Hallowe’en Special: ‘Night Of The Demon’

Film

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In the first of a few posts on Hallowe’en I thought I’d do something a bit different this year and take a look back at a classic supernatural film, to see how it holds up.

Jacques Tourneur’s ‘The Night of the Demon’ was made in 1957 and was based on Montague R James’s short story ‘Casting the Runes’. A fairly straightforward tale of science versus witchcraft is transformed in Tourneur’s hands into something filled with dread and discomfort.

American professor John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology only to discover that the colleague he was supposed to meet was killed in a freak accident the day before (a telegraph pole electrocuted him). The deceased had been investigating a cult lead by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Though a skeptic, Holden is suspicious of the devil-worshiping Karswell. Following a trail of mysterious manuscripts, Holden starts to question his faith in science…

Ageing myth debunker Dana Andrews and frozen-faced Peggy Cummings are on the side of good, avuncular Niall MacGinnis is the man of magic. The film’s production was turbulent due to artistic differences between producer and Tourneur, and the writer Charles Bennett. The original plan was not to show a literal demon, but the producer inserted a monster over the objections of virtually everyone. To further accelerate the pace, the film was hacked down to 83 minutes and retitled Curse of the Demon in the US.

As a result, the monster now appears in clear detail right at the start of the film, which is a mistake, even though by 1957 special effects standards it’s a pretty good one, a puppet based on old woodcuts.

One of the attractions for me was seeing these London locations afresh. Here Andrews goes to an empty misty British Museum (these days the exterior is cluttered with vendors and students), and heads for the great circular reading Room at the centre of the museum.

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It’s now possible to watch the film and see it in a whole new light. And light here is the key, because Turner uses it brilliantly, whether zooming through the eerily dark London streets in an open-topped car or finding something creepy in the shadowed corridors of the Savoy.

Andrews is constantly referred to as a ‘young man’ when he’s clearly in his mid-fifties or so. He barks orders at everyone – ‘Give me your keys’, ‘Get me a car’ – and shows total indifference to anyone’s pain.

When he first encounters Karswell at his home, Karswell is dressed as a clown/magician and entertaining children – a delightfully wrongfooting moment. Then there’s the strange matter of Karswell’s mother, who bustles about making tea but is clearly scared of her son.

The script is at pains to create a fully fleshed-out villain. Karswell points out to his mother that she was quite happy to accept the benefits of witchcraft in her grand house, and must therefore accept its downside. But Karswell is actually terrified of the hero – something we never normally see in a film. Karswell has got himself into a position from which there is no climbing down. When he’s not scared, he’s arrogant; ‘Hypnosis’, he explains, having rendered Peggy mute, ‘is a convenient way of stopping idle chatter on a train’.

Meanwhile, the police seem to allow John Holden to rampage around causing all kinds of trouble. He smashes up a seance even though it’s clear that the medium is not faking. And is it really a good idea to take a patient from an asylum for the criminally insane, pump him full of meth amphetamine, then hypnotise him into thinking there are demons? No wonder the poor devil chucks himself out of a window. Holden never shows remorse or even the slightest interest in the people he hurts.

As in Tourneur’s ‘Cat People’, the power of suggestion plays its part, particularly when Holden thinks a house cat has turned into a leopard. And the final race to return the runes is superbly underplayed, although a Blu-Ray copy of the film now reveals some clumsy continuity flaws. But the script is the thing; it’s short and tightly wound; we can only pray that the upcoming ‘Dr Strange’ is half as good on the subject.

12 comments on “Hallowe’en Special: ‘Night Of The Demon’”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    The chase through the woods is still splendid, I even like the Chewits monster, in all a splendid low budget film. In this film the magic is not in control, even the ending of the children’s party it’s out of control, usually it’s the old ways that are better but here neither is the winner, and humans are just at the will of whatever path you take.

    I doubt Dr Strange will be like this after all it’s a super hero film.

    Wayne.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    I love this film. Thanks for the insight. I’ve never noticed John Holden’s lack of feeling-though now you mention it I can see what you mean-or bothered about his advanced age, although he is clearly is too old for a romantic lead. I’m going to watch it again. Leslie Halliwell (the film buff who didn’t seem to like many films) actually likes it, though this is “Despite dim work from the leads”.

    I saw a TV play circa 1969 made, I think, by Granada, in the “Mystery and Imagination” series they were doing at the time. The full set of the surviving episodes is available on DVD. Unfortunately most of the “Runes” episode has been wiped, but there is about 6 minutes left. It is set in period and John Fraser plays the lead.

