Despite some controversy surrounding the appearance of its titular monster, a spooky film made in England during the second half of the 1950s has lost none of its eerily tense charm. Mark Fraser happily revisits a black and white classic.
All self-respecting horror movie fans should take it upon themselves to watch Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 supernatural thriller Night of the Demon at least once in their lives.
Furthermore, they should avoid – with their first viewing at least – the shortened version of the film and, instead, catch the original English cut, which runs at about 96 minutes and contains an extra 14 minutes of footage.
By way of an explanation, the finished movie was initially whittled down to 82 minutes before being released on its home soil not because the removed material was offensive or redundant (it had already been approved by the British Board of Film Censors), but so it could be shown as part of a double bill, with its screening partner in this instance being Nathan Juran’s 1957 sci-fi opus 20 Million Miles to Earth.
Meanwhile, over in the US, Columbia Pictures Corporation saw fit to rename it Curse of the Demon and team it with Hammer Films Productions’ The Revenge of Frankenstein (directed by Terence Fisher) in 1958.*
Thus the original 96 minute version, which is perfectly timed and executed – and is never bogged down by any cinematic flab – was essentially a victim of financial expediency. This is a pity as the first incarnation of Night of the Demon is, by any stretch of the imagination, a masterwork – a film so damn good that it is impossible to find anything worth chopping out of it.
Granted it has moments when things look a little archaic, including the model and accompanying special effects which were employed to create the controversial titular entity. Plus it’s fair to say it has its share of good old fashioned male chauvinism.
But in this day and age there’s really no point getting hung up about this – it is, after all, over 60 years old. If anything, the most important thing to keep in mind is, after six decades, the movie has remained a seminal entry in the horror genre. This surely says something about how effective it truly is.
So, what has given Night of the Demon such longevity?
Perhaps the fundamental reason is the fact it is a total ripsnorter of a story – a taut race-against-the clock thriller which begins on a note of utmost urgency before keeping up this cracking pace throughout the rest of the narrative.
Night of the Demon opens at night as a frantic Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) speeds through the pitch black English countryside in his car as he attempts to reach the manor home of Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in the hope of having a demonic curse lifted from him.
In a brief piece of exposition it is revealed Karswell – who seriously delves in the black arts – has placed the curse on Harrington following the latter’s attempts to publicly expose his witchcraft activities.
This plea, however, ultimately falls on deaf ears and the professor is later killed and mutilated by a giant demon that emerges from the woods in a billow of smoke after the scared man returns home.
Meanwhile, visiting American psychologist Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in the UK to attend the convention at which Harrington had planned to put the spotlight on Karswell’s supernatural shenanigans.
A sceptic by nature, Holden finds himself drawn into the whole affair when he too has a curse placed upon him by the seemingly reasonable Satan worshipper.
Although he initially questions the veracity of the threat, he later discovers his doubts are ill-founded.
With the help of Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), Holden follows a trail of clues which inevitably leads them to Karswell.
Another key reason the movie continues to resonate is the fact it has numerous fun moments of genuinely creepy suspense. These include a séance wherein the spirit of a little girl is evoked; Holden’s night time burglary of Karswell’s manor home (during which a domestic cat turns into a leopard, with the intruder later being chased through the woods by the demon); the initial meeting between the two men in the reading room of the British Museum; Karswell’s conjuring of a sudden storm at a children’s Halloween garden party; as well as the interrogation (under hypnosis) of murder suspect and curse survivor Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde).
Ultimately Night of the Demon works on all levels. Its direction, noirish cinematography (by Edward Scaife), set design (Ken Adam), score (Clifton Parker) and casting are all close-to-perfect. So is the script – an adaption of Montague R (MR) James’ short story ‘Casting the Runes’ by Charles Bennett, the British writer who also penned a few films for the pre-Hollywood Alfred Hitchcock, including the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Foreign Correspondent (1940).**
But don’t take this reviewer’s word for it. As Vic Pratt of the British Film Institute wrote in 2017:
“Despite the monster, Night of the Demon is a cerebral piece: it chills viewers intelligently, slowly, and fills them with an ominous sense of impending dread and looming, inevitable disaster, leavened with dark, dry dashes of humour and irony – tactics that, once again, bring to mind a certain Mr Hitchcock. And what’s more, it makes witchcraft creepily contemporary.”
As evidenced by the above quote, Pratt is one of the many critics who didn’t (and still don’t) like the appearance of the actual demon, which turns up twice in the film.
While the history behind its inclusion can be found elsewhere (see Wikipedia), it’s interesting to note it was – according to legend – put in there at the insistence of producer Hal E Chester*** against the wishes of the director, the scriptwriter and the leading man.
The pros and cons of showing the monster are discussed in the extras that come with Powerhouse Films Ltd’s Blu-ray issue of the movie.
In his analysis, writer Christopher Frayling argues Tourneur knew about the demon’s intended appearance from the start, but was disappointed when he saw its “cheesy, cheaply made, utterly unconvincing and really (belonging) in a different movie” face after he saw the cut.
“There’s absolutely no question in my mind it was never a psychological ghost story,” he notes.
“There was always a monster, as there is in MR James’ (story) – as Charles Bennett must have realised – but it didn’t have a head that looked like a bunch of bananas. Such a shame.”
Meanwhile, Nightmare Movies author Kim Newman believes there should be a monster, but not one that is seen so early in the piece. Taking the demon out, he suggests, “would hurt the film”.
“It seems to me it’s structured as a big build up to a pay-off,” he says.
“If you are playing the kind of rational explanation game – if it’s supposed to be a subjective image – then it does look like a Medieval woodcut (and) it is entirely credible that this would be what people would imagine a demon to look like.”
Needless to say it’s a moot point, and one which shouldn’t deter any movie buff from watching this masterpiece.
For this critic’s money, the bulk of the film is so solid it would work either way.
*It was also shown in the US, which had a massive drive-in market, with Lewis Seiler’s 1958 crime melodrama The True Story of Lynn Stuart.
**There is a bit of conjecture here. Chester also has a screenplay credit, but according to English author/film historian Tony Earnshaw – who provides the commentary for the film on the Blu-ray release – Bennett’s 137-page original script was “largely discarded”, while Chester wrote “very little”. Instead, he says, it was rewritten by Zulu director Cy Enfield.
***More conjecture. In the UK release Frank Bevis is credited as the producer with Chester the executive producer. But in Curse of the Demon, Chester (an American) is the acknowledged producer.
Vic Pratt: “Why I Love … Night of the Demon”, bfi.org.uk, February 9, 2017
Words by Mark Fraser
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Night of the Demon was released by Powerhouse Films on Blu-ray in the UK on April 22, 2019.