Like many a strange theater kid, one of the films that defined my adolescence was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While I imagine most are drawn to that film for its raw sexual energy, I was drawn instead to its roots in B horror movies. I bring this up because one of my goals in life was to watch every movie that was referenced in the film’s opening number, “Science Fiction Double Feature.” A year ago I – during last year’s Halloween, in fact – I finally tracked down the last film I needed to see from that number: The Night of the Demon, also called Curse of the Demon here in the U.S.
And holy shit you guys, it is fucking good.
It’s not a flawless film by any means. There’s a casual chauvinism in the way the male lead treats the female lead that is really awful and throws you out of the film every time it rears its ugly head (usually by some smug, condescending comment the male lead makes that… I guess is what passed for flirting back then?), and the movie isn’t exactly friendly to atheists with its whole “There are demons! Quit being narrow minded about it, scientists!” schtick that gets thrown out whenever someone questions whether or not demons are involved in this demon mystery case they’re solving. If you’re put off by that, I don’t blame you.
If you can let it slide, however, you have a movie with great atmosphere, wonderful tension, beautiful (and spookeriffic!) cinematography, and one of the best fucking villains I’ve ever seen in a demon movie.
The demon to whom this night and curse belongs to isn’t the primary antagonist. The movie works in the style of medieval demons – the kind that are summoned by exorcists or witches under very strict rules to do very specific tasks, and which fuck up your shit if you screw the spell up. There’s none of that possessing certain people and fucking with drawers or closing doors randomly shit that modern demons do. You summon him, he kills a guy, and the deal is done.
But holy hell is he a creepy monster, appearing out of the black night sky in a whirling ball of smoke and flame, his misshapen body sliding in and out of the obscurity of shadow with every movement. The black and white really enhances the effect, turning the simply props and puppets the filmmakers used into an incredibly eerie visual. It’s so creative and medieval that it fills me with resentment for today’s “Eh let’s just put a gray chick in a dirty nightgown on the screen” style of representing demons in film.
However, as I said before, the demon is not the main villain of the movie. For all his insane creepiness, he’s little more than a hired thug, the muscle to a far more terrifying villain: Karswell the warlock. Karswell has used the magic granted to him by his demonic servants to build himself a small empire out in the small English town he lives in, forming a cult of worshippers who do his bidding while is fortune grows and grows. This scheme relies on two things: first, his followers must believe in his power to destroy them, and second, the outside world must not know of the power he wields, or the wicked deeds he has perpetrated. It’s a hard balance he has to maintain – if he strikes too much fear with his demon’s knack for carnage, the authorities will get suspicious, but if he lays too low, his followers flees. This puts him in conflict with the male lead, a psychologist who has come to debunk his abilities as a warlock.
You’d expect the guy to ham everything up, but Karswell isn’t that kind of villain. No, he’s more subtle than that. He doesn’t act smug or gloat, but rather treats others with respect when talking to them. Karswell is genuinely polite and affable, saying everything in the most logical and straightforward manner possible. He tells the protagonist that he wants the investigation to be called off, and that if the protagonist doesn’t comply that there will be conflict. While Karswell tricks the protagonist into taking a slip of paper with runes on it (which is required to make the demon target the right person), he freely tells his victim exactly what he did and what the victim needs to escape. He’s a blackmailer and a murderer, sure, but he’s so polite about it, and the result is a villain that is more terrifying than most knife wielding maniacs. With a slasher, you know when the attack is coming – but Karswell can go from polite conversation to condemning you to a grisly death without you ever knowing the difference.
In many ways Karswell has more in common with the devils and tempters in literature than his demon does. He speaks the truth (albeit selectively), treats others politely, follows a strict set of rules, upholds his promises when he can, and still manages to cause a colossal amount of pain and devastation without even a moment’s guilt. The actor playing him is terrific as well, and every scene with him is just a gem.
So if you’re in for an old school scare, track this movie down. It puts you right in the mood for ghosts, goblins, demons and murderers – pure, spooktackular bliss. Just don’t let anyone pass you any strange slips of paper.