This week: Reviews of three old-school horror movies. All are on Martin Scorsese’s list of 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time; completely coincidental that I watched them recently.
Night of the Demon (1957), also known as Curse of the Demon, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, and Niall MacGinnis
A couple of weeks ago I found out that episodes of Harlan Ellison’s Watching are available on YouTube. If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison, he’s very opinionated. When the Sci-Fi Channel first began broadcast back in 1992-ish, “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” was a 3-5 minute segment at the end of their sci-fi related news show. (This was obviously long before it was Syfy and when it still had predominantly speculative fiction programming.) During episode two, Harlan relates a list of near-forgotten gems. One of those is Night of the Demon.
Based on the M.R. James story “Casting the Runes,” Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is cursed on the eve of a conference to expose a witch cult while investigating the death of a fellow skeptic. Andrews plays Holden with unexpected dry wit, but it’s Niall MacGinnis that steals the show acting-wise. I’m not sure I’ve encountered too many villains as truly menacing as MacGinnis’s Karswell. And he does it with subtlety. No scenery chewing occurs. It’s also a wonderfully shot movie. There are some beautiful parallels between modern architecture and pagan ruins. The only place the movie falters is in showing the demon. The effect isn’t very good and it undercuts the psychological aspect of the plot. As it happens there was quite a bit of controversy about showing the demon. The wrong choice was made, but still a worthwhile film.
The Haunting (1963), Directed by Robert Wise, Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson
The Haunting has a couple of things in common with Night of the Demon. Both are based on classic works of suspense and horror. While I haven’t read “Casting the Runes” yet and can’t vouch for it, The Haunting is based quite faithfully on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a frequent re-read for me. Plot-wise, both play with the notion of psychology vs. the supernatural as Eleanor, a woman with a great number of personal demons, navigates her independence and a very bad house. The Haunting is also shot in black and white. While lacking the vistas of London and rural England, Wise shoots Hill House from skewed angles that make rooms unfamiliar every time we see them; not forgetting the very inventive and affective special effects.
The Changeling (1980), Directed by Peter Medak, Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas.
This is a movie that my friend Tania introduced to me in college. I hadn’t seen it in quite a while, but I remembered it being one of those great old-style ghost-story-mysteries that seem to be prevalent in the 1980s. What I had forgotten is how down-right unsettling this movie is.
After the death of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident, composer John Russel (George C. Scott) accepts a teaching position in Seattle and rents a historical Victorian mansion that houses the secrets of an influential family. George C. Scott is so likeable in this movie. He’s heartbroken and struggling to get on with life and the escalating disturbances in the house seem incredibly unfair. Yet, Russel is intrigued and, well, chivalrous. He takes it as his duty to figure out this mystery instead of simply moving out of the house. The very end of the movie is maybe a tad bit over the top, but the meat of the haunting is disturbing as only a child ghost can be. I watched this movie on my computer and listened to it through headphones. There’s a whole level of eerie noises that I had never noticed when watching in a dorm room.