Sep 16, 2007
Based on Casting The Runes by M. R. James
Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
This movie begins with daylight shots of Stonehenge as a stentorious voice tells us that the builders of the monument understood the nature of good and evil and that certain symbols could conjure evil.
Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) makes a hurried night-time car trip to Lufford Hall, the home of an Aleister Crowley-like sorcerer called Julian Karswell. Upon arriving, he begs Karswell to lift a curse, even offering a public recantation of his public utterances that have brought some notoriety to Karswell and his followers. While urbanely playing with a deck of cards, Karswell responds with, “You said do your worst and that’s precisely what I did.”
He sends Harrington home with a promise to do all he can, but as Harrington locks his garage at home, he’s attacked by a smoking winged ‘fire demon’ the size of a two storey building. At home Karswell burns a newspaper with a headline reading “Karswell Devil Cult Expose Promised at Scientists’ Convention”. The sorcerer had given Harrington a parchment with runic symbols on it: a magical death sentence.
Doctor John Holden (Dana Andrews), an eminent American psychologist and skeptic flies from the USA to London for the Convention. He finds that Harrington is dead and the only witness to any of Karswell’s cult activities is a catatonic farmer called Rand Hobart. He receives a threatening call from Karswell, suggesting that he butts out of Hobart and Karswell’s business. The next day, he bumps into Karswell at the British Museum library. The sorcerer offers him the use of a rare tome on magic and invites him to Lufford Hall. While picking up a dropped file, Karswell slips a parchment of runes into it, which he hands to Holden.
The Professor’s niece, Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins) meets Holden and suggests that he drop the investigation. She has her uncle’s diary and they discover that Harrington himself had been slipped a parchment by Karswell at a concert in Albert Hall. Holden, the rationalist, explains away the coincidence. He and Joanna visit Lufford Hall where Karswell, in a tramp costume and clown makeup is performing magic tricks for the local children at his annual Halloween party. Karswell confesses to having once made his living as a stage magician. While watching children play snakes and ladders, Karswell says that he always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing the ladders.
Karswell: You’re a doctor of psychology. You ought to know the answer to that.
Holden: Maybe you’re a good loser.
Karswell: I’m not, you know. Not a bit…
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? Pins stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body?
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?
To prove his point, Karswell conjures a fierce windstorm with a moment’s concentration. The clown-magician has become the egotistical but powerful wizard who sends chairs and children scattering to the four winds. Inside the house, Karswell predicts that Holden will die three days hence, at 10 pm. After Holden and Joanna leave, Karswell explains to his mother that prices must be paid for his wealth and power. Either the lives of others, or his own.
Holden is a skeptic, but to his own detriment. Even when evidence manifests itself, he stays true to his rationalism until there is nowhere else to go except to accept a different kind of logic -- that the rune is a death warrant and that he needs to be smarter than Karswell to avoid being ripped apart.
His encounter with Karswell’s familiar, Grimalkin, during a break-in at Lufford Hall is a classic piece of Tourneur movie making. A cat transforms into a leopard with nothing more than subtle editing, perfect lighting and suggestion.
Jacques Tourneur was a master of black and white horror. Suggestion, sound effects, surprises and misdirection are familiar tools that he used as a master craftsman of horror. Working on small budgets for RKO in the 40s with producer Val Lewton, he created Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, two of the best horror films of that, or any subsequent decade. These days, movie-makers network banks of PCs to create their monsters. In lieu of that, Tourneur harnessed the imaginations of the audience. Suggest rather than show, imply rather than state, a moving shadow is scarier than a clearly seen threat. Tourneur had the skill of drawing the audience into the world of his movies. His way of doing this was by making that world an interesting place, populated by people we also find interesting. When Holden visits Stonehenge and finds the runes on his paper inscribed on the stones, there’s an iconic feeling to it. A modern man threatened by the looming mysteries of a past age.
In this film, created over a decade after Tourneur’s RKO days and on another continent, his skills are undiminished. The demon itself, which the studio insisted be shown, is somewhat puppet-like but for me, it doesn’t spoil the film. Dana Andrews, never a subtle actor, has the staunchness needed for Holden’s pragmatism, but it’s Niall MacGinnis who steals the show. His Karswell is softly spoken, a stocky, balding man who lives with his mother but possesses and is possessed by, immense power. He’s oddly likeable and charismatic. At times like a naughty boy, at others a schoolmaster lecturing a student.