Saturday, February 24, 1973: Curse of the Demon (1957) / The Thing From Another World (1951)

Note: in the interests of speeding things up a bit (read: completing this project before the end of the century) I’ve decided to recycle my comments from movies I’ve written about previously. The truth is, I’ve simply been spending too much time trying to think of new things to say about movies I’ve already gone on about too much. So I hope you’ll forgive me. When I offer a previously published write-up I’ll flag it as such, and link back to the original post — ed.

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Synopsis: Celebrated psychologist and skeptic of the supernatural John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London, where he is scheduled to take part in a scientific conference debunking the cult-like following of occultist Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis). But when Holden arrives at the airport he’s told that his primary collaborator on the conference, Professor Harrington, is dead, the victim of a freak accident: he crashed his car into a power pole and was electrocuted. Nevertheless, Holden is determined to carry on with the planned conference.

At the research library of the British Museum, Holden is told that the rare 16th century volume on the occult referenced in Harrington’s notes  — “The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons” — is missing from the closed stacks. A moment later he is approached by Julian Karswell, who offers to loan him his own copy of the book. Karswell is pleasant and charming; he accidentally knocks some books off of Holden’s table and scoops them up and returns them to him. He also hands Holden his calling card. When Holden looks at it he sees something written by hand on the card: “In memorium Henry Harrington allowed two weeks”. As he looks up from the card his vision begins to blur and he feels dizzy. Karswell leaves before he can question him about it. A moment later the writing has disappeared from the card.

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At Harrington’s visitation, Holden encounters Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) whom he recognizes as a fellow passenger on his transatlantic flight. He and Joanna agree to meet later in the day. At Holden’s hotel she reads from her uncle’s diary, revealing that Karswell had given Harrington a concert program; hidden inside was a piece of parchment with runic symbols on it. As if alive, the parchment flew into a fireplace and was burned. Since that time, Harrington had been assailed by all manner of strange occurrences, and became convinced that Karswell’s occult powers were real.

In the final entry of his diary, Harrington states that he was wrong to mock the powers of darkness, and will try to get Holden to call off the conference and beg Karswell to revoke the curse, but Holden tells Joanna he will not be deterred, no matter what Harrington might mistakenly have believed.

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The following day Holden and Joanna visit Karswell at his estate Lufford Hall, ostensibly in order to borrow Karswell’s copy of the missing book. They find Karswell entertaining a group of children at a Halloween party. Karswell tells Holden that he did indeed put a death-curse on Harrington, and that he has done the same thing to Holden. In two days, he claims, Holden will die. As a demonstration of his power, he calls up an enormous wind storm, something that Holden believes must be a trick of some kind but which he can’t easily explain.

Later, Holden and Joanna discuss Karswell’s curse. Holden notes that the curse will not work without the parchment with runic symbols being passed to the recipient without his knowledge. Looking through his briefcase at Joanna’s urging, he discovers that the papers Karswell knocked off the table at the library were returned to Holden with the parchment slipped inside. The parchment flits away from Holden’s hand and is almost sucked into the fireplace, but he manages to catch it before it’s destroyed. But Holden still has a problem: according to Karswell he only has two days to live, whether or not he believes in the curse….

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Comments: Vibrant, stylish and unusually intelligent, Curse of the Demon is one of the best horror films of the 1950s. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who had helmed some of Val Lewton’s best-known efforts at RKO. Like the Lewton films, much of its power is rooted in the viewer’s uncertainty. Is there really a curse, or is Karswell just a con artist who’s started to believe his own press releases? Was Harrington really killed by the demon, or did his panic about the curse cause him to accidentally blunder into his own death?

As originally shot by Tourneur, the evidence for a curse and / or a demon was strong, but largely circumstantial. Harrington’s body may — or may not — have been attacked by an animal. The disappearing message on Karswell’s calling card might have been a conjurer’s trick, even if it wasn’t achieved through use of a disappearing ink. The windstorm Karswell summoned might have been a coincidence. And while the parchment bearing runic writing seemed to accurately foretell the death of whomever was unlucky to possess it, perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But this wasn’t enough for the studio, which seemed to feel it was all a bit esoteric. They wanted the titular demon. So after Tourneur had delivered his film to Columbia, a demon puppet was added to give substance to a few key scenes: when Harrington arrives home and sees something that sends him into a panic; when Holden is walking back to the car through the woods behind Lufford Hall; and when Karswell is searching frantically for the lost bit of parchment on the railroad tracks in the final scene.

