Night of the Demon (1957) Starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins

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There’s not a more fitting place to start a horror film set in England than with Stonehenge, those relics of old that we can easily imagine being hexed with pagan cults and rituals summoning some unknown evil into the world.

Jacques Tourneur is no stranger to horror films and Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon in the U.S.) has its most obvious roots in his work at RKO with Val Lewton and the traditions hearkening back to the days of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. It’s stellar company to keep indeed. What hasn’t changed is filmmaking that surpasses its budget to create something genuinely unsettling through the generation of eerie atmospherics.

Except, one could contend that this production was much more tumultuous thanks to the ongoing struggles between producer Hal E. Chester on one side and Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett on the other. In their estimation, the man supplying them with funds, was compromising the integrity of their vision and what they saw in the script.

One particular point of disagreement was in the actual incarnation of the devilish spirits, which take on an actual form rather than simply being implied or left fully to the imagination. The creation of a windstorm conjured up on the spot was another instigator as Tourneur demanded the use of airplane engines instead of electric fans. It got so bad lead actor Dana Andrews even threatened to quit if there was further interference with his director’s work.

Even in spite of these forms of strife going on behind the scenes, the picture genuinely comes off as a harrowing tale imbued with the ongoing terrors of witch cults and devil worship.

The beauty is when these seemingly supernatural, spiritual, or otherwise questioned forces impart themselves on the real world. The real world is grounded by a skeptical psychologist named Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who is not about to believe in any of that kind of rubbish until he has no choice but to.

You couldn’t have a better and plainly a more blatantly obvious form of opening exposition. A man sleeps on a plane. It’s Dana Andrews and the paper propped over his eyes conveniently shows his picture and bears the headline that a prominent psychologist is about to arrive in England. Behind him, keeping him up needlessly, is Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), a kindergarten teacher. They don’t know it yet but they will be seeing a great deal of each other in the near future.

Certainly people note that Andrew’s career took a tailspin in the 50s due in part to bouts of alcoholism and a changing milieu but if The City Never Sleeps and Night and The Devil are representative of his low budget efforts, then I can’t say I’m too heartbroken. At least his later career gave us a few quality films to relish. At any rate, it still looks like much the same man from Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He’s simply seen more of the world.

Likewise, Peggy Cummins is a winsome heroine and a terribly underrated actress who proves a fine companion for the good doctor. They realize they have both arrived in England much for the same reason, to pay their respects to the late Professor Harrington, who died under mysterious circumstances.

Joanna (Cummins) was his niece and intuition tells her something is gravely wrong with her uncle’s untimely death. Though John is forever the skeptic, he’s nevertheless interested in investigating the research his late mentor was doing, which involved runic symbolism as well as the deceased man’s main rival Dr. Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis).

Taken at face value, Karswell seems a deceptively bubbly chap who fancies being a magician for the local kiddies. There’s an eccentric and ultimately ominous charisma about him, first claiming he conjured up a wind storm and then when he feels slighted, proclaiming John will be dead in three days’ time.

At first, John takes it lightly but strange occurrences that follow involving a parchment paper seem to suggest he is indeed a marked man with an impending threat on his life. If he’s not totally afraid yet then Joanne is certainly worried for him. She talks him into attending a seance with the medium of Karswell’s peculiar mother, bringing even more strange revelations to the table.

The doctor and his colleagues look to use hypnosis on a local named Hobart, caught in a catatonic state of immobility, to try and pry out answers about this foreboding ordeal right in their midst. The doctor even rushes to an outgoing train because he knows who he will find aboard; his last chance to make it out alive.

Ultimately over strong objections, Hal E. Chester won out and got images of the demon inserted into the film. I would wager it compromises the picture but it cannot completely detract from its unnerving nature, weaving together reality and mysticism into a compelling tale of irrefutable doom. There’s a shroud of powerlessness and dread overtaking the frames even as there’s a general sense our heroes are facing something they cannot quite comprehend. That works very much to its favor.

You do get the sense that Chester only saw this project as a fledgling picture to slide easily on a double horror bill. Tourneur, being the genre wizard that he was, knew he could do far more. Night of the Demon, like the finest horror films in the tradition, remains with us, lingering even after the credits have rolled.

