Friday, July 29, 2011

Curse of the Demon: A de-facto X-File?

Stories about Witchcraft and the power of suggestion are nothing new. Such tales have existed for centuries. The entire principle of Voodoo is built around the power of suggestion, and while The X-Files did explore such memes ("Fresh Bones," "Die Hand Die Verletzt," and "Sanguinarium" for example), this tradition as a narrative device can be traced as far back as the ’50s, and before then.

Curse of the Demon was a British production filmed in 1957 and released the following year, directed by Jacques Tourneur, scripted by Charles Bennett, and based on Montague R. James’ short tale, "Casting the Runes." The film also went under the title Night of the Demon. It starred Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, and Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Karswell. The film even featured the Production Design work of Ken Adam (pre James Bond). Director Tourneur had gained a great reputation in the ’40s with the iconic Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, and this film was nearly on par with his earlier work.

The Story

The film opens with Dr. Harrington racing to the country estate of Dr. Julian Karswell, a self proclaimed Alchemist who heads a cult. Dr. Harrington pleadingly promises to call off an investigation of the cult, if Karswell will call off what he has started. Once Karswell learns that a parchment that had been given to Dr. Harrington has disintegrated, Karswell ushers the man out with false assurances. Afterwards, Dr. Harrington arrives at his own country home and parks his car. A demon materializes in the woods and approaches the doctor. In a panic, he flees to his car and drives into a power line, which falls on his vehicle. The man becomes entangled in the electrical cables, but not before the demon attacks and kills him.

Dr. John Holden, a scientist and skeptic of the occult, arrives in England, and by happenstance, the daughter of Dr. Harrington, Joanna is on the same flight. Dr. Holden learns of the death of Dr. Harrington, and that the only link between his death and Karswell’s cult is an accused murderer, Rand Hobart, a man who has fallen into a catatonic state after witnessing something unexplained. Dr. Holden rejects the speculation of his colleagues that supernatural forces might be at work.

After taking the lead on Harrington’s notes, Dr. Holden visits the British Museum’s library on Witchcraft. One book in particular that Dr. Harrington requested has gone missing, and the doctor is approached by Julian Karswell, who offers to show him his own copy at his mansion. Karswell slips something into Dr. Holden’s notes, then gives him a business card with a message that vanishes, but not before implying Dr. Holden’s demise within two weeks. A strange dizzy spell besets Holden as Karswell is seen walking away.

Later at the funeral for Dr. Harrington, the doctor again meets Joanna Harrington who provides him with her father’s diary. The book reveals Harrington’s increasing fear of Karswell’s occult power. Dr. Holden remains skeptical, but he visits Karswell’s mansion along with Joanna.

Dr. Holden is playing Dana Scully’s role, the classic objective, rational scientist, which was typical of the ’50s. It goes without saying that the genius of Chris Carter was to reverse these traits. Karswell and Dr. Holden have an interesting exchange, in essence mocking their beliefs, and yet it raises the key thrust of the story.

Karswell: You don’t believe in witchcraft?
Holden: Do you?
Karswell: Do I believe in witchcraft? What kind of witchcraft? The legendary witch that rides on the imaginary broom? The hex that tortures the thoughts of the victim? The pin stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body of the victim?
Holden: Also imaginary.
Karswell: But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight? This half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?

The film quickly turns into a battle of wills between these two men. The dialogue could have been easily transitioned into many X-File episodes. Based on several reasons that support the following impression, it should become fairly evident that Karswell is modeled after none other than Aleister Crowley. As Holden continues his exchange, Karswell predicts he will die within three days.

Back at his hotel, Holden with his colleagues discuss Karswell, and further plans to study Rand Hobart. While studying Harrington’s diary, which mentions a parchment passed to him by Karswell, Dr. Holden finds a similar parchment with Runic symbols that Karswell secretly passed to him at the library. A gust of wind comes through the window blowing the parchment from his fingers. It’s nearly swept into the fireplace before he manages to rescue, and pocket it.

