NIGHT OF THE DEMON : [8/10] : aka Curse of the Demon : USA (US/UK) 1957 : Jacques TOURNEUR : 95 mins
Well up to the high standard of his 1940s work for low-budget Hollywood producer Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, etc), Tourneur's adaptation of M R James' deliciously understated short-story chiller Casting the Runes deserves its enduring reputation as one of British cinema's most satisfying journeys into the supernatural.
Though filmed entirely in and around London, Night of the Demon was a UK-US co-production – hence the casting of an American 'name' in the lead role. In an otherwise notably strong cast, Dana Andrews is somewhat leaden as Dr John Holden, debunker of all things supposedly 'paranormal' whose latest target is the Aleister Crowley-like cult leader Dr Karswell (Niall MacGinniss). But as Holden gradually comes to realise, Karswell's powers turn out to be genuine – a fact the audience is aware of from the very first scene, in which one of his foes has a fatal encounter with a gigantic fire-demon.
While it's possible – at a severe stretch – to initially read this prologue as a hallucination, there's never much doubt that the demon, and the rest of Karswell's dark arts, are emphatically real. Charles Bennett's script thus takes a very different tack from James's tale, in which pretty much everything is a matter of sinister implication and ambiguity. This isn't necessarily a problem, however, as Tourneur and Bennett very skilfully 'open up' Casting the Runes into an entertaining, exciting (and somewhat Hitchcockian) blend of horror, suspense and eccentric English comedy.
Though the setpiece demon scenes still pack a visceral punch – the climax makes especially good use of what were, for their time, very advanced (and, as a body is ripped apart, startlingly graphic) special effects – it's the quieter moments that linger longest in the memory: Holden becoming claustrophobically delusional among the long corridors of his hotel; a spooky visit to a family of Satanists in an isolated farmhouse; the incongruously bouncy rendition of 'Cherry Ripe' that precedes a traumatic seance.
Several sequences recall Val Guest's 1955 Hammer sci-fi opus The Quatermass eXperiment - in which Brian Donlevy was the trans-Atlantic 'visitor' stepping into the professorial brogues – especially an intense hypnosis sequence in which a farmer (Brian Wilde), shellshocked after a near-miss with the fire-demon, has his memories probed with disastrous effect. And it's also valid to see Tourneur's film in the light of his Lewton films, and also as a foreshadowing of a later Hammer production, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1967) – in which Charles Gray played the Crowley surrogate ('Mocata') - Night of the Demon scores by establishing and maintaining its own particular atmosphere: stealthy, pervasive menace bracketed with fill-tilt rock-the-house demon-on-the-rampage action.
12th July, 2005
Launched at the Bradford's 2005 Fantastic Film Weekend alongside special showings of Night of the Demon (see above) and Casting the Runes (see below), Beating the Devil is an exhaustive, impressively enthusiastic account of how Tourneur's mini-masterpiece made it to the screen. Earnshaw seems to have tracked down every surviving member of the cast and crew for interview and, while some of their comments could perhaps have benefited from tighter editing, they collectively throw an illuminating light on every facet of the film's pre-production, production and ongoing afterlife.
Critics and audiences have long debated the wisdom or otherwise of showing the eponymous demon, rather than leaving it to the subjective imagination (the favoured route both of Casting the Runes author M R James and Tourneur's old boss Val Lewton) – and Earnshaw devotes much of his book to the pros and cons of the issue. He delves into the exact circumstances of how the crucial decision was made, chronicling the numerous disputes between the two officially credited scriptwriters, Charles Bennett and the film's brash American producer Hal E Chester (and that shared screenwriting credit is, a predictably controversial affair.)
There's certainly a ready audience for a book on this subject: over the decades Night of the Demon has gradually accumulated a legion of fans – the BBC2 'Horror Double Bill' showing in June 1980 (alongside The Ghoul) seems to have been particularly influential – and Earnshaw, for all his research and careful exposition, never loses the passionate partisanship of the die-hard fan. "Nothing since has ever come near it," he states in his introduction – and while his zeal is infectious, that might be pushing things just a little far.
