The age-old question of whether to show the monster or not has confounded filmmakers since the antediluvian silent era. For example: Should THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS emerge full blown from the head of “Zeus” within the first five minutes of the film, or should there be a suspenseful build-up offering glimpses of a “cantilevered dorsal fin,” a set of jagged teeth and possibly the remains of a stomped victim?
Ponder if you will the case of director Jacques Tourneur. The film that put Tourneur on the pedestal of great horror auteurs was his first film for RKO producer Val Lewton: CAT PEOPLE. [Read our earlier flashback feature on that classic here.] While the concept of “suggested horror” is often credited to Lewton solely, it is Tourneur who actually directed the Lewton-produced classics CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN.
Most notorious of Tourneur’s solo efforts was CURSE OF THE DEMON (aka NIGHT OF THE DEMON), which many consider a strong B-movie thriller, but can also be viewed as an intellectual discourse on paranormal beliefs and scientific skepticism. Lest we bore you, there is a monster — a great medieval creature born from the woodcuts of a thousand monkish nightmares, all teeth and claws, an unrepentant hell-spawn.
Based on the short story “Casting the Runes,” the film pits Julian Karswell, sorcerer and master of the blackest magic (played with relish by Neil McGinnis), against an American pragmatic debunker, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews).
The film wastes no time setting up its own nightmarish reality, as a colleague of Holden is fleeing from unseen force of preternatural terror; the trees bend and crack as an unseen menace rips a forest to shreds. It is all Lewtonian shadowplay, sound effects and Clifford Parker’s chilling score until we see it — arguably one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, whose snarling visage is more than familiar to collectors of vintage monster mags. The demon reappears at the end of the film to make short work of our hero… that is, unless Holden can pass the runic death lure back to Karswell.
When the film was originally released, Tourneur was said to have been pleased with the finished product, but in a series of later interviews claimed he never wanted to show the titular creature, preferring inference to hard reality.
“The only monster I did — and this is how I wanted to do the whole thing — was the scene in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by a cloud,” the director said in an interview. “Then I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom — did I see it or not? People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw.”
The construction of the suspenseful scenes indicates that Tourneur intended to show something, and he had clearly indicated to the special effects designer to follow carefully the look of an “authentic” 3,400 year old book on demonology. Part dragon, part hominid — horror historian William K. Everson called the titular terror “such a lulu that it lives up to its fearsome descriptions of it.”
Yet, the point of the film is that such horrors actually exist, and our conscious mind must deny their very existence in order to remain sane. “There are some things it is better not to know…”