A producer's meddling keeps Curse of the Demon from perfection.
The story sees American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) travel to London. He's there to expose self-professed black magician Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) as a fraud. Karswell tries to dissuade Holden, but Holden remains resolute. Karswell then announces Holden will die in three days. Holden is skeptical, but after a series of unexplained events, his skepticism crumbles and he begins to fear for his life.
This is the best kind of thriller: one populated by intelligent characters who behave according to their personalities, not the whims of the plot. It avoids cheap jump-scares. Instead, director Jacques Tourneur uses atmosphere to build tension. Shadowy hallways and darkened rooms keep us on edge. And, for the real horror, there's Niall MacGinnis.
I loved MacGinnis' performance. It's a perfect combination of charm and menace. There's a great scene where Holden has broken into Karswell's palatial home. In the darkness, a house cat transforms into a leopard and attacks. Holden struggles for his life, only escaping once Karswell enters and turns on the lights. Karswell treats the intruding Holden as one would treat a party guest who'd gotten lost looking for the bathroom. By underplaying the role, MacGinnis makes the character all the more sinister. Christopher Lee built a career on similar performances. And yet, MacGinnis conveys a vulnerability beneath the bluster that adds unexpected depth.
Opposite MacGinnis, Andrews delivers a curious turn. His cadence and speech patterns mimic John Wayne's. They're so similar, I wonder if it was a deliberate impersonation. This brings up an interesting tangent. The Duke played many roles in many movies, but he never made a straight horror picture. Judging by Andrews' performance here, Wayne could have pulled it off with flair.
Yet, despite the solid script, competent direction and inspired performances, Curse of the Demon falters. The opening sequence sees the titular demon marching out of the woods. A similar sequence occurs at the film's end. In both, the demon’s mechanical movement and frozen expression scream rubber suit. My wife thought it resembled a homecoming float. Not only do these shots cheapen the film, they undermine any sense of ambiguity regarding Karswell's powers. Holden is the audience surrogate. His skepticism is our skepticism. But this falls apart when we know Karswell's powers are real from the outset. Instead of questioning things along with Holden, we grow impatient waiting for him to catch up. A great psychological thriller devolves into a cheap monster movie.
We can thank producer Hal E. Chester. He added the demon shots after principal photography wrapped. Tourneur and Andrews fought him on it. Writer Charles Bennett threatened to shoot Chester dead. They all lost. The studio, Columbia, did cut some footage for the American release, but not of the monster. What a shame.