Readers shouldn't come to Beating the Devil expecting a sober-sided, scholarly deconstruction of the film or its contexts – as Earnshaw himself is quick to point out in his introduction, "this is not a dry academic text." That can wait for what is surely an overdue BFI Modern Classic – which Earnshaw himself would seem well-positioned to pen, if he's happy to revisit terrain he's already covered here. An obvious must-read for any admirer of the picture, Beating the Devil is also an accessible and entertaining look at how the very different creative personnel involved in film-making shape the finished product. To contradict the closing sentiment of Bennett's script – sometimes it's better to know…
12th July, 2005
CASTING THE RUNES [TV] : [7/10]
UK 1979 : writer Clive EXTON; director Lawrence Gordon CLARK : 50 mins*
Though much less well known than enduring cult-movie favourite Night of the Demon (see above), Clive Exton and Lawrence Gordon Clark's is, despite some radical liberties having been taken with the text, rather more faithful to the M R James story on which both are based – it's therefore appropriate that Exton and Clark retain James's title rather than coming up with their own.
Apart from being updated to snowy late-seventies Leeds (shades of Radio On in the pre-Thatcher 'discontented' bleakness of the era), the main change is that the main character has switched from being a man (as in James and Night of the Demon) to a woman. Small-screen favourite Jan Francis – fresh from the set of Hollywood's big-budget Dracula extravaganza starring Frank Langella – plays a successful TV documentarist whose most recent work is an expose of supernatural 'fraudsters'. These supposed 'charlatans' include the sinister Dr Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson), who promptly cooks up a ghastly plan of revenge…
The makers of Casting the Runes are clearly familiar with Night of the Demon - they tip the wink to Tourneur during a scene in an artist's studio where a maquette of that film's legendary demon is visible in the corner of the screen. But they sensibly try for a totally different approach – perhaps because of budgetary considerations, they end up with something closer to James's mood of enigmatic insinuation.
The financial limitations were clearly tight – two of the attempts at special effects (a 'monstrous' spider lurking in a bed, and a hallucinatory image of Karswell's laughing, disembodied head in front of a spinning globe) will provoke more giggles than goosepimples. And the two built-in commercial breaks don't help Clark and Exton's in their attempt to create and sustain a mood of brooding tension and impending doom – even if the play is seen on video or DVD today without the actual adverts themselves.
But Exton's script is a fine example of creative endeavour thriving under arduous conditions – Casting the Runes is a mature, intelligent, well-acted chiller that succeeds in breathing new life into what would have been, for many viewers, a familiar story. Exton's most remarkable achievement, however, is his finale – he crafts in ingenious (and thriftily economic) double twist that actually manages to improve on the conclusions of both the James story and Tourneur's film, and whose morally troubling implications resonate long after the credits (shakily) roll.
12th July, 2005
THE EXORCIST II – THE HERETIC : [6/10] : USA 1977 : John BOORMAN : 117-8 mins
Has there ever been a more vexatious and generally troublesome series of films than The Exorcist and its sequels? William Friedkin's 1973 original had a notoriously "cursed" production, and so severe was the creative strife behind the scenes that two different versions are now in circulation – Friedkin's edit joined by the cut presented in accordance with writer William Peter Blatty's wishes and known as in the US as The Exorcist – The Version You've Never Seen (a title which is a right old mouthful) and in the UK as The Exorcist - Director's Cut (a title which is just plain wrong).
Perhaps still smarting from his experiences with Friedkin, Blatty himself directed the film version of Legion, the book he wrote as a sequel to his novel The Exorcist. Retitled The Exorcist III, this immediately ran into bother when the studio realised there weren't any exorcisms in the movie. Their solution was to shoot extra footage featuring Nicol Williamson, which was then shoehorned the picture's climax. More recently, Paul Schrader's prequel met even more severe disfavour with the moneymen, who hired Renny Harlin to come up with an entirely new film – and we now have both The Exorcist : The Beginning and Dominion : Prequel to the Exorcist knocking about.
But these travails are really rather small beer alongside the most painful episode in the whole Exorcist saga, John Boorman's The Exorcist II : The Heretic. As David Thomson eyecatchingly puts it in his Biographical Dictonary of Film:
Very long in the making, and apparently beset with occult hazards
(including a strange illness that nearly killed Boorman), it was
laughed at by audiences, recut and withdrawn. Neither [Warner
Brothers] nor the box office wanted it, and it is scarcely coherent.
