Jacques Tourneur, 1957
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
The skeptical Dr. John Holden comes to England for a convention, where another man, Professor Harrington, planned to expose a local, Dr. Julian Karswell, of leading a Satanic cult. Since Harrington has recently died under mysterious circumstances, Holden decides to continue the investigation himself. He refuses to believe that Karswell is a Satanist or that any supernatural causes were behind Harrington’s death, though Harrington’s niece, Joanna, is not so sure. They soon have a number of strange encounters with Karswell, who curses Holden, promising that he will die in exactly three days…
Though less celebrated than horrors writers like Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, or even Stephen King, M. R. James is undeniably one of the best when it comes to ghost stories. He’s the most well known in England, his homeland, where you can find numerous film and television adaptations of his tales from collections like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) or A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925). But this adaptation of his creepy tale, “Casting the Runes” (1911), is one of the first and one of the best. Though not actually a ghost story, Night of the Demon and its source material examines the divide between scientific skepticism and supernatural power, remaining subtle and ambiguous for most of its captivating running time.
Night of the Demon was plagued with a number of on set problems, primarily between the film’s producer, Hal E. Chester, its writer, Charles Bennet, and director Jacques Tourneur. Chester insisted that shots of a demon be inserted into the film over everyone else’s objections — while Tourneur, Bennet, and star Dana Andrews argued that this would ruin the film’s carefully crafted sense of ambiguity. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching the film with the demon in place, but it really doesn’t bother me all that much. It has a campy, almost kaiju-like feel, which is sort of out of place with the film, but I don’t think it’s so garish that it ruins the proceedings completely. Tourneur’s other great horror films — Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) with producer Val Lewton — rely heavily on this subtle approach where the monstrous supernatural is implied but not directly shown, which is strong evidence that Night of the Demon doesn’t need to show the titular beastie at all.
The issues weren’t just limited to the presence of the demon itself and Tourneur — with Andrews as his ally — frequently clashes with Bennet. The writer would have had the chance to direct the film himself if he had held on to the rights a bit longer and sold them to RKO instead of Chester and his bitterness about this fact seems obvious. Many of the clashes between he and Tourneur were about who had directorial control over the film. Fortunately Tourneur regained the upper hand, though Bennet’s script is an undeniable strong point. He got his start writing a number of Hitchcock’s early films, including The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent, as well as Orson Welles’ Black Magic, John Farrow’s underrated film noir with Robert Mitchum, Where Danger Lives, and many more. Speaking of film noir, the film’s cast and crew have many ties to the genre: director Jacques Tourneur helmed one of the best, Out of the Past, star Dana Andrews was a film noir regular, and his costar, Peggy Cummins, made her career with the underrated, but influential Gun Crazy.
There’s also a film noir influence in the film’s visual world, perhaps thanks to Tourneur and cinematographer Edward Scaife, who worked on The Third Man. Like Cat People and The Devil and Daniel Webster, the interplay of shadows and light adds much to the film’s sense of atmosphere and tension. And like film noir but unlike the earlier American horror films from Universal, the characters of Night of the Demon exist on a more complex moral scale than the traditional contrast of upstanding hero and black hearted villain. Dana Andrews’ Holden seems more interested in flirting with Joanna and pouring himself another drink than he does in solving a potentially supernatural crime, while the fantastic Niall MacGinnis is a truly charismatic opponent as Karswell.
Part of what makes Karswell so appealing is that he is contradictory by nature. He’s not omniscient or infallible. Ultimately his downfall is that he reveals the mechanics of the lethal spell to Holden, but is then goaded into cursing Holden when the latter makes fun of the supernatural, obviously insulting his pride. He lives in a mansion with his sweet, albeit clueless mother and hosts children’s parties in full clown makeup. There is the sense that he has harnessed this power to account for a deep insecurity inspired by men like Holden — he tells his mother that you don’t get nothing for nothing and he has obviously made a trade for their comfort and fortune.
But what makes Night of the Demon truly great is its excellent sense of tension and abrupt, subtle moments of terror. A wind storm during the children’s party is particularly well done, though few things top the scenes set in the ominous forest outside Karswell’s mansion. In most of these scenes, it’s never clear whether the terror is wholly supernatural or is a product of suggestion or hypnosis. Some of the details are a bit silly, such the use of invisible ink, but a slip of cursed paper with runes on it seems to really have a life of its own. And unlike so many other supernatural horror films, the stark divide between believers and nonbelievers is never really resolved. Though Karswell’s magic seems to be real, Holden is never punished or reprimanded for refusing to believe in anything beyond the rational, measurable, or explainable, leaving with a strange balance between the two worlds.
Night of the Demon of course comes with the highest possible recommendation. This Columbia Pictures production’s only possible flaw is that it was cut for the American release (like so many British and European horror films) and transformed into a slightly different, worse film called Curse of the Demon. If this is the version you’re used to watching, give the film another chance uncut, under its proper title. This release fortunately has both versions, so you can compare at your leisure. It is the absolute perfect film to watch during Halloween.