Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Night of the Demon (1957)


Curse of the Demon

The chilling ghost stories of English academic and scholar M. R. James have almost totally been ignored by cinema. When one considers some of the garbage that has been produced in the name of Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, or Edgar Allan Poe this ignorance becomes perplexing. The horror in the stories of James’ is of the nuanced and subtle variety, horror that would require a modicum of intellect to replicate on screen, this goes some way to explaining his omission from the world of film. To date Night of the Demon remains the only occasion James has been adapted for cinema screens. The screenplay by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester was based upon his short story Casting the Runes, and despite a number of alterations maintains the spirit of the original text. It should be noted that James has fared a lot better on British television. A number of his stories were chosen for the anthology series Mystery and Imagination (1966-68), and his tales provided the backbone for the BBC’s annual Ghost Story at Christmas throughout the 1970’s. It is certainly true that the short story is more suited to the anthology format, but Night of the Demon proves that James’ stories could make the transition to feature film with some measure of creative success.

Night of the Demon has slowly but surely risen to a level of prominence and importance in any history of British horror. This has been aided by a visual presentation that opposed the lurid excesses of the gothic horror popular in the late 1950’s. Furthermore it has a greater interest in the characters, and prefers to leave a number of its effective set pieces to the imagination. The film opens with a series of eerie establishing shots of Stonehenge; the mythical qualities of Salisbury plain instantly conveying the centrality of pagan beliefs, runic symbols, and cult worship. Throughout the film the Hertfordshire countryside lies in direct opposition to the modernity of the city - Karswell’s rambling estate and mansion contrasted to the non-descript and historically vacuous hotel room where Dr. Holden resides. An early sequence contrasts transatlantic flight to a primal fight for survival in the English countryside between man and demon. This a pattern that is repeated throughout and it takes further shape in Holden’s blunt scepticism. Holden is a psychologist and he is also an American, and these aspects of his character build into him a rationality created from modern educational practices and a lack of consideration for history and ancient religion. His predecessor Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) gets sucked into Karswell’s satanic whirlpool, in the end he believes and pays for his belief with his life. But this isn’t going to happen to Holden, because he’s American and any belief’s he had of the supernatural were systematically erased by his education.

The result of Holden’s stringent beliefs in the world around him and his faith in logic and rationality is that he becomes a less engaging character. In fact he becomes a major irritation, in large part due to Dana Andrews’ arrogant and stiff performance. The heartbeat of the film is the much more fascinating figure of Julian Karswell - the enigmatic leader of the cult that Holden is in England to debunk. Karswell lives in a rambling mansion with his mother, and his lavish lifestyle is supported by his followers (though we only glimpse a few, and they don’t look as though they have two shillings to rub together). Karswell is benevolent (he does magic shows for the local kids), urbane, witty, charming and just happens to have deciphered an ancient text that enables him to conjure demons. He is everything that Holden isn’t and the film lights up when actor Nial McGinnis comes into shot. The battle between Karswell and Holden ends ironically (because it costs him his life) with a victory for Karswell. Holden is unable to debunk Karswell’s powers because in the excellent finale he comes to believe in them.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the most controversial element of Night of the Demon; the demon itself. Our first sighting of the creature when it confronts Professor Harrington is not successful in my view. Its appearance comes far too early in the film, however its second appearance at the railway station is very impressive and works well in large part due to the tense and suspenseful events leading up to it. The director Jacques Tourneur who had previous experience of this brand of horror when working under the auspices of Val Lewton wanted just a few quick shots of the demon, either way I don’t think it is a major detraction from what is essentially a film about a battle of wills and alternative viewpoints. Far more impressive is a sequence in which Karswell creates a cyclone in his garden; the leaves whipping at the characters as they escape into the house, and a late night flee through the woods in which Holden briefly glimpses the hellish fires from which the demon springs. Night of the Demon’s position within horror history is totally justified and it remains a towering example of how less can be more in the horror genre.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Fantastic! I love Night of the Demon. Such a great film. I love Mr. Meek too.

  2. Night of the Demon is indeed an overlooked gem. It is a horror classic that was actually chilling without resorting to cheap tactics. Great review, BTW.

  3. Thanks for the comments both - it is a truly great film! :-)

  4. I ordered it a little before Halloween and it has yet to arrive...based on what I've heard about it and what's been said here...I can't wait!!! Shaun, have you done a post about Hammer's "Quatermass and the Pit", yet?

  5. Hello there Woodside, nice to see you :-)
    Is that the recent Mediumrare release that also has the US 'Curse of the Demon' cut? - thats the one I picked up and its a good package. I haven't covered any of the Quatermass films yet, I have them all on DVD, so I'll root them out and take another look.

  6. Very nice review, Shaun. I absolutely love this one - Tourneur once again takes a meager budget and is able to spin genre gold from it. It's just as perfectly atmospheric and unnerving as any of his collaborations with Lewton were, and I really love those movies.