    Much has been said about the appearance of the demon. It has always been a major criticism of the film. Would it have been better if it had been left to the imagination? Would it have been more effective if it had been shown only at the end of the film and not also near the beginning? Tourneur has always blamed the producers’ last minute decision to include it for the sake of spectacle. However, I read somewhere recently that it was in the script from the beginning and Tourneur didn’t appear to say anything about it. It was suggested in this article that due to the controversy he tried to push the blame onto the producers. Unfortunately, I cannot remember who wrote the article, or in which publication I read it. Whatever anyone thinks, it does appear to have been extremely well executed and even decades on it doesn’t come across as risible.

    I read the M. R. James story some time ago, and despite being short it was difficult to get through. The writing was lumpen and contained too many long paragraphs and too little punctuation. There-I’ve said it! Everyone will hate me now!

  3. admin says:

    I’m afraid I agree with you, Brian. For me, Montague James is shockingly overrated when there are so many other better writers of his ilk. There, I’ve said it too!

  4. Bob says:

    Much as I loved M.R. James’ stories when I came across them in anthologies as a child, the comments by Brian and Admin about his writing are fair. A few years ago, I bought a volume of his collected stories, and made the mistake of reading them consecutively-after the first two or three, you get the feeling you’re reading the same story over and over again. I still like reading one now and again, but I think, over all, that I prefer E.F. Benson’s stories, which have more variety, and use occasional touches of humour to good effect. Night of the Demon is a brilliant film. Although the Demon itself is impressive, if a decision had been made not to show it, this would have been a quite different, and even better film, focussing on the war between the two opposing belief systems of the hero and Karswell, with the ending making the point that, if you truly believe in something completely enough, it can be physically dangerous, whether it actually ‘exists’ or not. I hope that makes sense!

  5. Ian Mason says:

    @Brian
    “Much has been said about the appearance of the demon. It has always been a major criticism of the film. Would it have been better if it had been left to the imagination? Would it have been more effective if it had been shown only at the end of the film and not also near the beginning?”

    A modern CGI version could play out well here. Instead of actually showing the daemon, wisps of train smoke and steam could form suggestive shapes that never quite coalesce enough for you to say whether you saw the daemon or not. You could do similar in the opening but keep it more on the side of hints and suggestion.

  6. snowy says:

    If I have this tale correct, an American Professor comes to a foreign country, looks up some obscure symbols in a library, hooks up with a young woman and spends the rest of the film, running about trying to prevent a ‘bad thing’.

    That would make an entire franchise these days, [all it needs is some parachuting priests, just to round out the third act.]

    Dana Andrews wasn’t ‘old’ as much as ‘rugged, that was still a thing back then. Actors or at least serious actors hadn’t gone baby-faced yet. [That would come after, Jimmy-“Tree? What tree!”- Dean, I think, but I could be wrong.]

    [All the proper grown-up discussions about ‘Night of the Demon’ seem to point to Tony Earnshaw’s: ‘Beating the Devil – The Making of Night of the Demon’.

    Out of print, silly prices, but it might be re-issued. Tomahawk Press.]

  7. Stevee says:

    When I first saw the film, I didnt know the demon was a late addition. It worked fine for me then and still does!
    One of my favourite films that easily bears rewatching every few years.

  8. Lynchie says:

    The wonderful Kate Bush used the line “It’s in the trees, it’s coming”, from “Night Of The Demon”, as the intro to the song “Hounds Of Love” – as can be heard (and seen) in this official wacky but poptastic video from 1985.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6aRdJn5JsM

  9. Brooke says:

    Snowy…love your plot summary!

  10. Jan says:

    Yes you have got it spot on playing with the light. The best bit for me is the journey through the woods on the way back when Dana,Andrews has broken into Karswell’s house and the trees are backlit and look fantastical and eerie. Spielberg did some similar lighting in Close Encounters and ET but this is bettter still, done so much earlier and benefits. from the black and white film.

    It’s such a great picture this deserves to be much better known. The magician Niall Macguinis
    -did I spell that wrong – is brilliant it’s his picture really.

    I always thought Dana Andrews character was sort of a metaphor for the scientific method cold, unfeeling, detached and that was being put against the character of the magician subtle, clever,devious but in some sort of sympathy with his victims. But I quite possibly could be talking out of my arse there!

  11. Jan says:

    The other wonders are the picturing of old London scenes which you mention. Wasn’t the old reading room in the British museum a great spot?

    Ian Mason has said some very clever stuff a few posts above about using CGI to suggest the appearance of the daemon. But they’d probably get carried away and your demon would end up carrying a demonic Kalashnikov …

    And one final bit I think M.R.James was a writer who had fantastic ideas but his prose is very clunky sounding and tedious to our ears. Did he write ‘ The man the trees knew’ or was that HP Lovecraft? I could be arse talking here again – another fantastic tale. Some writers do have smashing ideas really fresh great stuff but the writing styles go out of date becomingcdifficukt for u Scot ready+ enjoy.

    Well this isn’t getting the ironing done

  12. Jan says:

    That SHOULD read becoming difficult to read and enjoy. This tablet writes it’s,own stuff

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