The film has received a thorough kicking from critics ever since – some of whom have gone to exhaustive lengths chronicling its shortcomings. The BBC's Mark Kermode regularly and passionately describes it as "the worst film ever made," though this claim must be seen in the context of the fact that he regularly and passionately describes Friedkin's Exorcist as "the best film ever made." Not everyone has been so harsh, however. Thomson goes on to admit that "it has extraordinary moments of a metaphysical scope that reminded us of the director's lasting wish to film Lord of the Rings and the Arthurian legends."
Coming from the man responsible for Point Blank and Deliverance, The Exorcist – The Heretic is undoubtedly a severe disappointment. But it's nowhere near as dire as its reputation would suggest, and is certainly several cuts above Boorman's much later The Tailor of Panama. Admittedly, the script is a right old mess – Jesuit priest Fr Lamont (Richard Burton) is instructed by his church superiors to investigate the death of Fr Merrin (Max Von Sydow) during the exorcism of Regan McNeil (Linda Blair), events chronicled in Friedkin's The Exorcist.
Lamont's quest brings him into contact with Regan – now a sexually blossoming young adult – and also sends him on a bizarre, hallucinatory journey to Africa where he meets a scientist named Kokumo (James Earl Jones). It turns out that Kokumo was the child who, long ago, was exorcised by Fr Merrin. But what does all this have to do with locusts? Specifically, "the good locust"?
You probably won't be entirely certain of anything to do with The Heretic, even after the picture's histrionic finale – a clumsily tacked-on rock-the-house (or rather wreck-the-house) spectacular in which Regan's former nanny Sharon (Kitty Winn) meets a messy and overdue end. Overdue because (a) Sharon's character is very badly written, (b) she's dressed in howlingly dated seventies fashions and (c) Winn delivers a grating, stilted performance – perhaps forgiveable given the script's limitations.
Anyone in search of good acting in The Exorcist II will be sorely disappointed, despite the presence of heavyweights like Burton, Jones and Oscar winner Louise Fletcher. The latter is conspicuously wasted as Regan's therapist Gene, who spends most of the picture tinkering with a weird electronic gizmo known as the "synchronizer". Like much else in the film, this high-tech contraption makes very little sense.
But Boorman – who is reckoned to have essentially co-written the script with the film's "creative consultant" Rospo Pallenberg – is clearly not at all bothered about "making sense" in the normal, rational Hollywood terms. If nothing else, he's to be commended for trying so hard to come up with something so very different from Blatty and Friedkin's expertly constructed but clangingly mechanical thrill-ride.
Whereas The Exorcist is strong on thrills but low on 'soul', The Heretic goes in a very different direction. It's undeniably and frustratingly clunky at times – but there's a bizarre spiritual dimension to the enterprise that gives it an oddball atmosphere and integrity of its own: much closer to, say, Boorman's dreamily mystical version of Excalibur, or David Lynch's Dune (which so outraged fans of Frank Herbert's source novels), or Werner Herzog's radical take on Nosferatu.
These are examples of directors who see cinema not as a storytelling medium but as a semi-pagan rite: and while it's very easy to knock Boorman's hippy-trippy-dippy self-indulgence, his work before and since demands that audiences and critics should at least attempt to see The Heretic on its own outlandish terms and emphatically not in relation to either The Exorcist or any other example of mainstream 1970s horror.
Boorman's attempt to breathe life into Blatty's potboilerish original may be unwise, perhaps even foolish. But at times – the innovative locust sequences in particular – The Heretic quite literally takes off and breaks through into surreal, poetic, mind-bending new territory a universe away from the head-spinning, peasoup-hurling crassness of earlier, more 'coherent' and conservatively conventional horror blockbusters.
13th July, 2005
All films seen at NMPFT, Bradford (UK), 22nd May 2005 – public shows (Fantastic Films Weekend).
*(Casting the Runes : cinema projection of one-off play in three sections, from the series Plays for Pleasure)