Hallowe’en Special: ‘Night Of The Demon’
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.
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.