“I’m not a superstitious sucker, like 90% of humanity.”
Response to Peary’s Review:
Charles Bennett’s script was notoriously rewritten by producer Hal Chester — a fate which Peary discusses at length in his Cult Movies 2 — but it manages to retain “the grace and literate quality as well as the sinister feel and elements of mystery and suspense (as opposed to shock) that distinguished Bennett’s scripts for Alfred Hitchcock”. In addition, as Peary notes, the material was perfect for Tourneur, who “returned to his forties roots” by “frighten[ing] viewers through such fundamental fears as darkness, sudden sounds, and wild animals”, and who created a “shadowy world” where “the battle between light and darkness, good and evil, science and magic, fate and free will is continuous, and where characters are controlled less by reason than by subconscious.”
To that end, Dana Andrews is perfectly cast as Dr. Holden, an outsider (an American in England) who — much like his hardboiled detective in Laura (1944) — finds himself sucked into and “seduced” by a world he’s entirely unfamiliar with. We understand his initial reluctance to believe in witchcraft, and it’s to Tourneur’s credit that we are gradually convinced — right alongside Holden — about the veracity of Dr. Karswell’s supernatural powers. Several key scenes of terror build upon one another, eventually resulting in a truly ominous sense of doom: Karswell conjures up a powerful storm out of thin air during a party he’s hosting for a group of orphans; a “bizarre seance” is hosted by Karswell’s “daffy mother” (Athene Seyler); Holden is attacked by a housecat “disguised” as an enormous feline; Holden is chased by a smoke ball while walking through the woods, surrounded by giant footprints.
The film’s biggest controversy continues to center around producer Hal Chester’s inclusion (not part of Bennett’s original script) of an enormous demon, which appears in the very first scene and leaves no doubt in viewers’ minds about the existence of underworld forces at play. Peary is of the opinion that if “Lewton had had such a spectacular monster” at his disposal, he would “have shown it”, given that it’s “more terrifying than anything we could imagine” — and I tend to agree. Equal props must go towards Niall MacGinnis in a “superb” performance as Dr. Karswell; he projects arrogance and creepiness (note his clown costume during the orphan party) in just the right proportions.
P.S. Note that one widely circulated American version of the film leaves out about thirteen minutes of the story (discussed at length in DVD Savant’s review).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments: