“You could learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark until we tell them it’s not so. Maybe we’ve been fooling them.”
In 1904, M. R. James published “Casting the Runes,” one of the best ghost stories of the 20th century. In 1958, Jacques Tourneur directed a film of that story, called Curse of the Demon (also known as Night of the Demon in a longer British version) starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins. Both remain classics of their genres to this day. The story follows similar lines in both book and movie, though the different mediums call for differing treatments. An occult fanatic feels slighted by the establishment and sets about destroying those he believes are responsible for his disparagement. In both film and book, he passes a parchment on which he has cast a spell with runes to his unsuspecting victim. If the victim cannot give the parchment to someone else who voluntarily accepts it within a certain timeframe, the recipient dies a horrible death at the hands of a supernatural entity conjured by the rune-spell. Preferably, the victim will return it to the psycho who gave it to him, thereby protecting the innocent. The evil man’s name is Karswell. The demon is never named.
Though not as well-known as the work of fellow writer/academics J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, James’ stories possess no less intellectual rigor. He served as the head of Cambridge, then Eton, for many years, so his cerebral prowess cannot be questioned. His ghost stories were collected in “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary,” and “More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary,” as well as a few other volumes. The titles alone reveal James’ affinity for the antique, the obscure, the intellectual, and the ancient.
James was a master of combining that panicked terror found in nightmares with the escalating tension contained in anxiety dreams. He remembered very well the fears of childhood, and how those fears morphed in adulthood, but still remained within the psyche. Often his stories deal with some terrible thing, slumbering for eons, which is reawakened by accident by some bumbling scholar. The unwitting academic faces increasing horror as evil closes in on him. There is always a chase scene in a James ghost story. There is also always the deep spinal cold that one might feel when being pursued by something beyond normal reality. James’ work comprises both the erudite and the visceral.
The film tries to play on that nightmare/anxiety dream aspect by contrasting it with the cold rationality of a skeptic. The film opens on Prof. Harrington, Karswell’s first victim. He drives hell-for-leather through a nightmarish nocturnal English countryside, clearly trying to get away from something that is pursuing him. He does not succeed. Later, Harrington’s American colleague Dr. Holden, played by Dana Andrews, arrives and initially tries to dismiss the circumstances surrounding Harrington’s death with science. Andrews’ well-worn face perfectly encapsulates his sensible, grounded-in-reality stance. Over time, and with a little help from Harrington’s niece, Holden realizes that he too has received a parchment, and that he is in grave danger. Harrington failed to return the parchment to Karswell in time to save himself. Holden’s race to turn the witchcraft back on the warlock comprises the rest of the film.
A funny Alice-through-the-looking-glass moment occurs when Dana Andrews’ Dr. Holden comments on how cold the London weather is. Peggy Cummins’ British character, Joanna Harrington, used to the climate, states quite definitively that it is hot, quite hot. Clearly perceptions differ on both sides of the pond as to what constitutes cold and warm, just as perceptions differ as to whether something that occurs is due to natural or supernatural phenomena.
M. R. James was a master of two facets of what we could today consider completely different genres of horror. He populated his ghost stories not only with the supernatural, but also with human evil. In “Casting the Runes,” the horror stems not only from the supernatural fiend which threatens the protagonist, but also from the evil man who summons that ancient demon to take revenge for the man’s slighted ambitions. Most horror is clearly divided into one of the two areas; very few authors or moviemakers have managed to combine the two effectively. We have slasher flicks, and we have supernatural horror, and while Freddie and other scary evildoers may apparently bridge them both, always one or the other genre predominates.
Both the story and the film tell the tale of the hapless skeptic, the unsuspecting member of the establishment who dismisses Karswell’s status and power over the supernatural world and suffers as a result. James, a leading academic of his time, knew well the community of which he wrote. The character of Karswell is almost certainly based upon early 20th century cult leader and pariah, Aleister Crowley, a contemporary of James’ who called himself and was known by others as “The Beast” because of his sexual and political proclivities.
Karswell exacts his revenge upon the superior people whose learned achievements and scholarly arrogance make him look bad, by passing them a parchment paper on which runes are inscribed. By this means, he conjures up a demon who takes fatal retribution against those his master perceives have injured him. The same plot device, with the gender of the principals reversed, appears in Sam Raimi’s 2009 film, Drag Me to Hell. In the James story, the doom unwinds over three months; in both films, that time frame shortens to three days, a concession to modern sensibilities and the need to keep the action moving in a movie.
