"It's In the Trees... It's Coming..."

by Arthur B

Finally released on DVD in Region 2, Night of the Demon is a noir horror masterpiece.
Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon - not to be confused with James Wasson's ludicrously gory Bigfoot-themed film of the same name from 1980 - opens with paranormal debunker Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) arriving at Lufford Hall, stately home of cult leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) - a man of Satanic reputation, at least one of whose followers has gone murderously insane. Harrington is there to beg for forgiveness for his attempts to expose Karswell's claims of occult powers as fraudulent - and to get Karswell to call off the occult forces he has called up against Harrington using potent runic symbols. Karswell claims he'll do all he can; apparently that doesn't include stopping the manifestation of a giant, flaming beast from the depths of hell which ambushes Harrington outside his home. When his colleague, American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews), arrives in the country to attend a parapsychology convention he decides to take up Harrington's investigation of Karswell, in tandem with Harrington's niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) and with the assistance of the other convention attendees. It's not long before John's scepticism is rattled by numerous strange phenomena - and when John receives his very own runic curse from Karswell, he finds that time is against him.

Appropriately for an adaptation of a story by M.R. James (Casting the Runes, adapted loosely by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester), Night of the Demon relies heavily on implication and is light on explicit shocks. The most glaring exception is the demon itself, seen at the beginning and end of the film, and allegedly added at producer Hal Chester's insistence despite Tourneur's reluctance to show it. As far as special effects go, it's probably the movie's most dated aspects; it's a pretty good monster by 1950s standards, but only by 1950s standards. As far as Tourneur's insistence that showing the demon turns Night of the Demon into a whole other film, I can see his point - its appearances are rather unsubtle considering the tone of the rest of the movie - but I don't think the piece is hopelessly vandalised as a result of its inclusion. Helpfully, there is no indications that anyone aside from its assigned victims ever actually sees the demon, so it can still fit within the central ambiguity that Tourneur plays with over the course of the entire story - whether the demon is a real entity, or a figment of the imagination evoked by the power of suggestion.

Like I said, for the bulk of the story suggestion is the name of the game, and through a series of brilliantly executed set pieces Tourneur racks up the tension. Particular highlights include Holden's first encounter with Karswell in the British Library, the parapsychologists using a combination of hypnosis and drugs to wring some answers out of insane cultist Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), and the seance that Karswell's mum (Athene Seyler) drags John and Joanna to at the home of the eccentric Mr and Mrs Meek (Reginald Beckwith and Rosamund Greenwood), which starts out amusingly fakey but soon gets shockingly real.

Tourneur came to the project after directing Nightfall, a film noir thriller, and he clearly stayed in a noirish mood because (demon excepted) this is one of the most visually stylish black-and-white horror movies I've ever seen, with sequences like Holden's vision of Karswell striding away from him down an indistinct black corridor in the Library, Hobart's broken body lying prone in a back alley, and Karswell's mad chase down the train tunnel at the end fitting the noir style so perfectly that if you saw them out of context you wouldn't necessarily guess you were watching a horror movie. As well as providing striking visuals, Tourneur shows excellent use of sound; in particular, whilst the actual visual appearance of the demon has dated a little, the sounds associated with it - in particular, this strange high-pitched tittering noises that coincides with its manifestations - are particularly distinctive and unsettling, so whenever the giggling noises recur later on in the film you know that the demon might be around the next corner. (In that respect, the demon's appearance at the start actually helps things by cementing the connection between the sounds and it.)

As well as excellent direction and a fine script, the film boasts an excellent performance from the cast. Niall MacGinnis is the standout in his depiction of Karswell, who - in keeping with the noir theme - isn't a cacklingly insane warlock but is a much more complicated figure. At times, he's downright charming - not least when John and Joanna visit him at his home, where they find him dressed as a clown and performing magic tricks for the local children. But whilst he's happy to laugh and smile and joke when it comes to discussing his more potent occult powers, it's always with a touch of gallows humour about it. To Karswell, John's demise is a done deal, and you never catch him expressing a shred of doubt about it. Karswell's backstory is interesting too, suggesting that he is not the fanatical Satanist or bookwormish sorcerer of more typical genre stories, but a mountebank who happens to have stumbled across genuine magical power and has used it utterly irresponsibly, which is far more interesting than most other cinematic wielders of demonic power.

