NIGHT OF THE DEMON/ aka CURSE OF THE DEMON
Night Of The Demon was based on the short story Casting The Runes by M R James, the Cambridge don and acclaimed but overrated horror writer. James said that the essential element in his stories was the crescendo. This could be another way of saying that he was not great with plots and he did not care. In most of his stories a naïve man picks up a curse. Mysterious events follow one another, and there is a climax that either ends in escape or destruction. Before the end the reader discovers something about the dark forces that are best ignored. Few, though, will remember many happy endings in his stories.
Night Of The Demon follows the format established by M R James but adds movie dynamism, an American hero who is flawed rather than naïve and a confrontation between two wilful men. The extra drama makes the film more Dennis Wheatley than M R James. Wheatley was an appalling novelist but, without his regurgitated history and turgid prose, his wild hokum can work in movies. Night Of The Demon was directed by Jacques Tourneur. In his career big budgets avoided him. This was not a tragedy. Tourneur was at his best in black and white movies and amongst shadows and inexpensive sound effects and echoes. Surrounded by black and white gloss an old-fashioned telephone in the corner of one of his half lit movies becomes a glamorous icon. The modest budgets for his films and the work ethic of Tourneur meant that he directed some stinkers. His career may have been a treadmill for long periods but he directed the best B movie film noir ever, Build My Gallows High. Tourneur also claimed fame and respect through a trio of 40s horror films. The best of these was Cat People. Tourneur preferred to suggest rather than show monsters. Cat People had a sexually attractive woman who in her weaker moments turned into a dangerous black panther. The material was perfect for Tourneur, and the symbolism great. Men left the cinema worrying about the sharp claws of women and whether there might be a too high price to pay for sexual curiosity.
In Night Of The Demon the diabolical creature, against the wishes of Tourneur, is seen at the beginning and the end of the film. The monster is not convincing, and its appearance and the bizarre noise that it makes do mar the film. But the dodgy puppet can be endured for a few seconds, especially as both the concept and its appearance imply something daring. One of the virtues of the film is a script that is unequivocal about the power of black magic and the existence of the devil. In 1957 that was important in a British film, especially as Night Of The Demon is, apart from the monster, restrained and rooted in realism.
Night Of The Demon also has great style. Niall MacGinnis is splendid as the urbane villain, Doctor Carswell. He talks about devil worship as if he is discussing his plans for his garden next year. He does threaten murder and destruction but even then his manners are impeccable. Apart from Dana Andrews who was imported to be the sceptic American psychologist and academic John Holden all the cast speak in perfect enunciated English. Consonants are emphasised, and emotions are controlled. The one working class character in the film is an unseen taxi driver. We hear him thank John Holden for the fare. The taxi driver is also polite, an example of social stability. British civilisation has never been more impressive. Middle class manners, cut glass accents, afternoon tea and scones, preferably without cream; all provide a perfect backdrop to the devil worship. Tourneur used the same trick in I Walked With A Zombie. In that movie the white Caribbean equivalent of the Kenyan cocktail set become involved with the local living dead. In both movies the characters are worried rather than terrified by diabolism. ‘So much to do and so little time,’ says one chap in Night Of The Demon. He could be talking about a project deadline.
Doctor Carswell is a perfect foil to the cocksure American psychologist John Holden. The conflict between the two men is an interesting and understated clash of civilisations. Carswell is not an academic like John Holden but he is sophisticated. He has an understanding of history and tradition. Andrews is the modern expert dedicated to experiment and controlled data. Both men have their flaws. Carswell appears as a clown in a party for the children that is held on his estate. In a fine scene he remains in his clown makeup and walks around his lawns while he explains his interest in devil worship. Carswell represents the British elite that has existed for a long time, happy to be amusing for the not so fortunate. His self-effacing disguise as a clown prevents the rest of us never having the privilege of understanding how they control our society. Carswell has a close relationship with his mother but it is not because he is weak and dependent like the murderer Bruno in the Hitchcock classic, Strangers On A Train. This son is devoted because his mother represents the history and tradition of his kind. The curiosity Carswell has for witchcraft is evidence of an appetite for power but it also reveals a desire for knowledge that will justify his inheritance and the continuation of privilege. John Holden is the American democrat but, despite being an academic and psychologist, he lacks curiosity. He uses his intellectual gifts to prove a conviction rather than explore alternative ideas. At the séance organised by the mother of Carswell the American academic is rude and behaves badly to people who are odd but sincere and harmless. Dana Andrews made a career from playing tarnished heroes. In his best performances he is resentful about something. In Night Of The Demon he resents anyone who disagrees with him.
Fortunately for John Holden he meets a woman who is willing to help and who is more objective. Peggy Cummins plays Joanna Harrington the niece of the man who was destroyed by the monster at the beginning of the film, the monster summoned by the diabolical tricks of Carswell. Prior to appearing in Night Of The Demon Cummins was a revelation as the amoral and thrill seeking bank robber in Gun Crazy. Any woman who can rob banks will neither wilt when faced with demons nor tolerate the misogyny that Tourneur indulged in Cat People and Build My Gallows High. Cummins had an inner strength and outside cinema she worked on behalf of disabled children. There is an effective scene in the police station when Holden and Harrington are ignored after a brief interview. While the two of them discuss what to do next the local police force potter around the station. This emphasises the growing dependence between the couple and possibly their increasing isolation from others. After the final battle the camera cuts from the railway lines to the railway station. We expect to see the couple walk hand in hand across the platform but the couple have disappeared. In this supreme moment the implication is that the world will have to exist without them and their secrets.
Stonehenge features in two scenes. It looks fabulous in black and white, and it is a real thrill to remember Stonehenge when people rich and poor would walk freely amongst the giant stones. The interference and exploitation by Government approved rip off merchants came later. Today, English Heritage charge £17.10p for a look at the stones. Even Doctor Carswell could not have imagined such devilish practice. In a quiet moment Holden reads to Harrington an extract from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. To his credit Andrews resists the temptation to read it like an actor. He speaks the poetry as a psychologist might, that is with a clumsy rhythm. There are other moments that make a viewer wonder. One of the two police detectives wears a leather bandage on his index finger. This is not referred to by anyone in the film. The explanation may be simple. Actors do have accidents and injuries. It is intriguing, though, and almost sinister.
Night Of The Demon was released in the States as the accompanying feature in a horror double bill. The other film was 20 Million Miles To Earth. Both films have acquired cult status. 20 Million Miles To Earth is admired because of the ‘stop animation’ of Ray Harryhausen. Night Of The Demon has a lousy monster but the rest of the film feels authentic. It is subtle and superior and now exists in Blu-ray on DVD. It deserves to be. Any film that creates a great suspense scene with nothing more than a middle-aged man chasing a piece of paper blown by the wind is entitled to respect.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.