Just a few days ago – specifically on December 29, 2017 – actress Peggy Cummins died at the age of ninety-two. Up until the time of her death, Cummins was the last surviving member of the cast of my all-time favorite movie, 1957’s Night of the Demon. It was, however, released in the United States as Curse of the Demon. Cummins is probably best-known for her role as pistol-packing Annie Laurie Starr in a 1949 movie, Gun Crazy, which has become a cult-classic of the “film noir” variety. But, it’s her role in Night of the Demon that I want to talk about today.
If you are a fan of old B&W horror movies, and you haven’t yet seen Night of the Demon then you are in for a treat. It’s based on a 1911 short story, Casting the Runes, which was written by Montague Rhodes James. The movie stars Dana Andrews (as Dr. John Holden, a skeptic on all things paranormal and Fortean), Cummins (as Joanna Harrington, whose uncle – a Professor Harrington – meets a grisly end at the hands of the demon of the movie’s name), and Niall MacGinnis (who totally steals the show as Julian Carswell, an Aleister Crowley-type character who causes so much havoc and mayhem for Holden).
Dr. Holden, an American, flies to the U.K. to take part in a conference that will address all manner of paranormal phenomena. And, from Holden’s perspective to debunk that same phenomena. And also to debunk the work of Carswell, who, quite understandably, decides to derail Holden’s plans. Carswell doesn’t do so with harsh words, though. Rather, he places a curse on Holden. And how does he do that? By passing on to Holden (without the latter’s knowledge) a parchment containing ancient runic symbols, that’s how. And whoever is given the runes is destined to die at the claws of the demon.
I won’t spoil the fun by revealing the entire plot, but I will say that as the movie progresses, we see Dr. Holden – slowly and bit by bit – start to realize that just perhaps Julian Carswell is not the charlatan that Holden first assumed him to be. Strange phenomena and eerie forces seem to hover around Holden. His colleagues – Professor Mark O’Brien (actor Liam Redmond) and Professor Kumar (played by Peter Elliott) – advise him not to dismiss the existence of demons. As Kumar says, in matter-of-fact fashion: “Oh, I believe in them, absolutely.”
As a result, Holden finds himself in a fight for his life – albeit a very strange and alternative fight. A trip to Stonehenge, a visit to a sinister family of devil-worshipers, Holden and Joanna sitting in on a seance (which starts in amusing fashion but that quickly becomes dark and disturbing), and the pair trying their very best to turn the tables and have the demon target Carswell, are just some of the many highlights. Add to that the excellent production, good acting and a moody vibe and what you have is a classic horror movie that should not be missed.
Now, onto Peggy Cummins’ role as Joanna Harrington. In many of those old sci-fi and horror movies of the 1950s, the man is the leading character, with the female lead seemingly there just to provide a bit of eye-candy. But, Joanna Harrington is very different. Cummins played her in feisty and proactive fashion. It’s Joanna who warns Dr. Holden not to ignore Carswell’s powers. It’s Joanna who decides it would be a good idea to break into Carswell’s ancient, huge home in the English countryside (in the dead of night, no less), as a means to try and figure out exactly what he’s doing. And, it’s Joanna who arranges for Holden to attend that aforementioned seance, to try and convince him that the world of the supernatural is all too real. And on a couple of occasions, she definitively puts Holden in his place.
It would be wrong to say that Holden is passive in nature. He isn’t. But, it would be one hundred percent accurate to say that Joanna Harrington is not a character who is content to sit in the background while the (male) hero saves the day. So, if you want to spend 95-minutes watching an entertaining and atmospheric horror-movie (the U.S. version is slightly shorter), then in my view Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon is the one. RIP Peggy Cummins.