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The original British title of this film was Night of the Demon and it was a bit longer than the American version; 12 minutes were shaved off it for the American release. But unlike some editing for foreign markets, the film wasn’t hacked apart or bowdlerized. The editing seems to have been done entirely for time, and what went on the cutting room floor wasn’t terribly important. Some scenes at the airport and Holden’s first phone call with Karswell were among the scenes trimmed.

Dana Andrews is a good reliable leading man here. Because the character of Holden must champion the cause of rational positivism all on his own, he comes across as a bit stiff-necked and humorless; in the hands of a lesser actor Holden would have been insufferable company, but Andrews actually does quite well with him. Peggy Cummins’ Joanna Harrington is the standard-issue love interest (complete with standard-issue meet-cute) and never really gets a chance to shine, but I liked her well enough.

The real star of the movie is Niall McGinnis, whose Julian Karswell is the perfect bad guy: charming, well-mannered and unexpectedly funny. That’s how I imagine the Devil would be in person, and if you need a guy to play him, I think McGinnis is your man.

The Thing From Another World (previously published December 5, 2016)

Synopsis: Capt. Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is the pilot of a C-47 transport plane that makes frequent runs to a scientific research station at the North Pole. He and his flight crew are at the Air Force base in Anchorage, waiting to be deployed again. While playing cards in the officer’s club, Hendry is introduced to newspaperman Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), who has just arrived at the Anchorage base. Scott is looking for a story, and is intrigued to hear that Hendry’s crew frequently visits the remote station where the famous Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and a gaggle of other scientists are working. Scott asks Hendry to consider bringing him along on their next run.

Scott doesn’t have to wait long; almost immediately Hendry is summoned by his commanding officer, General Fogerty.  Dr. Carrington’s team has reported that a large aircraft has crashed in the vicinity, and Fogerty wants Hendry to investigate. Hendry asks permission to bring Scott.  “I don’t care if you maroon him up there,” Fogerty says tartly, then adds, “Now, don’t get me wrong about who gets marooned.” He refers to an landing ski that was broken on a previous trip to the pole, which delayed Hendry’s return.  Hendry calls the broken ski “an unavoidable accident”, but it’s clear that Fogerty doesn’t believe him.

Within hours Hendry’s crew along with Scott are on their way up to the research station. Almost as soon as the plane has landed Hendry seeks out Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), an assistant to the scientists at the station. We learn that the two have not seen each other since Nikki’s last visit to Anchorage; she had come down at Hendry’s invitation, but the visit didn’t go well.  Hendry behaved like a drunken boor (he doesn’t even remember the times that he spent “making like an octopus”, as Nikki puts it).  He is angry that she not only left without saying goodbye, but put a note on the passed-out Hendry’s chest, listing his unattractive attributes, including his legs.  “Now the whole Air Force is laughing at me,” he complains.

He asks if it’s possible to start over.  She doesn’t say no, but there isn’t time to discuss the matter: it’s time for Hendry to meet with Dr. Carrington, who turns out to be a frosty and condescending sort.  Carrington tells Hendry that he wants to proceed directly to the crash site.

Carrington’s urgency is driven by the fact that whatever crashed is too massive to be an airplane, and it isn’t a meteor either.  Once on the scene the scientists and military make an assessment, deciding that the object that crashed melted the ice surrounding it and sank before it re-froze.

Attempting to determine the shape of the dark object, the group discovers that it’s round – the object is, they deduce, a flying saucer.  Eager to uncover it, and spurred on by a winter storm headed their way, they set thermite charges, but instead of melting the ice as expected, the thermite sets off a chain reaction when it contacts the unknown alloy and  the ship is destroyed.  All that is salvaged is an alien body frozen in ice. They cut a block encasing it and transport it back to the base.

The scientists argue about the best way to thaw the creature so they can examine it, but Hendry tells them that they should do nothing until he gets further orders from Fogerty.  But the winter storm has knocked out communications and they are on their own.

Hendry assigns Corporal Barnes (William Self) to guard the room where the frozen alien is lying.  But Barnes, not wanting to see the alien’s open eyes, carelessly tosses an electric blanket on top of the ice. Within a few hours, the ice has melted and the alien body is gone….

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Comments: The Thing From Another World was one of the first films to combine the old genre of horror with the new genre of science fiction, and even today it’s one of the best examples of that hybrid. It is an absolutely riveting film, still as tense and scary as it was upon its release in 1951.

For many years science fiction aficionados looked down their noses at this picture.  Though it was based on the well-regarded short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr., the plot was significantly changed for Hollywood.  Instead of a monster that created cunning duplicates of its victims, leading to a situation where everyone in the camp suspected his neighbor of being an imposter, the movie offered a more prosaic monster-running-loose-through-the-research-station scenario.  That — and the fact that a woman was added to the cast to create some romantic interest — led to the charge that The Thing was a profoundly dumbed-down interpretation of Campbell’s story.

But judged on its own merits, this is really one of the best horror films ever made. It gets rolling quickly and never takes its foot off the accelerator. The screenplay by Charles Lederer (said to have been substantially reworked by Ben Hecht) absolutely crackles, without an ounce of fat on it. It smartly moves from one setpiece to another, keeping the viewer off balance. The brisk pace also keeps the viewer from thinking about the plot holes until later (for example, there’s no real reason for everyone to be in such a hurry to dig out the spacecraft; a winter storm might dump a foot or two of snow onto it, but considering it’s already encased in ice, that’s trivial).  The film also benefits from one of the greatest film scores of the decade, a nerve-jangling and theremin-infused work by Dmitri Tiomkin.

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A minor though interesting subplot to the movie is the way in which Hendry redeems himself in Nikki’s eyes.  He is a distinctly unimpressive fellow in his early scenes. Even allowing for the boys-will-be-boys attitude of the 1950s, Hendry initially comes across as something of a lout. We learn he’d embarrassed himself by getting drunk and regaling Nikki with his sexual escapades in Hawaii, before “making like an octopus” and then passing out.   He is all but accused by his C.O. of sabotaging his own aircraft in order to get more personal time with a pretty girl.  The pretty girl in question, once she got an opportunity to see him up close and personal, decided there was less to him than meets the eye.

But as the crisis builds, Hendry’s best self emerges: he is sensible, diplomatic, decisive; he is willing to listen to advice from those around him, regardless of their rank or status.  He is scrupulous in following the orders of his superiors until he determines that the situation has changed enough that he can act on his own authority.

Hendry’s leadership style is quite different from that of military men in other science fiction films of the era, which usually assume a good leader is someone who barks out a lot of orders. Nor is there the standard macho posturing and / or fistfight between romantic rivals as was standard in films of this era (e.g., Richard Carlson and Richard Denning in Creature From the Black Lagoon). It’s a relief, frankly, to be spared the dreary, standard-issue romantic triangle.

The character of Nikki herself is surprisingly self-assured for a woman of this era, though as has been pointed out many times elsewhere, Nikki is very much in the mold of brassy Howard Hawks females. She is refreshingly smart and resourceful, and gets her share of one-liners (“If I start to burn up again, who’s going to put out the fire?”). While she is never central to the action, she is far stronger and more sensible than women in films of this era.

One weak point in the film is the depiction of Dr. Carrington, who as the designated champion of science and reason repeatedly butts heads with Capt. Hendry.  Everything about Carrington is designed to telegraph that he’s not a “real” American, or even a real guy — everything from his attire (furry Russian-style hat and expensive-looking but impractical cloth coat) to his effete-looking goatee and supercilious manner. Carrington’s pedigree is further called into question by the fact that he seems not to notice the presence of his strikingly attractive secretary. In fact, he only has eyes for the monster.

