— A Savant Guest Article by Wayne Schmidt —
Fires, clerical errors, and lab mistakes have caused some films to be unavailable in good quality, or even become lost forever. Studio indifference can also allow vintage films to be ignored to death while their negatives rot in cans. So it’s great to hear a ‘lost film’ story with a happy ending.
A note from Glenn Erickson: About twenty years ago when I worked at MGM, I had some contact with MGM’s in-house Film and Video Services team and learned how the department maintained the MGM library of film titles. My old friend Wayne Schmidt was at the time over at Sony, busy doing much the same work for that studio’s older Columbia film library. Naturally, the first thing I asked about was the status of both studios’ Hammer film collections.
Wayne had also been a video editor, and also produced a special effects-laden science fiction movie. I have always had a policy with my friends in the industry not to print anything they tell me without specific approval, a policy that made friends and helped all of us keep our jobs. Most of the time we just agreed not to discuss things that our employers wouldn’t want us sharing. But I found out that Wayne had had something to do with a touchy situation that had come up regarding every horror fan’s fave title Curse of the Demon, even if I didn’t know any of the details. That story has been a secret for almost twenty years now. From a fan’s point of view the story is pretty scary, like finding out which favorite films have been lost in a studio vault fire. Most of us are aware of the longer, superior English cut of Curse of the Demon with the original title Night of the Demon. It came uncomfortably close to becoming an “unserviceable title” until Wayne stuck his neck out to insure its survival. This is a real ‘hero’ story, and I’m glad to help share it.
Rescuing the Runes:
The Almost-Lost Original Long Cut of Night of the Demon
by Wayne Schmidt
I was a “Famous Monsters” kid in my young impressionable days of the early sixties. I’d devour every magazine issue I could find and take note of the titles attached to the most striking photos. Then I’d study every new issue of TV Guide intently, hoping to find at least a few of these desirable movies listed. Many of them turned up on the late night or weekend time slots if I was patient. One of the images that made the biggest impression was from Curse of the Demon, the famous shot of the snarling title creature reaching out with one clawed hand toward the camera. How could any ‘monster kid’ resist that?
But that particular movie proved to be frustratingly out of reach since it didn’t appear in any movie package the independent stations in Los Angeles owned. Either that or I managed to miss it each time. The only exposure I got was a tantalizing peek via a Super 8 condensation that you could buy, running all of about ten minutes with no sound.
A few years later the chance finally presented itself. A ‘friend of a friend’ owned a full 16mm print and set up a screening. Although my anticipation was high I was even more impressed than I expected. Curse of the Demon is an expert, tension-filled tale of the supernatural. I wasn’t familiar with director Jacques Tourneur but back then it was rare for young fans of the horror and science fiction genres to know directors‘ names. There were a few people behind the camera like William Castle or Ray Harryhausen that had made an impression, and of course stars like Karloff, Lugosi, Lee and Cushing. It’s hard to imagine the way it was then, before today’s instant Internet access to every minute detail of even the most obscure filmmaker. Back then the monsters were the stars that cemented each film’s reputation. In later years I became familiar with Tourneur’s other work and appreciated his formidable talent in horror and other genres too.
In 1984 I landed a position working in the west coast vaults of Columbia Pictures. They shared a studio lot with Warner Brothers diplomatically called The Burbank Studios. Many of the buildings were ancient and the vault for Columbia was in the basement of one of the oldest. It was cavernous, cold, dingy and under-lit, resembling the home of the Morlocks from The Time Machine. But that didn’t matter a bit. It was exciting to walk down one aisle after the next and see the titles of movie classics scrawled on the cartons and cans of film. Despite the vault’s intimidating size it was dwarfed by the studio’s main repository for their library in New York; L.A. was more of a way station where film elements were shipped out for video transfer, to fill either television or home video markets.
One day as I was slogging an incoming shipment out of the delivery truck I took note of one title written on the side of one carton — Curse of the Demon. I got a charge just knowing a 35mm printing element of the movie was right there. It was the first thing I unpacked and while logging it into the inventory I noticed something odd. The film was arrayed in ten 1000-foot reels. All the cans were there, but an additional reel 1, listed as ‘Alternate’ was also in the set.
In those days Columbia operated under stern rules laid down by the various Unions. My boss and I were non-union hires. Thus we were told that we could handle cartons and cans of films but not the film itself. It seemed a bit ridiculous but most of the time there was really no reason why we would need to unroll a reel of film. But I was willing to break that rule to determine what the difference was with this alternate reel.
An old rewind bench had been stashed in a dark corner of the vault, most likely put there for storage and forgotten. A layer of dust and grime had settled on its surface and the rewind handles were stiff from lack of use, but it would possibly be useable for my needs. I wasn’t going to attempt it in the table’s current condition. The next day I showed up armed with cleaning supplies and gave the bench a good working over. When I was finished it would have passed muster in a film lab’s ‘clean room.’ I put the reel up and began to slowly crank through it. The bench didn’t have any sort of magnification equipment, so I was squinting to make out what was there. The leader wasn’t much help, so I rolled further into picture. The familiar opening shot of Stonehenge faded in. Winding down a bit further I saw the evidence of what the difference was. The title block plainly spelled out “NIGHT OF THE DEMON” instead of “CURSE.” I knew the film was titled that in the United Kingdom, but outside of the title change had no reason to believe that the two versions were not the same.
