May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
August 13, 2009
“You could learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark, although we tell them it’s not so. Maybe we’ve been fooling them.”
There’s too much demon for me, and much too soon. I love Tourneur’s grand theme – “I make films on the supernatural, and I make them because I believe in it” – and this, his last journey into the fantastique genre, is saturated with dialogue that goes straight to the heart of his favourite and most fascinating questions. But in this picture, I wonder if it isn’t all a bit much? There’s a thin line between theme and message, and when things get obvious we grow impatient.
Dr. John Holden (another of this director’s uber-Yankee rationalist-materialists) travels to England to debunk a Satanic cult, only to be confronted with the reality of evil when he finds himself under a deadly ancient curse. He encounters any number of “believers,” from seancing grannies and the sort of not-so-tourist-friendly British country folk who would later show up in Straw Dogs and Wicker Man to Fifties-sexy kindergarten teachers who won’t take any of this guy’s guff because they majored in psychology. (Reminds me of Dr Science: “And remember, he’s smarter than you: ‘I have a master’s degree….'”) None of whom make a dent in Doc Holden’s boiler-plated, compulsive skepticism.
Problem is, the narrative deck is stacked against the good doctor from the outset, so there’s no room for the sort of ambiguity and psychological suspense that make Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) so effective. Is Irina right about this whole fatal feline thing, or is she psychologically troubled? For the longest time, we don’t know, so we can at least empathize with (and many times even agree with) the common-sense perspective of her practical Americano boyfriend. In Zombie, we never do really know what’s nuts-n-bolts explicable and what’s the legacy of the past and what’s full-on voodoo “more in heaven and earth” supernatural stuff – or even whether the spiritual carryings-on are evil or benign.
But in Curse Of The Demon we spend almost a full minute with the demon only six minutes in, a twenty foot wolf-bear-godzilla type beast that walks out of the darkness in that gravity-free, jerky way bad movie monsters have, all covered in unkempt black hair and flames. Violins swirl, horn sections bombast, there’s this screechy noise like the wheel on some kid’s wagon needs to be oiled, and a guy in a bowler hat screams, panics and gets electrocuted. And I’m thinking, this is a Jacques Tourneur movie?
Not exactly – at least, not according to Jacques. When J.T. signed off on this one there was no monster at the front end, and at the back, only a four-frame glimpse of something that might be a demon, or might not be. “The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been entirely sure…” The flaming black horned critter is courtesy of the producer, whose monster picture was darn well going to have a monster in it, thank you very much. “They ruined the film by showing it from the very beginning.”
I’m afraid he’s right. In a film that’s completely preoccupied with questions of skepticism and belief, that’s centred on a character whose stubborn commitment to scientific rationalism only slowly gives way to something… well, more rational… the presentation of a big, hairy, incontrovertibly real demon in Scene Two is a serious problem. When he first opens his mouth he’s obviously just plain wrong about things, the audience knows better, and the more he opens that mouth, the more annoying he gets.
There are marvelous elements, though, in spite of studio tampering. When we first meet Dr Julian Karswell, the purported Satanist, he’s playing cribbage with his old mum, and the film’s most effective scene (loaded with ambivalence, irony and uncertainty) takes place at a party he holds for the local children, complete with clown nose and everyday magic tricks.
“I see you practice white magic as well as black.”
“Oh yes, I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them.”
There’s something about the scene’s utter Englishness, and its suggestion that supernatural parlour games may cloak real occult forces, that could have come straight from one of the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams, the author who was such an influence on C.S. Lewis, (particularly in That Hideous Strength).
“You know, the devil has something here. Very pleasant.”
“He’s most dangerous when he’s being pleasant.”
The best way to watch Curse of the Demon may be to imagine the film as the director intended it. Let go of the producer’s certainty that there is a big, nasty demon, and give Doc Holden a chance by leaving things up in the air. After all, most of us share at least a measure of his skepticism, don’t we? If not about all things spiritual, at least about ghosts and demons and things that aren’t the family dog but do go bump in the night. The interfering Mister Chester’s “real” Scary Monster only succeeds in robbing the film’s real horror any sense of reality, and that sells Jacques Tourneur’s vision sadly short: he would have defined things less, left more to the imagination. As they say at the end of the film, “Maybe it’s better not to know.”
P.S. Thanks to Jim Krueger for first pointing me to Tourneur. Monsieur K, sommelier du cinema…