    You are of course right about the first shot of the Demon being rather ineffective; in fact some of the releases of the movie under its other name, Curse of the Demon, have that section edited out.

  7. Oh, and I don't know Woodside, but in case any of you are curious, I recently did an entry on Quatermass and the Pit in my 'Five From a Favorite' series:

  8. Thanks for the comments Drew - I appreciate the Lewton films he did more from a stylistic point of view - 'Night of the Demon' however I really enjoy, and along with his brilliant noir 'Out of the Past' is the Frenchman's best film I think.
    I haven't got around to watching the US cut of the film which is also on the DVD, but I'm sure my curiosity will eventually get the better of me.

  9. Everyone always points to the demon as being superfluous to the film. But just look at the thing. It was an impressively ghastly bit of suitimation! How could you produce something like that and NOT show it onscreen

  10. Jaques wanted less of the demon in the film, in fact, he didnt want to show it at all, but the producers made him show it, because they wanted to see the "monster movie" angle of the whole thing.

    Still, as you mentioned, the more tense moments are more subtle in nature.

    Did you notice the connections with Sam Raimis Drag Me to Hell, the similarities? Even down to the seanse sequence! I love this movie, and I totally agree, its the villain that makes the film.

  11. I remember reading (I think it was in Tony Earnshaw's excellent book 'The Making of Night of the Demon') that Tourneur wanted four very brief shots of the Demon in the concluding sequence. I believe it was the early sequence in which the Demon becomes visible to Prof. Harrington that caused the major disagreement.

    I havent seen 'Drag me to Hell'. I consider everything directed by Sam Raimi post 'Dark Man' to be utterly worthless, so I'm unlikely to ever watch it.

  12. Yeah, I guess you'd be right about Raimi's post Darkman era, maybe with the exception of The Quick and the Dead, Spider Man 1 and 2, Army of Darkness and The Gift. Those I consider to be good post Darkman films. The rest is crap.

    But, Drag Me to Hell? The one movie I had hopes for, the one I hoped would bring Raimi back to his former Evil Dead glory? A soft horror film if there ever was any.

    And it was inspired by Night of the Demon in more ways then one, even the glimpses we get of the demon, and the way it looks was inspired by Night of the Demon. The whole idea of having an object that would bring demons into your life simply because you own it. The curse, the seance, the appearance of the demon...if your interested, simply check out if only to see all the similarities between the two.

  13. Excellent write up on an excellent movie, Shaun. I haven't seen it in years since selling my Goodtimes VHS and I have yet to pick up the DVD with both cuts of the film.

    For years it's been stated in various books that Tourneur didn't want the demon to be visualized at all, so it's nice to hear some additional info regarding this. I didn't realize there was a book on the making of the picture. Surely it's a good read.

    This was one of the movies that fascinated me as a small child strictly by the iconic image of that demonic creature which was featured in a big book on horror I used to have as well as an old issue of FMOF magazine.

    THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW also pays homage to this movie in the lyrics of the opening song 'Science Fiction Double Feature Picture Show'.

  14. @ Film Connoisseur; I saw the trailer for DRAG ME TO HELL and it left me unimpressed. I guess its similarities to NIGHT OF THE DEMON may one day lead me to take a look at it - but with so many truly great films out there, it would be unlikely.

    @ Venom; Many thanks for the kind words. Yes its a good read, I gave it a mention in my British Cinema Literary Guide post a few weeks back. It is still selling on Amazon for a reasonable price - in many ways the demonic creature functions like a Hitchcockian McGuffin - a barely seen plot device included for the purposes of pushing the narrative forward. This is why I didnt think it merited more than a few sentences in my review. It is certainly a well designed creature.

  15. Oh, yes, that's right! I remember now! Also, I just perused a book catalog I have and it's in there. I guess I had forgotten about it.

    Regarding DRAG ME TO HELL, the scenes of horror seldom evoke that emotion what with all the slapstick style shenanigans that were prominent in EVIL DEAD 2.

    Getting back to NIGHT/CURSE, I wouldn't be surprised if a "reimagining" was in the works at some point.

  16. Yes, I don't know if it is by Mediumrare but I know it contains both films and is a U.S. release. Your DVD player is region "0"? or is Mediumrare a UK firm?

  17. This is the copy I have;

    It was only released about a month ago. It's a UK Region 2 Disc. I presume that Mediumrare are a UK firm, but I dont know a lot about them. My brief research on Amazon shows that they have also put out discs of COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, and THE SENTINEL. Aside from that, nothing of note.

  18. That looks a lot classier than the one I'm getting (I still have yet to receive it) but hopefully the picture quality, etc. is descent, anyway.

  19. Glad that you covered this one Shaun, especially in lieu of our discussions about CAT PEOPLE! Taken as either a larger than life monster film or a psychological thrill ride, NIGHT OF THE DEMON is definitely one of the finest examples of English Horror!


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