I’ve been thinking about the proverbial knock given to producer Hal E. Chester for putting a demon into Jacques Tourneur’s “Curse of the Demon” (or to give it original British title, “Night of the Demon”). I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that Tourneur had intended his film to be in the style of the films he directed for producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. The theory here was that what you don’t see is always more horrific than what the make-up and f/x people can show you. This is a valid theory. But let’s consider how it would play out in this instance.
The crux of the film is that the visiting American scholar Holden (Dana Andrews) devoutly believes that the man Karswell is a fraud and that the supernatural powers he claims to have are mere magician’s tricks. If we never saw a demon, if everything was simply a matter of hints, the movie might well end as it began. Holden still believes Karswell to be a fraud. Karswell however believes in the powers he claims to control, so that when he discovers Holden has passed the demon-summoning runes to him, he is crazed with fear and in trying to escape his doom, runs into an oncoming train. End of story.
But by showing the demon, attacking and killing another of Karswell’s enemies at the start, we find ourselves in Hitchcock country because now we know what Holden does not. That Karswell is not a fraud, that he does have the power to summon a demon from Hell to destroy his enemies. Now we are in a state of constant anxiety, fearing for the life of our stalwart American hero. Will he come to his senses in time? Will he realize that Karswell is the real deal? Once he finds the runes hidden in his papers will he maintain his academic assurance that such things can’t be, or will he give Karswell the victory by believing and attempt to rid himself of the cursed inscription? This is what gives the film its dramatic power and turns it into more than just a dry discussion of the power of belief versus the power of unbelief.
Even had Chester not demanded a physical demon, for the sake of the plot Tourneur would have at least had to include the bizarre chirping sounds and the “sparkler effect” that heralds the demon’s immanent appearance. I think that most fans of the film, even if they do not love the demon, at least learn to live with it. For my part, I don’t mind it at all. It makes for a great lobby card.