswell is initially a more attractive figure than the brusque and overly self-confident Holden - this villain lives with his kindly mother, no Faustian Helen of Troy here.

The US cut just about smothers this aspect of the film, leaving large chunks of MacGinnis' deft performance on the floor, and becomes a more traditional battle between good and evil. That this version still somehow works is a tribute to the wronged Tourneur and Bennett. However, only scholars are likely to visit the US version more than once.

A literate script unfolds through a series of subtly composed and played scenes in both versions. Some sequences - notably Holden's attempt to break into Karswell's house and another revealing the villain's original occupation as a children's entertainer - remain masterclasses in composition, lighting and structure. The cinematography and set design (by a pre-Bond Ken Adam) give the film a richer appearance than most of its contemporaries.

So what you get is an entertaining and still tense yarn in a crisp HD anamorphic transfer, with the added bonus - and unfortunately, it is the only notable bonus feature on the DVD - of an excellent opportunity to see just how powerful a tool editing is. Admittedly, all the leading figures in the film have passed on, but considering the debate still raging among horror buffs, a featurette or historian's commentary would have been valuable in explaining Night of the Demon's enduring appeal and its context to the uninitiated.

For example, a further interesting aspect is that Tourneur's film emerged in the same year as another UK company, Hammer, began approaching horror from a more operatic perspective with The Curse of Frankenstein.

At the time, Hammer enjoyed the greater international success; today, Night of the Demon feels less like a period piece and has more power to shock and surprise. It can even be seen as the precursor for a series of UK-made late 1950s/early 1960s black-and-white shockers that drew their strengths from understatement, thoughtfulness and a willingness to hold back on delivering the coup de grace. Along with Tourneur's film, the best known are Robert Wise's The Haunting (Wise was another RKO veteran), and Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned.

Considering recent unsuccessful attempts to remake those last two films, it's perhaps also worth reflecting on just how much skill is really needed to pull off the 'less is more' approach to horror.

Paul Dempsey

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