American professor John Holden arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology only to discover that the colleague he was supposed to meet was killed in a freak accident the day before. It turns out that the deceased had been investigating a cult lead by Dr. Julian Karswell. Though a skeptic, Holden is suspicious of the devil-worshiping Karswell. Following a trail of mysterious manuscripts, Holden enters a world that makes him question his faith in science.
ActorsStarring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler, Liam Redmond, Peter Elliott, Ewan Roberts, Reginald Beckwith, Rosamund Greenwood, Brian Wilde, Maurice Denham, Richard Leech, Lloyd Lamble, Peter Hobbes, Charles Lloyd Pack, John Salew, Janet Barrow, Percy Herbert, Lynn Tracy, John Harvey
This low-budget black and white movie shows off the prodigious directorial talent of Jacques Tourneur, who by this stage had already made the classic “Cat People” (1942) and the haunting “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943). Set in the English countryside, the film begins with the mysterious death of an agitated Professor Harrington (played by Maurice Denham), a psychiatrist who has been investigating paranormal beliefs in some of his patients who practice witchcraft and devil worship. He confronts the charming yet menacing Dr Julien Karswell (played by Niall MacGinnis), who leads a cult of such devil worshippers. Professor Harrington has been planning to expose the cult at a forthcoming London conference, to the great displeasure of Dr Karswell. Something strange has clearly been going on between these two prior to the confrontation.
The star speaker at the conference is the cocksure American psychiatrist Dr Holden (played by Dana Andrews), who flies into London and on the plane bumps into Professor Harrington’s beautiful daughter (played by Peggy Cummins). Holden is warned off by Karswell but is determined to expose witchcraft and other beliefs as mediaeval nonsense, and is dismissive of Karswell’s threat to kill Holden by witchcraft if he does not desist. But what if Karswell is no fraud but can actually make good on his arcane threat?
The film works so well due to Tourneur’s great ability to build tension through the power of suggestion, and his clever use of film noir style shadows and camera angles. It contains a superb acting performance by Niall MacGinnis, whose softly spoken and polite Karswell reeks of hidden menace. Early on in the film Holden suggests to Karswell he may be a good loser, to be met with the response “I’m really not, you know, not at all”, hinting beautifully at the darker events to come. The film could have been spoiled by the studio’s insistence of showing, rather than merely suggesting, the demon of the title, against Tourneur’s wishes, and these scenes were added later. The ambiguity Tourneur’s original vision would have created – was the demon perhaps in the victim’s imagination? – would have piled on the pressure even more and added delicious ambiguity, but the film is so good that this minor flaw barely matters. The tension ratchets slowly up as Holden, despite his staunchly sceptical beliefs, begins to become nervous as a strange sequence of events unfold around him. Peggy Cummins is excellent playing the common-sense foil to Dana Andrews’ brash American, who is implacably certain of his beliefs in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. The movie has many memorable and genuinely chilling moments, starting with the voiceover at Stonehenge. The later line “it’s in the trees; it’s coming;” even made it into the Kate Bush song “Hounds of Love”.
This is a wonderful film that bears repeated watching; only the clunky special effects demon, which Tourneur never wanted, looks dated. The film itself is a timeless classic.