The VHS, an accidental restoration.
Curse of the Demon was eventually requested for transfer by the video division. I let them know about the alternate reel and mentioned it would be nice to have the original title on the master. The title listed in the system was “CURSE.” They weren’t interested in changing it because that would have meant a lot of extra paperwork and confusion. Also, the legal status of presenting it in an altered form was unclear. They weren’t going to invite trouble.
Approximately a year later the film finally hit the home video market on VHS and laserdisc. I hadn’t yet seen the cassette when word started filtering through the pre-Internet underground fan network that this was the original U.K. cut never shown in the States. It was then that I learned it was a significantly longer and superior version. With the exception of the title Columbia’s video release was an unknowing and unintended ‘restoration’ of an important genre film.
A few years later I left Columbia, now bought by Sony, to pursue other areas of post production. After some time had passed I one day got a call from my old boss offering me the position of managing the west coast vault operations, which had been moved to a nicer location. Although I wasn’t crazy about doing essentially more of the same the scope of the job was a little more palatable. It now included quality control screenings of prints and other aspects, so I accepted.
At the same time High Definition began to make a significant impact on the studios. The new DVD format hit the home video divisions hard. They could no longer just slap on an old cropped transfer from an inferior film source. They needed to step up their game, a change that gave me an opportunity to move into something much more interesting. As each library title came up for a fresh HD transfer it was necessary to pull all the stored film material in New York and send it to a lab, which would write an inspection report to determine if a new film element needed to be made. I was supervising the manufacturing work on many of these projects so it wasn’t too long before my old friend Night of the Demon showed up. I snagged the assignment, eager to make sure it was handled properly.
When the lab reports came in there was an alarming discovery. At the time of its release Columbia had the original negative for the film cut down to make the U.S. version, CURSE OF THE DEMON. This wasn’t the usual way for a studio to create an alternate version. Normally a dupe is struck and the changes made to that. But in this case we were now stuck with using a second generation source if we wanted the complete version. The film element that I had looked at years back was a ‘fine grain,’ which is a B&W print made directly from the negative, and as the name implies has lower contrast and a finer granularity. They make a very good source for video transfers, so I knew we had something of quality to work from.
Gone from the vault.
Then came a second blow. The lab reports had no fine grain listed as ‘received.’ New York double-checked their paperwork. It showed the carton being returned from L.A. years back but the storage location was blank. If it had been misfiled in that gargantuan facility, I was looking at a needle in a haystack scenario. I frantically checked through the remaining material that had been sent out to see if there was another option. Everything was the U.S. cut, the only exception being a ‘dupe neg’ with Spanish main titles. That meant it would be at least one more dupe generation down from the missing fine grain. The lab threaded it up on the telecine transfer machine for inspection. It wasn’t very good: dark and soft, lacking definition. After one last round of checking and rummaging without luck I resigned myself to working with what we had. The lab would make a new fine grain, using the original neg for the majority of the film, and using the inferior Spanish dupe to ‘slug in’ the missing or changed shots.
We no longer had any film element with the U.K. title. I wasn’t at all confident that this approach would work as the very noticeable drops in quality for the inserted sections might well be flagged as unacceptable by the mastering division. I might only be able to supply them with the Curse of the Demon version.
‘The time allowed’ to prepare and manufacture new film material for transfer was very tight. With the exception of special high profile titles such as Lawrence of Arabia that receive an all-out restoration, catalog films such as Night were deadline- driven. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting while we continued to search for better stuff, hoping that the fine grain would turn up. But I was desperate to not go forward with what we had. I kept stalling, saying it had complications and would take longer than expected.
The coincidence to end all coincidences.
I was friends at the time with several private film collectors. One had helped me out in the past by loaning his personal print of another film I was working on, to provide some audio it was missing. My friend and I were having a casual conversation when I mentioned my woes with Night of the Demon. He grew silent and pensive. After a long pause he said quietly “I have that fine grain.” My jaw hit the floor. HOW? He explained he had bought it from a dealer who knew of his fondness for the film. The dealer told him it was a standard print, but thankfully my friend the collector had knowledge of film stocks and recognized what it was as soon as he inspected it. As a result he never ran it through a projector. It was still in perfect shape.
For a few awkward moments we discussed how to proceed. To his great credit my collector friend was more concerned that the film be preserved properly than with his ownership of the fine grain, even though he had paid a lot of money for it. When he initially surmised it was a printing element, he assumed that it must be one of a number that had been made off the negative, and that the studio had backup material. He also had no way to know that the original negative had been truncated. The runaway fine grain in his possession was very likely the only remaining 35mm film element for the original long version.