Holden becomes uneasy after a visit from Hobart’s family, who disown him as not a "true believer," but just as Holden is leaving, the parchment flies out of his hand again, and Hobert’s family becomes fearful, believing the doctor is marked. After a visit to Stonehenge, Holden compares the parchment’s runes to ones inscribed at the stone circle. After some persuasion, Joanna takes Holden to Karswell’s mother who has arranged a séance. The medium begins to channel Harrington, much to Holden’s skepticism, and informs Dr. Holden that Karswell has the key to the problem from his book; he dismissively leaves, but later that night Dr. Holden breaks into Karswell’s mansion to examine the book. In an elaborate mind game, Karswell catches him and permits the doctor to leave through the woods for Holden to be chased by a part of the demon apparition, a living ball of smoke with an incessant chirping sound, only for it to vanish. Joanna persuades Holden to go to the police, but much to the doctor’s embarrassment, they don’t believe him. The doctor fears that he is falling for Karswell’s mind games.

Mrs. Karswell phones Joanna, and implores her that she must tell Holden that Rand Hobart knows the secret of the parchment, which Karswell has managed to overhear. While Holden prepares an experiment to break Hobart from his stupor, Karswell kidnaps Joanna to prevent her reaching Holden with this knowledge, as well as giving Karswell some leverage. While under hypnosis, Hobart reveals that he was ‘chosen’ to die by having a cursed parchment passed to him, but avoided death by passing it to another person. When Holden shows Hobart the parchment he received from Karswell, he goes insane and falls from a window to his death.

Informed that Karswell is leaving London by train, Holden, convinced now that he must return the parchment to Karswell to lift his mark and save himself, races to catch it. He finds Joanna with Karswell, who has been placed in some hypnotic state to make her manageable. Karswell goes to great lengths to avoid direct contact with Dr. Holden to guard against the parchment being passed back to him, and Karswell grows fearful. When the train stops at the next station, Karswell tries to leave, after Dr. Holden has managed to slip the parchment into Karswell’s coat. Just as Karswell realizes this, the parchment flies from his hands and he chases it down the railroad tracks. Just before Karswell can reach it, the parchment burns away into ashes.

While an oncoming train approaches, the demon appears on the adjacent track. Karswell frantically tries to escape but the demon catches up with him, seizes him and tears his body in two. The station crew believe that Karswell’s mangled body was struck by the train. Pondering what they did or did not see, Joanna observes, “Maybe it’s better not to know,” a line that could have been uttered by Mulder or Scully, and then is repeated by Dr. Holden, his beliefs now shaken by the encounter.

Curse of the Demon manages to be fairly intelligent for a "B" genre picture. It’s greatest weakness is in fact that the demon, an obvious puppet, is shown, and the film’s power is diminished by this aspect. Director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett intended the depiction of the demon not to be literal, but psychological. Fourteen minutes were cut from the British and American prints of the film, requiring that some of the gaps be filled in with narrative. Fortunately, those minutes were restored in home video editions.

Literary Origin

The Montague R. James tale, “Casting the Runes” had a few notable differences from the Charles Bennett script. The central protagonist’s name was not John Holden, but Edward Dunning, and the demise of Karswell, though far more mundane, was more realistic. The story’s structure uses tactics similar to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” a series of journal entries that build into a lengthy narrative. The demise of Dr. Harrington might have planted the seed for Tourneur’s intent, the power of suggestion, as evidenced by this conversational narrative:

"...What’s equally to the point, I knew the most incisive of the lot. So did you: you must remember John Harrington; he was at John's in our time."

"Oh, very well indeed, though I don't think I saw or heard anything of him between the time I went down and the day I read the account of the inquest on him."

"Inquest?” said one of the ladies. "What has happened to him?"

"Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck. But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man--not an athletic fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed--walking home along a country road late in the evening--no tramps about--well known and liked in the place--and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree--quite a difficult tree--growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he's found next morning with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made of that."

The other notable difference is the introduction of Henry Harrington, John’s brother, who plays a role in finding out the truth of his brother’s death. The introduction of Karswell is conversational, and supports some suspicions that the character was modeled after Crowley, but Mr. James’ impression of Crowley might have been built around the impressions created by the British press:

"Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the country who bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago. His real name is Karswell."

"Is he a friend of yours?" asked Mr. Secretary, with a private wink to his wife. The question let loose a torrent of declamation. There was really nothing to be said for Mr. Karswell. Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody: he had a dreadful face (so the lady insisted, her husband somewhat demurring); he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.

The story, "Casting The Runes" was first published in More Ghost Stories (1911), but the tale might have been written circa between 1904-1911. H.P. Lovecraft was a great admirer of Montague R. James and cited him in his essay, "Supernatural Horror In Literature" Aleister Crowley had already begun to gain notoriety from the period between 1906 through 1909, during the period of the foundation of A.*.A.*. and so it is plausible that M.R. James might have already been aware of Crowley.

The Aleister Crowley connection

One of the puzzling plot elements of Curse of the Demon was the Stonehenge sequence. There’s no evidence of rune symbols to be found at the site, but a lot of focus has been placed on the mathematics of Stonehenge. The ancient order of the druids--or druid order--was founded in 1781, and they were known for their annual summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge. There seems to be a longstanding relationship between Druidry and Masonry. The Druid order studied Freemasonry. Three members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, a project not dissimilar to the Druid Order, founded the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that would introduce Crowley to the Occult.

There is no evidence that Tourneur and Bennett had much extensive knowledge of Aleister Crowley, Freemasons, or Druid rituals; these connections might have been happenstance, but there’s a general rule with writing: everything should be there for a reason. Crowley was a known provocateur of Christian and Catholic orthodoxy, and shared the sentiments of Friedrich Nietzsche-- that all Men are Gods, which probably explains the antagonistic characterizations of Crowley by the press.

Tourneur’s theme of the psychological power of suggestion implied a belief that Carl Jung and Aleister Crowley both shared–that consciousness was multidimensional. Or to offer another perspective as Crowley defined his definition of Magick: “The science and art of causing change in conformity with will.” A practice that one could argue is illustrated by Karswell’s actions, but it’s also a double-edged sword; perhaps Karswell’s personal convictions in such Magick drove him to delusional self destruction. Perhaps he was killed by the oncoming train, or perhaps something else. Karswell and Crowley share a similar belief in the theatrical power of occult rituals. Crowley once remarked:

"There is no more potent means than the art of calling forth true gods to visible appearance."

Should we accept occult rituals at face value, or are they a means to an end?

In this sense, Karswell’s entire actions in Curse of the Demon, could be seen as an artisitc performance to invoke gods, either psychologically, or metaphorically. Karswell goes through great pains with Holden to set up the climate for paranormal events. In fairness, it should be pointed out, in spite of his infamy within the Christian and catholic power elite, Crowley was not invoking gods for the destruction of others, but for enlightenment.

In the first chapter of his tomb, "Magick," Crowley defined the principle of rituals as "the object of all magical ritual" as "the uniting of Microcosm with the Macrocosm. The Supreme and Complete Ritual is therefore the Invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel." Crowley was personally convinced that human perfection required liberating the self from restriction and entering a state of child like energy, and that such perfected energy was at its essence ecstatic and artistic.

Crowley's history is rich and complex enough that it should be personally explored by the reader, it is simply too difficult to distill his work with generalizations.

To digress, when one ponders the séance sequence of Curse of the Demon, one is left with ambiguity. Was the séance a ruse? Or was Dr. Harrington legitimately communicating to Joanne? It reminded me of Mulder and Scully’s exchange at the end of “The Truth” from season nine:

Mulder: I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us. That they speak to us as part of something greater than us–greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen to what’s speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves.
Scully: Then we believe the same thing.

Ultimately, perhaps evocation is self empowerment.

You can find M.R. James short story, "Casting the Runes", here.

Special thanks to Xscribe for editorial input.

Next: The Mole People (1958)