B&W, 1957, 96/82 mins. / Directed by Jacques Tourneur / Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins / Columbia (MSRP $24.98) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Along with Robert Wise's The Haunting, this atmospheric horror classic from Jacques Tourneur is the most notable offering from the disciples of suggestive horror pioneer Val Lewton, the producer of such gems as Cat People and The Seventh Victim. Here the Lewton principle is applied to a sterling adaptation of "Casting the Runes," a short ghost story by M.R. James and skillfully embellished here with additional characters and situations which never betray the tale's literate approach.

Professional skeptic Dr. Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England for a conference on psychology and the paranormal, where he encounters his colleague's niece, Joanna Harrington (Gun Crazy's Peggy Cummins). Distraught over the death of her uncle who died under violent and mysterious circumstances, Joanna believes dark forces may be at work. The chief practitioner of evil appears to be Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), an aristocratic dabbler in the occult who resides with his mother at a remote country estate. Holden scoffs at Karswell's contention that the supernatural is a real, powerful entity, even after Karswell craftily passes to Holden a strange runic parchment which marks him for certain death. As uncanny events accumulate and Holden learns that he only has three days left to live, he and Joanna race against time to unlock the secrets behind Karswell's demonic plans.

Though still obscure by mainstream cinema standards, Curse of the Demon has acquired a solid fanbase among the horror crowd since the 1970s and is now regarded as one of our most significant horror classics. Obviously its impact on viewers since the matinee monster movie age has been significant, with the film turning up in pop culture references ranging from The Rocky Horror Show to Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love. No mere matinee programmer, this is one of the classiest and most intelligent terror films around, even with the presence of a controversial demon (a combination of puppetry and a truly horrific monster make up concoction) which may or may not betray the Lewton aesthetic, depending on which accounts one chooses to believe. In any case it's a crackerjack monster design, but the film has bigger scares up its sleeve on both an intellectual and visceral level. One hypnotism scene offers a wonderfully orchestrated jolt, and Andrews' eerie encounters alone in forests, empty hallways, and desolate farmhouses evoke a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere. The production design by Ken Adam (who notably did many of the James Bond films) is an effective blend of British antiquity and striking modernism, especially in a subdued but effective library sequence. Though not the most consistent of directors, Tourneur operates at full throttle with this film and keeps events moving at a fever pitch.

Columbia's DVD offers both the extended British cut of the film (under its original title, Night of the Demon), which has circulated with the U.S. title sequence attached through the home video and repertory theater circuit for years, along with the long unseen shorter U.S. cut which truncates much of Karswell's character development (and his mother's as well). The film's moderate 1.66:1 framing has usually fared well on video anyway, but the more generous widescreen presentation here adds subtly to the little visual tricks Tourneur plays on his audience. (The film usually screens at 1.75:1 theatrically, at least with U.S. prints, but the more spacious headroom here is welcome.) While both cuts are certainly enough to justify this disc, it's odd that Columbia didn't see fit to include any ancillary materials -- not even the theatrical trailer, which has appeared on numerous public domain compilations.

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