In general, film studios have always harbored dark suspicions about film collectors. They consider all 35mm owned by private parties as their property, since they never sold anything in that gauge directly to the public. A gray area exists, however. Studios had discarded many surplus prints through the years, and theaters often neglected to send back prints, which were eventually sold or given away. Labs and storage facilities would go out of business and the lien holders would sell off whatever film was left behind, unclaimed by their respective owners. The law known as the ‘first sale doctrine’ applied to many of these situations: once a material item is legally sold the buyer has the right to re-sell it.
But that doesn’t help a collector who tries to help by loaning a studio something needed for a restoration. If the collector’s copy was the only source to replace a lost movie, the studio might understandably want to confiscate it as stolen property. As a result many collector loans were set up on the QT, usually with only one studio contact involved who personally oversaw the lab work and return of what was borrowed.*
A difficult negotiation.
This case was prickly because the collector’s fine grain film master obviously was stolen property, taken at some point from Sony’s New York facility. Not by the collector, though — he had purchased it through a dealer and had no idea of the theft. I certainly didn’t want to see my friend get the short end of the stick and lose his investment, but I also needed the film to finish the lab work. And it needed to return to Sony’s library permanently since it represented the best film source. It would be needed in the future for printing dupes or video transfers. The problem was I knew the studio wouldn’t reimburse him monetarily. Actually, if the studio were even made aware of the situation, everything might have ended up in a legal mess. It required some delicate and discretionary negotiating. Happily, money isn’t the only enticement for film collectors, a fact that gave me some wiggle room to barter. Even now, eighteen years after the fact I won’t divulge what was done to satisfy both parties, but let’s just say it was equitable.
The fine grain finally in my possession, I rushed it to the lab. Thankfully it didn’t require any fixes or additional work. Since it was the master element for the unabridged version I had them run off several dupe negs. The film was now well covered with backup copies.
I then had to come up with some kind of white lie so eyebrows wouldn’t be raised over the miraculous reappearance of a missing fine grain. I had everyone tearing up the floorboards to find it only a week before. I floated an excuse about it being in the wrong film cans. In the day-to-day workings of a studio that was an entirely plausible cover story. It happens all the time.
A year or so later the title showed up on the schedule for a DVD release. I contacted the home video division and stressed they must use the HD master with the Night of the Demon title. They had it listed on the work order as CURSE, as both versions had been mastered at the same time. Legal issues again cropped up and had to be addressed, to confirm that the studio had domestic rights to NIGHT. After all the sweat that went into securing the uncut version, I could just see the DVD going out with only the shorter U.S. cut!
I had read an article in Tim Lucas’s magazine Video Watchdog that compared the two cuts. The author made the case that the shorter U.S. version had had better pacing and other advantages. Although this is not a view shared by myself or the majority of aficionados I thought it would be interesting to have both included on the DVD. The U.S. cut could be added as ‘supplemental material.’ Not a big deal, but since the studio had excellent transfers of both why not? It wouldn’t be of much interest to casual buyers, but film geeks like me and others studying the film might find it of some value. I met with the home video people to explain what I had in mind. They seemed mildly interested, but didn’t call back to tell me what they had decided.
Later when the DVD hit the streets they indeed included both versions. But I was taken aback — and a little annoyed — to see that the front cover announced a double feature release. It misleadingly gave the impression of two entirely different films. I could see a casual buyer sitting down popcorn in hand to watch this ‘double feature’ DVD, only to discover that both movies were essentially the same! And sure enough, home video did get complaints. They in turn called me. They remembered that I had been the one to suggest including both films, but they couldn’t recall why or how I suggested it be marketed.
Despite this minor hiccup I was very gratified to see the original version now made available with its correct title in a great-looking transfer, for the first time matted to the 1:66 U.K. standard. There were moments where I felt as if I were one of Karswell’s victims, chasing the fine grain instead of a parchment. It was just beyond my grasp, with time running out. Still, it was very much worth the effort. How many opportunities do you get to save a film you’ve enjoyed so much through the years?
Night of the Demon and Curse of the Demon still haven’t been released in the States on Blu-ray but several import versions now exist. The French disc comes in an elaborate package with an enclosed book, and is reviewed here by Glenn Erickson.
Night of the Demon had finally escaped its own ‘curse.’ Unless another sleight of hand disappearance occurs it is now be here to stay.
May 17, 2017
* Those interested in the shadowy world of private collectors should check out the book A Thousand Cuts by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph. It gives a great overview of what that world was like in the pre-video days. Many collectors should be thanked for film restorations through the years that would not have been possible without their contributions.
Note from Glenn Erickson: Wayne’s article idea prompted my reviewing Night / Curse of the Demon again, in the highly desirable French edition released in 2013. It’s therefore also newly reviewed at CineSavant.
Text © Copyright 2017 Wayne Schmidt
Savant Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson