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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
Monster a Go Go
Synopsis: A Mercury space capsule returns to Earth far off course, landing in the Illinois countryside. Dr. Chris Manning (Peter Thompson) and Dr. Steve Connors (Philip Morton) are dispatched by NASA to recover the vehicle. They find that it was badly damaged upon re-entry and contaminated with massive amounts of radiation. The astronaut, Frank Douglas (Henry Hite), is nowhere to be found.
Before long, reports of a ten-foot tall creature wearing a silver suit begin to filter in. The thing is wandering across the countryside, leaving bodies and destruction in its wake. Manning and Brent quickly realize that this is Douglas, irradiated and apparently mutated into some kind of monster.
Dr. Conrad Logan and his assistant, Dr. Nora Kramer (Losi Brooks), try to work out what has happened to Douglas. They determine that the emits a field of deadly radiation around it that extends out about 10 feet. The field is gradually growing, and if the creature isn’t stopped the field will grow to hundreds of feet in diameter. This is especially troubling since the monster is making its way toward Chicago.
Dr. Logan manages to capture the creature and gives it doses of an anti-radiation drug. But it breaks loose and heads toward the city.
The civil defense forces manage to corner the thing in the sewers of Chicago. They pursue it, but what can they do, even if they manage to corner it?
Comments: The story behind this odd little movie is far more interesting than the movie itself. In 1961 would-be director Bill Rebane shot about 40 minutes’ worth of footage with the intent of making a Quatermass-esque horror movie about a crashed space capsule and its sole inhabitant, a man who has mutated into a 10-foot tall radioactive monster. The monster goes on a rampage through the countryside, leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. A gaggle of Air Force investigators try to track it down.
This scenario isn’t terribly original, but it’s workable enough for a low-budget horror flick.
Unfortunately, what Rebane put in the can was awful. He simply had no talent as a filmmaker, on any level: no concept of how to tell a story or build narrative tension, no ear for dialogue, no talent for coaxing good performances out of actors, no knack for composition, no skill at editing. The scenes he filmed are poorly staged master shots, loaded down with dull and excruciating dialogue. Every scene is slack, with little at stake and nothing to propel the narrative forward. Eventually Rebane ran out of money and the project was abandoned.
A few years later cult director Herschell Gordon Lewis came on the scene. Lewis didn’t have much more talent than Rebane, but he did possess a keen eye for exploitation. He also knew how to economize. Lewis needed another feature to fill out a double bill with his hillbilly drive-in flick Moonshine Mountain. He bought Rebane’s footage, shot some new scenes with gyrating teenagers, added his own over-the-top narration and rock-n-roll-flavored soundtrack, and managed to cobble together an almost-70-minute feature that he titled Monster a Go Go (the title doesn’t really fit the movie, but I bet it looked good on a drive-in marquee).
Lewis was a successful ad man who had produced a number of schlocky but profitable drive-in movies, stuff like 2000 Maniacs (1964), Blood Feast (1963) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). He also produced nudies early in his career, and later made soft-core exploitation fare such as Linda and Abiline (1969) and The Ecstasies of Women (1969).
There was little chance that Rebane’s footage could be turned into anything entertaining, but Lewis makes a fair effort, adding some T and A scenes as various partying teenagers wander off into the woods and get cooked by the monster. He also shot an ending that made good use of Civil Defense emergency vehicles, though it doesn’t add much in the way of suspense.
Is Monster a Go Go abad movie? Yes. Thanks for asking. Is it unwatchable? No, but it’s much more of a slog than perennial “worst movie of all time ” nominees like Plan Nine From Outer Space and Robot Monster. Those movies are terrible in their way, but at least they’re lively. This one seems determined to bore the audience to death and it requires a heroic effort to keep your eyes fixed on the screen.
The marketing campaign for this one is notable because it’s so shot through with an irony that seems better suited to the cynical 1970s. “An astronaut went up — and a ‘guess what’ came down!” the one-sheet chortles. Inviting the audience to snicker at your movie was kind of a new thing in 1965. In our cynical, post MST3K world, it’s become a lot more common.