31/08/2013

Night Of The Demon (1957)


"It's in the trees! It's coming!"

When Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), charged with investigating a suburban satanic cult, is found dead in mysterious circumstances, visiting American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) is asked to take his place. The very man Holden suspects of leading the devil worshippers, one Dr Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), seeks him out and cautions him against persevering. When Holden refuses to back down, Karswell presents him with a strip of parchment bearing an inscription written in ancient runes and warns Holden that he now only has three days left to live. Holden remains sceptical and teams up with his late predecessor's niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) to find out what this strange egg is really up to. You know Karswell's bad news: he's got a highly questionable goatee beard, he still lives with his mother (Athene Seyler), he enjoys dressing as a clown and his first name is Julian.


Night Of The Demon improbably shares its source material with Hideo Nakata's popular J-horror Ringu (1998): both are based on 'The Casting Of The Runes' (1911), one of the best-known ghost stories by late Victorian writer M.R. James. The idea of a death curse activated by an encounter with an ill-omened object is really all that unites them, although both boast a memorable monster. According to legend, the demon in this case was a famously divisive addition - scriptwriter Charles Bennett, director Jacques Tourner and star Andrews were all opposed to ever showing the beast on screen at all - but producer Hal E. Chester insisted otherwise and the result is actually a highly impressive, unearthly creation. Its appearances in a flash of blinding white light and eerie smoke at the beginning and end of the film are genuinely uncanny and, aside from its rather homemade looking eyeballs, it's a memorably snarling and unsettling apparition. Andrews is as reliable as ever in the lead as a rationalist whose denial of the possibility of the paranormal is severely tested by his experiences while the portly, balding MacGannis expertly incarnates the mundanity of evil. His end, stumbling desperately along a railway track after a windblown slip of parchment of his own, knowing full well that it's all too late and that the demon is finally coming to claim him too, provides a pleasingly savage climax but also stands as a poignant memento mori: won't we all, ultimately, end up this way, fighting hopelessly against the inevitable?


A pivotal early scene in Night Of The Demon, the first encounter between Holden and Karswell, takes place in the Reading Room of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I was lucky enough to be part of the audience seeing the film screened at that very venue this week, enjoying Tourneur's work projected in the open air as part of the BFI's money-spinning new Gothic season. The museum had hosted a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's restored silent masterpiece Blackmail (1929) last summer, another thriller in which that iconic building played an important role, and the museum once more made for an impressive and atmospheric setting, a chill wind disturbing the trees on Great Russell Street, the shadows of its pointed black railings tumbling like spears into the courtyard as the sun set, the Grecian pillars of the temple itself bathed in lurid scarlet lighting. Peggy Cummins, the star of this and Gun Crazy (1950), who dated Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy in her day, was also in attendance and seemed thrilled that the film was being re-evaluated in such auspicious environs. 

4 comments:

  1. Great post Joe, and a great review. I really enjoy MR James, and I think there are elements of the film which really chime well with the original story. I like the ambiguity created when Dana Andrews first meets MacGinnis. I've always loved the scene with the children's magic party as well. It's a fine film, although (speaking wholly personally) I dont feel it captures the heights of Cat People. But it's close!

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  2. Hello Sidney, thanks very much for your response. I liked how matter-of-fact the presentation of witchcraft is here - no hags in pointy hats stewing over a cauldron, just a rather fusty academic type conjuring wind storms from a text book! The presence of Dana Andrews also inevitably gives it a very grounded noirish feel, which is always welcome in the horror genre I think.

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  3. This is one of my favorite horror films, especially because, as you point out, it's so down-to-earth in its chills. Karswell is quite upfront about what he is, and he has a peculiar sense of fair play in that he warns his intended victims of what he plans to do -- their own disbelief in his talents is their undoing. The scariest scene for me is the hypnosis session: The use of stark lighting and jump cuts, plus Brian Wilde's gripping performance as the medical subject, make it unsettling to watch. I confess, though, I'm a little ambivalent about the demon's appearance, particularly right at the beginning. It seems to give away the game too quickly.

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  4. You're absolutely right about the hypnosis scene GOM, Brian Wilde is indeed convincingly disturbed and it's perfectly presented. As for the demon, it's perhaps an error not to have saved it for the end, by which point our anticipation would have built, but I think on the whole it's an impressive enough creation to merit at least one appearance.

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