Written by: M.R. James (story), Charles Bennett (screenplay) & Hal E. Chester (screenplay), Cy Enfield (uncredited)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďBut where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?"
While Val Lewton is rightfully credited with defining the look and feel of 1940s horror, he got a notable assist from Jacques Tourneur, the French-American director who helmed Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, two definitive Lewton productions at RKO. The studio eventually moved him up to the A-team for its bigger budgeted films, and he went on to have a prolific career before retiring in the 60s. Towards the end of his career, he returned to the genre that put him on the map, and one of those films, 1957ís Night of the Demon, is something of an echo of that earlier work that also prefigures the devilish occult films that would come to dominate British horror especially during the next decade.
Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is an American psychologist who specializes in debunking occult myth and superstitions. Heís arrived in London to attend a conference dedicated to just that subject, and heís especially been investigating Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), an enigmatic cult leader. While heís en route to London, Holdenís collaborator, Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), has a fateful encounter with Karswell that results in his death at the hands of a demon. His demise appears to be an accident, and Holden still refuses to believe in Karswellís supernatural abilities, even when the cultist places a hex on him that supposedly dooms him to day within three days.
Iím always interested in seeing how genres and styles intersect, and Night of the Demon is one of those crossroads films; draped in an elegant, sublime style thatís rich shadow play and creeping terror, it looks like it could have easily just been a fourth collaboration between Tourneur and Lewton (who had unfortunately passed away about six years earlier). However, the film is also bathed in occult witchery of a different sort from the type Tourneur explored fifteen years earlier under Lewtonís watch. Instead of the exotic mystical voodoo of I Walked With A Zombie or the eastern European mysticism of Cat People, Night of the Demon presents witchcraft operating right in Britainís backyard (in fact, its opens with an ominous shot of one of its most famous landmarks in Stonehenge). This anticipates how horror would progressively move closer to our bodies and minds in the coming decades--whereas early horror often hinged on geographic or temporal displacement (via foreign and period settings), the genre began to hit closer to home in the post-atomic age. First, giant, nuclear monsters and aliens invaded, but the psychopath next door would soon begin to emerge.
Night of the Demon finds itself somewhere in between all of this. Its antagonist is certainly some sort of madman, albeit one operating in plain sight. Like any good cult leader, MacGinnisís Karswell is a spectacularly menacing but alluring presence, a dapper devil with a pointed goatee with a sinister calm about him. He sometimes presents himself as more of a magician than a sorcerer, with some of his tricks resembling parlor tricks: he conjures up a howling wind at a Halloween house party in order to convince Holden of his powers, for example. The skeptic remains convinced, but viewers are privy to his necromancy and its associated imagery that gives Night of the Demon much its power. From the opening shot of Englandís famous ancient ruins, it's steeped in mystical paganism that takes the form of runes, cursed parchments, and mysterious texts. Tourneurís film might not have been the first to explore such material, but it feels like a direct ancestor of cult films that Hammer Studios and other British filmmakers would begin churning out within the next decade. Such films prey on the underlying fear that even the modern world could be undermined by its more godless roots.
This film rests on that divide, as Tourneur sets up an intriguing dichotomy between Holdenís modern skepticism and Karswellís ancient witchcraft. The film mostly proceeds as a battle between these two, with the viewer caught in the middle and the ambiguity of it all. An intriguing commentary on the nature of belief and suggestion emerges, as the audience is seemingly forced to wonder if Karswellís powers are simply imagined or real. Tourneur himself seems rather ambivalent about coming down on either side since thereís an implicit irony in the parallels between Holdenís belief in hypnosis and his steadfast refusal to believe in sťances. Both simply seem like a different type of magic trick. Even the filmís final line (ďmaybe itís best not to knowĒ) suggests further ambiguity on this matter. Unfortunately, the film and Tourneur were famously undermined by producer and writer Hal Chester, who insisted that the demon be explicitly revealed early in the film, which renders the richness of all this a little moot since the opening scene deflates any mystery; thereís little doubt that the demon (which almost looks like a Kaiju, as if Chester were looking to cash-in on that craze) exists since it appears within five minutes.
As it never appears again until the final scene, one can still glimpse the type of film Tourneur obviously intended to make. Night of the Demon proceeds as a well-wrought, spooky yarn about a man outrunning his possible death. Even had the demon not been explicitly shown, an otherworldly sense of doom would overhang the proceedings, as Tourneur packs each frame and scene with heavy portent. Subtle images, such as a statue whose head seems to be eerily craned towards Holden as he prowls outside the Karswell abode, insinuate an omnipresent malevolence. Likewise, Holdenís visit with the family of one of Karswellís follower is made unnerving by their stone-faced glares, as if they know something that Holden does not. Just as he did under Lewton, Tourneur has an excellent sense of escalation, as he ramps up the fright in more overt ways when the film hurdles towards its conclusion. Iím actually of two minds about the demon; one the one hand, its presence dilutes the texture of the film, but, on the other, it is a striking, bone-chilling image that perfectly represents the filmís fog and shadow surrealism.
Night of the Demon is just one instance of studio interference away from being a downright masterpiece. As is, itís a bit of an incoherent text, with Tourneurís obvious intentions snuffed out by a couple of scenes that still work, so youíre almost loath to suggest their omission would be an improvement. Regardless, it is a film filled with fantastic performances, with Andrews and Peggy Cummins making a swell couple at the center, and the film stands as a fine example of a directorís horror movie. This is Tourneurís show, and, despite Chesterís ill-conceived intervention, it can stand proudly alongside his RKO horrors, especially since Night of the Demon represents the last gasp of the Lewton style. Interestingly enough, another Lewton disciple, Robert Wise (who rescued Curse of the Cat People), would craft a similarly styled film about six years later with The Haunting. Chesterís meddling wasnít the only tribulation the film endured, as American distributors re-titled the film Curse of the Demon and chopped about thirteen minutes from it. Both versions are presented on Columbiaís DVD, and both are masterfully restored; unfortunately, the package is a little light on extras, as it only features some trailers. Still, Night of the Demon is a must-own film whose tension and bizarre atmosphere transcend are transcendent. Buy it!
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