Dana Andrews' performance as John is typically square-jawed and American, although he does do a good job of depicting a firm sceptic's doubts being eroded by the events he witnesses. John's scepticism is interesting, actually - sceptics usually get short shrift in horror stories because, of course, if they're right and nothing supernatural is happening then there's no story, but in this case there's a bit more to it than that. The ambiguity as to the reality or otherwise of the demon means that John's scepticism may in fact have been correct - in which case the gruesome death which concludes the story might have been averted altogether if he hadn't given in and bought into Karswell's worldview in a moment of weakness. Furthermore, John isn't just a sceptic - he's an arrogant, Dawkins-esque sceptic whose worldview not only prompts him to doubt claims of the supernatural, but to arrogantly dismiss people as ignorant rubes based on their beliefs. (He's especially rude to the Meeks.) That being the case, it seems somehow appropriate that the demon should prey on him. If Karswell's powers really are based on suggestion, then John might be the sort of person who is especially loud and obnoxious about their beliefs because inside they're not secure in their own faith (or lack of faith, in John's case).

It's not just special effects that have moved on since the 1950s, though. In some respects, the film's social attitudes are better than you'd expect for the era; in others, they are precisely as bad as you would expect. On the good side, Joanna is able to take a proactive and intelligent role in the investigation - often gaining access to clues and finding leads that John overlooks in his scepticism - so she's not just called on to scream and get rescued by the hero, unlike almost all other horror heroines of the time. (In fact, it's the hero this time around who really needs rescuing). On the bad side, the decidedly not-Indian Peter Elliot is cast as K.T. Kumar, an Indian delegate to the convention, and his performance is a horrid racial caricature. John also spouts the occasional bit of arrogant 50s sexism. (The worst line is "It'd be easier to stop Karswell's demon than a woman who has her mind made up!") On this score, overall it's not the worst film of its era, but it's not the best either.

Dated attitudes aside, though, it's an absolute classic, and you can see its influence here and there right up to the present day. In particular, once John accepts the reality of the demon and learns what he has to do to get rid of it, his attempts to pass the curse back to Karswell are reminiscent of the dilemma of Alison Lohman's character in Drag Me To Hell - though with the added twist that Karswell knows full well he mustn't accept the parchment containing the runes, and watching Karswell fearfully rebuffing every attempt of John to pass the runes is a joy.

Night of the Demon has, at long last, been made available on DVD in the UK for the first time - in a nice touch, the DVD release contains both the original film and Curse of the Demon, the American release which had a number of important scenes edited out in order to market it to the drive-in circuit.

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Comments (go to latest)
http://tristanjsstuff.blogspot.com/ at 10:36 on 2010-11-26
You had me at noir horror :-)

Out of curiosity, what 50s movies would score higher on the non-sexist non-racist scale?
Arthur B at 11:26 on 2010-11-26
Damnably few. I confess that I can't think of any which don't evade the racism/sexism thing by simply having no female/non-white characters, which really is a whole different flavour of racism and sexism.
Sister Magpie at 03:51 on 2010-11-27
Ooh! Already love the MR James story. Have added this to my Netflix queue--I wonder how I never knew about it before!
Sister Magpie at 23:43 on 2010-12-05
Just wanted to say--thanks for this rec! I totally enjoyed it. And the line about women making their minds up definitely stood out to me too. It's especially funny given that it's clearly not mean to be ironic even though the guy saying the line is the most stubborn person in the movie! Interesting that Joanna was, of course, a man in the original story. And I wonder what to make of both her and Karswell having dealings with children--Karswell doing magic for the village children at Halloween and Joanna being a kindergarten teacher (who for some reason writes letters to her students!)
Arthur B at 10:07 on 2010-12-06
I hadn't noticed that parellel, but now that I have I think it's meant to establish that Joanna has just as much claim as John to being an antithesis to Karswell - Karswell mystifies children with silly tricks, which are entertaining but unenlightening, whilst Joanna imparts them with knowledge and skills and facts. She's trying to make them independent, capable adults who can stand on their own two feet, Karswell is happy for them to remain kids beholden to him to wave the wand and reveal what he wants to reveal.

Her teaching job could also be related to the big difference between Joanna and John, which is that John's all about facts whilst Joanna's all about people - that's why when John is chasing hard evidence and being all confrontational and interrogative, Joanna is trying to establish a rapport with Karswell's mother in the hope that she'll let something slip. That's admittedly a pretty traditional take on male and female roles, but at least both approaches turn out to be valid ways of progressing the investigation.

The letter thing also seemed odd to me. I suppose it's a pedagogic technique which has fallen by the wayside or something.
Sister Magpie at 14:55 on 2010-12-06
That makes sense--and while it is a pretty traditional male/female breakdown, they do also establish that she has psychology training as well. So it's also two different types of psychologists. One studies people in theory and the other deals with them one-on-one for practical results.

It is too bad they couldn't get away with just using the smoke for the demon. There was a moment before teh demon got too close where it was pretty scary.
Arthur B at 15:00 on 2010-12-06
I actually quite like the shot of the demon picking up a victim and slamming him down brutally to the floor, like a child with a rag doll. Seriously harsh.
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