Greetings, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World. I have for you today, in my grave-mold-stained bag of tricks, three films bound together by two definite links. First, they all deal in some regard with that ultimate Antagonist, the Prince of Darkness himself, Lucifer. Second, they are, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant pieces of cinema that never really got the respect they deserved. Unfortunately, the nature of these links, and the nature of these films, makes it deucedly difficult to discuss without throwing around spoilers like a monkey throws around feces. So I’m going to make this very clear up front.
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS REGARDING THREE FILMS THAT RELY ON INTELLIGENT WRITING AND THE VIEWER’S OWN INTELLECTUAL CAPACITY TO CREATE A SENSE OF TENSION, RATHER THAN THROWING A BUCKET OF PIG INTESTINES AT THE CAMERA AND CALLING IT A DAY. THESE FILMS ARE JACQUES TOURNEUR’S 1957 FILM NIGHT OF THE DEMON, 1987’S ANGEL HEART STARRING ROBERT DE NIRO AND MICKEY ROURKE, AND ROMAN POLANSKI’S 1999 FILM THE NINTH GATE STARRING JOHNNY DEPP AND FRANK LANGELLA. IF YOU WOULD PREFER TO AVOID SPOILERS, GO RENT THIS MOVIES NOW.
Alright, that being said, let’s get crackalackin’, readers.
NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)
Not to be confused with the 1980s horror-sex-comedy NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, NIGHT OF THE DEMON (retitled for US release as CURSE OF THE DEMON), is a British-lensed adaptation of M.R. James’ ghost story “Casting the Runes,” written in 1911, directed by Jacques Tourneur from a script by Charles Bennett and starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis.
The film follows an American psychologist, Dr. John Holden (Andrews), come to England to attend a psychology conference at which his colleague, Dr. Harrington, intended to expose the actions of Dr. Julian Karswell, a noted Satanic cult leader, as mere legerdemain. Upon arriving in England, Holden learns that Dr. Harrington has died under mysterious circumstances.
Investigating Harrington’s death, Holden is brought into contact with Dr. Karswell, a tubby, rubber-faced little man with an unruly mop of curly hair who lives in his mother’s house. Though rejecting the possibility of the supernatural, Holden finds himself more and more unnerved by Karswell as he sifts through clues and feels an overwhelming and suffocating force of evil growing around him.
Eventually, Holden learns that Karswell is delivering curses to those who would oppose him – a slip of parchment, inscribed with ancient runes of power, delivered to the recipient of the curse, and capable of being passed on to others…until such time as the parchment self-incinerates. Holden has received such a parchment, and must now try desperately to return it to Karswell to break the curse upon himself, and allow the coming evil to consume Karswell instead.
While the most memorable image emerging from the film is actually a publicity still of the bloodthirsty demon, surprisingly enough it originally was not going to appear at all. Producer Hal Chester inserted the monster into the film over the objections of director Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett, on the grounds that in a film entitled NIGHT OF THE DEMON, audiences damn well wanted to see a demon! (I call this The BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES Principle.)
ANGEL HEART (1987)
This is one of my all-time favorite films, directed by Alan Parker from the 1978 novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg and starring Mickey Rourke (pre-disfiguring plastic surgery), Robert De Niro (at his motherfucking prime), and Lisa Bonet (in the sexual role that got her booted from The Cosby Show).
New York City, 1955. Private Eye and general schmoe Harry Angel (Rourke) is hired by cynical, debonair Louis Cyphre (De Niro) to investigate a missing person; namely, big band crooner Johnny Favorite, who disappeared during the War. Cyphre’s interest is purely business – if Favorite is dead, then “certain collateral” falls to Cyphre. And while Favorite’s last known whereabouts are a mental institution in Poughkeepsie, due to bureaucratic runaround Cyphre doesn’t know if Favorite is alive or dead.
Angel soon learns that Favorite checked out of the mental hospital in 1943; the doctors falsified his records for years. Investigating further, several leads guide Angel to New Orleans, bringing him deep into the heart of Voodoo Country.
To make matters more complicated, every witness Angel talks to soon winds up very, very messily dead. How messily dead? One man is choked to death on his own severed scrotum, that’s how messily dead. Add a sexed up voodoo priestess by the name of Epiphany Proudfoot (Bonet), supposedly sired by the devil himself, and now Angel is in a hell of a mess, and looking to Louis Cyphre for answers.
What a fantastic film. Even if De Niro had never done TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, or THE UNTOUCHABLES, this would cement him in my perception as one of the finest actors of the 20th century. Mephistopheles is not an easy role to perform, but De Niro handles it with such grace and suavity…and hell, he makes eating a hardboiled egg menacing. Who else can do that? No one, that’s who. There was some talk a few years back about remaking this (I normally don’t get enraged about remakes, but thinking about this being remade makes my heart hurt), but that seems to have quietly died out.
THE NINTH GATE (1999)
Say what you will about child molester Roman Polanski, the man knows how to make a movie. And as for this film’s lead, Johnny Depp…MAN, is it refreshing to see him NOT slathered in enough white greasepaint to choke an Insane Clown Posse concert. Hey Tim Burton, you know there’s this thing called the color palette, right? Depp is a legitimately very talented actor, and it is delightful getting to see him exercise that to the fullest, rather than being a mincing Keith Richards caricature or a gaunt idol for lonely goth girls to fingerbang themselves to.
Depp appears as Dean Corso, an unscrupulous buyer and seller of rare books (we first meet him as he swindles the family of a paralyzed stroke victim out of an incredible fortune in old folios), is contacted by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a collector of occult texts, and asked to perform a simple task of authenticating Balkan’s latest acquisition — a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, by noted heretic Aristide Torchia, one of three alleged to have survived Torchia’s burning at the stake — against the other two copies, existing in private collections in Portugal and France. For this, Corso has been given, essentially, a blank check. Cha-ching.
Unfortunately, things are not so easy. The closest thing Corso has to a friend, colleague Bernie, soon turns up dead…and posed to match one of the engravings in The Nine Gates. Before long, mysterious individuals are gunning for Corso, killing everyone he encounters, except for a singularly mysterious young woman who seems to be protecting Corso.
Ultimately, Corso figures out that the “key” to the Nine Gates — nine engravings, allegedly done by the devil himself — are scattered between the three copies, and collecting the correct engravings out of each will give any would-be warlock the means to whistle up Old Scratch. And at a Satanic mass that’s intent on using the Nine Gates, Boris Balkan casually strolls in, strangles the leader of the cult and disappears with the engravings. Can Corso set things right, or will Balkan wield satanic supremacy?
A devastatingly intelligent film, I wish more roles like this came Depp’s way. Langella is at his second-creepiest here, beaten out only by his portrayal of Quilty in Nabokov’s LOLITA. And one of my favorite moments of the film is him striding into the cult meeting bellowing over the chanted Latin, “Mumbo Jumbo, Mumbo Jumbo, MUMBO JUMBO!”
There. Three brilliant films, with a relative minimum of spoilers. Now go! Go see them! Or, fuck, I don’t know. Stick your dick in a burrito if you want. But see these films!
Tags: Angel Heart, Blood, Devil, DVD, Frank Langella, Gore, Horror, Horror Movie, Jacques Tourneur, Johnny Depp, Lisa Bonet, Mickey Rourke, Night of the Demon, Reviews, Robert De Niro, Satan, Satanism, The Ninth Gate, voodoo