Carrington is clearly enamored with the creature and its asexual method of reproduction, believing it to possess a cool, cerebral purity unsullied by base emotions and needs. There isn’t really any reason for Carrington to believe this except that it’s necessary to the plot that he do so; in fact the Thing behaves more like a snarling monster than the “intellectual carrot” that we keep hearing about. Nevertheless if the film can claim to be making any sort of social commentary it appears to be that xenophobia is the correct default response to anything coming from outside, and that intellectuals are dangerously lacking in common sense.  When one of his colleagues refers to the Thing as an enemy, Carrington pushes back. “There are no enemies in science,” he says sharply, “only phenomena to be studied”. This notion would have seemed particularly dangerous at the height of the Cold War, and we are clearly supposed to regard Carrington as deeply misguided at best and a traitor at worst.

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We can actually forgive this clumsy characterization for a number of reasons.  First, from a screenwriting standpoint, there must be ongoing points of conflict between the human characters in order to maintain tension, and with the exception of Carrington, there really aren’t any.  Everyone gets along very well — almost too well.  Hendry’s men work together smoothly and efficiently, and the scientists at the base are sober and helpful.  Nikki effortlessly becomes a valued member of the team in spite of her early verbal sparring with Hendry, and despite his cynical wisecracking Scott is as much on board with Hendry’s decisions as everyone else. It’s a bit clumsy for Carrington to keep turning up as the sole enabler of the Thing’s agenda, but somebody has to throw up obstacles for Hendry’s team to overcome, and Carrington is a convenient fall guy.

Second, the presence of Carrington’s colleagues helps to soften the anti-intellectual message.  With the exception of the snooty Carrington himself, all the scientists are portrayed as friendly, patient, cooperative, and happy to explain difficult concepts to the layman. They quickly grasp the threat the Thing poses.  When Dr. Stern sees the nursery that Dr. Carrington has arranged for the creature’s progeny, he is fascinated, but he also recognizes that breeding them is a bad idea.  “Imagine what a thousand of them could do,” he says. Dr. Voorhees, an early Carrington ally asks, “What if this being came not to visit the Earth, but to conquer it?” These are reasonable people who don’t let their passion for knowledge overwhelm them. The reassuring presence of the avuncular Dr. Stern and the level-headed Dr. Voorhees and Dr. Chapman prevent us from viewing scientists in general with contempt.

By the same token, the military gives Carrington the benefit of the doubt at every turn, always operating from the assumption that while the scientist might be mistaken or even misguided, he is not their enemy.  Hendry in particular is patient with Carrington and goes out of his way to respect his point of view, even when Carrington’s actions are dangerous. They treat him the way Nikki sees him — as “a kid with a new toy” — and chalk up his misdeeds to exhaustion and an excess of enthusiasm. At the end of the film, in Scott’s radio report of the incident to Anchorage, he notes that Carrington is “recovering from injuries sustained in the battle” — a technically true but deeply misleading statement. “Atta boy, Scotty,” one of the men says behind him, and we must assume he speaks for everybody.

A lesser film would have been much less subtle with this relationship; we would no doubt have had had the military men complaining loudly about Carrington, shaking their heads and wondering whose side he was really on. It’s to Lederer and Hecht’s credit that the military men are as low-key as they are depicted here.

This film was enormously influential; a whole slew of filmmakers including Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante and John Carpenter cited The Thing as having a big impact on them as kids. Stephen King wrote extensively about it as well in his book of essays Danse Macabre.  The film was commonly referred to simply as The Thing for decades, but it’s now usually referred to as The Thing From Another World in order to distinguish it from Carpenter’s own The Thing (1982) and Matthijs van Heijningen’s prequel to the Carpenter version, confusingly also called The Thing (2011).

While there’s much to admire about the Carpenter version, I found the characters to be rather sour and unlikable, and I never really cared what happened to any of them. The van Heijningen version offered a more interesting set of characters and some clever variations on how to prove one is a human instead of an imposter.  But because it was a prequel, we knew how it was going to end, deflating a good deal of the suspense.

The original is deft and spectacular in its own way: not as cool or cynical as the later versions, but a  taut and suspenseful picture that still packs a wallop. It’s the kind of movie  creature features were made for.

One comment

  1. Undoubtedly one of the best double features broadcast on Horror Incorporated. Only CURSE OF THE DEMON aired on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater.

    Like

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