4/5 Stars

Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

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Bart has an intense obsession with guns. It’s what his life revolves around. It’s the only thing he wants to do as a boy and the only things he seems to think about. It becomes a problem when he breaks a store window, but during the following hearing, his sister and friends vouch for his character. He would never take a human life or kill. That’s not in his nature.

No matter, it is decided Bart should be sent off to a special preparatory school, and he only returns years later as a grown man recently off a stint in the army.  He’s back in his hometown not quite sure what his future plans will be, but his buddies are glad to see him. They shoot some, drink a few beers, and decide to take a jaunt to the carnival for a night of fun.

Their Bart meets the girls of his dreams. There’s a quality to John Dall that makes Bart into a pure victim of his circumstances. He’s quickly infatuated with the gun slinging and sensuous Peggy, who seems to share his one love. A goofy smile is plastered on his face as he faces off against her in an act of skill. He makes her uneasy and ultimately beats her. 

He gets a job with the carnival and spends as much time as he can with her when he’s not shooting guns. They are fed up with their boss and leave the migrant life behind. Marriage is on their radar, and they live it up with the money they have. But Peggy wants more and she wants to keep living the high life. 

She wants to rob a gas station. It’s one little idea that soon blows way out of proportion. They are holding up banks, gas stations, and any place with money that they can lay their hands on. The pair is fugitives with exploits plastered all over the front pages and roadblocks waiting to stop them up. All the while Bart makes Peggy promise not to shoot anything because he still is totally opposed to killing people. 

It seems like things might end peaceably, except once again the gun-toting lovers are nearly flat broke so Peggy coaxes Bart into one last job to end all jobs. For the first time, despite their planning, just enough goes wrong to nearly botch their mission. Bart drives off and Peggy shoots a guard. He’s not the only one. 

 guncrazy1When Bart finds out, after the fact, he realizes they have just stepped up a level with murder stuck on them. The game is winding down and the only place Bart can turn is his hometown where his sister is. For good reason, she cannot stand Bart or Peggy who she sees as poisoning her brother. And it’s true. Bart seems different now, so paralyzed by fear that he even pulls a gun on his old friends.

The last ditch effort of Bart and Peggy is to literally head for the hills. The dragnet is sent out and the hounds are let loose. They hardly have a chance before dropping from exhaustion in a swamp. They’re trapped and a crazed Peggy looks to shoot it out to the death. But for once Bart breaks with her remembering his friends. It doesn’t help him much.

Gun Crazy is a B-film and yet it is easy to forget because the way Joseph H. Lewis constructed this film is so impressive in its economy. One scene that reflects this so beautifully is the long take from the back seat of the car. The camera does not change positioning and so we see a bank job from the outside, and it only helps to build up greater tension.

 We also have enough time to care about certain characters. We have enough time to see Peggy is really no good. Yet with her keen marksmanship, she is a different shade of femme-fatale who is still as deadly as any of her contemporaries. Along with They Live by Night (1948), this is one of the archetypal Bonnie and Clyde-esque films. Thank goodness this film’s title was changed from Deadly is the Female to the more apt Gun Crazy. That it is. 

4/5 Stars

Gun Crazy (1950) – Film-Noir

Starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins, the film opens with a young boy who is infatuated with guns. After stealing a gun from a hardware store, Bart is sent to reform school even though his friends and sister testify he would never kill a living thing with it. Bart spends some time in the army and finally returns home grown up. He goes to a carnival with old friends and meets a female sharpshooter. She gets him a job and they grow close only to be fired from the carnival. They get married and are happy for awhile but then she gives him a choice. Either they start robbing stores fro money or she will leave him. Reluctantly he agrees and they begin to get a little money robbing stores and gas stations. It is not enough so she convinces him to pull one last job so they can live a content life together. They begin working at a meat packing plant in preparation. The day arrives and they succeed but then Laurie shoots two people out of fear much to Bart’s horror. They must split up and the manhunt begins. The FBI track them down and the only place to go is back home. His old friends plead with him to surrender but they flee into the mountains with the authorities hot on their trail. They are trapped and Laurie is desperate once again but Bart cannot bear it anymore. Despite the tragic ending Bart ultimately redeems himself but it is too little too late. This was a precursor to Bonnie Clyde and it has its share of tense moments.

4/5 Stars