The demon inflicts extreme pain and suffering, and a terrible death. But Karswell engages in a different kind of sadism altogether. He torments his victims with foreknowledge of their deaths and the weight of their impending doom. Karswell really enjoys torturing his prey in the intervening three days or months between the casting of his curse and his victims’ demise. More importantly, though, he is cruel to children. That may be the ultimate indicator of the extent of his evil. The demon is limited to carrying out the bidding of his human master, and must accede to his summoner’s wishes. Karswell, on the other hand, does evil because he likes it. Youth and innocence provide no protection from him.
A slight difference exists between the movie and the story. In the movie, Karswell decides he must prove his power to the visiting skeptic. In so doing, he demonstrates a complete disregard for the well-being of some children he invited to his estate for a party. For the party, he has dressed up like a clown. And he makes a terrible, terrifying clown. To modern eyes, this brings up all the negative associations clowns have accumulated through the decades. However, then as well as now, there lurks in the background the frightening specter of the adult who disguises himself as something innocuous in order to harm children. To show off his supernatural abilities to Dr. Holden, Karswell conjures up a storm, which is so severe that it causes the children to stampede in their rush to get away from the terrifying weather. He shows no concern whatsoever with whether the children are injured, by the storm or by their own cascading fear and panic. That’s probably all that audiences of the 1950s could tolerate by way of deliberate frightening of children. In contrast, in the James story, Karswell deliberately frightens a bunch of local children out of their wits in order to keep them from trespassing on his estate. Karswell offers to present a magic lantern show, something like a PowerPoint presentation of the day, to the village children. This seems to be a most generous and charitable gesture. However, the presentation Karswell gives consists of the most frightening and nightmarish images. In these images, children very like those who live in the village are shown being chased on his property by something so terrible that surely death or damnation or both follow their capture by this beast. As in the film, the children stampede, running willy-nilly out of fear. It’s a very effective means of boundary control. It’s the most effective security system against children imaginable.
Karswell’s casual callousness to the well-being of children in the film was enough to alert audiences of the 1950s to his vile nature. In the story, Karswell’s actions seem particularly extreme for the Edwardian era in which the story is set. Nowadays, we generally require more overt cruelty. However, Karswell’s mental sadism is evident in both film and story as he takes great delight in his victims’ fear and distress, both children and adults, especially as it escalates.
The movie was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a protégé of early horror movie pioneer Val Lewton. It shows in his incredibly beautiful camera work, including several exceptional shots of both interior and exterior architecture. The composition of the shot of the interior of the library, visited by both Karswell and Dana Andrews, is breathtaking. The photography of the hotels, hotel hallways, airport interior, and building exteriors stand as some of the best of the era. Such elegant photography rarely graces a lower budget horror movie of that time.
Tourneur shot the movie without ever showing an image of the demonic presence which chases the helpless men. Unfortunately, the producers were uncomfortable with such an unconventional approach, and added in some rather cheap looking special effects without the director’s permission or even knowledge. One must watch the film imagining the effect it would have if one never saw the evil that chases people throughout the story. Such a change would shift the movie from a B-movie to a compelling tale of psychological horror. I love to close my eyes and imagine how the film would look if the audience never was shown an image of the demon. It would elevate the film to a level equal with “The Turn of the Screw,” and the film of that story, The Innocents, Henry James’ (no relation) spectacular ghost story in which it is never clear if there are actual ghosts or mere psychological deterioration going on. Nothing is ever as frightening as the unknown, and the unseen. The imagination fills in all blanks with the most terrifying visions.
To kill a man for failing to accept an egomaniac’s self-proclaimed stature seems like a radical solution to a problem of perception or reputation. To frighten and risk the safety of a bunch of children in order to demonstrate one’s power, or just to keep them from crossing your yard, seems even more severe. In contrast, the demon merely shows up and does what he is told, rather like a soldier on duty. Dealing with an ambitious, amoral man who cares nothing for the welfare and well-being of others represents the kind of difficulty that can arise in an everyday, real-life situation; many films are based around just such a problem. The demon represents a fearsome supernatural force which is beyond the ken of normal reality. Both cause trepidation. Both cause death. Together they are the worst of all possible fears: the anxiety-inducing dread of dealing with horrible, murderous people, plus the nightmarish feeling of being at the mercy of some great malevolent entity. Which is more evil? How about the two together? Both story and film successfully incorporate each kind of fear, one with images, and one with words.
Both book and film will thrill anyone looking for a macabre combination of supernatural horror and human based evil. I enjoy them equally. The story contains more of James’ antiquarian flavor which makes for a more atmospheric work. The film remains true to the spirit of the story, if not the letter. Either provides a chilling thrill for this Halloween season.