Sunday, October 30, 2016

Night of the Demon (1957)

Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957), retitled Curse of the Demon for its U.S. release, is a stylish supernatural horror film.  The story begins one night as Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) drives through a shadowy forest to the mansion of Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis).  Harrington agrees to call off his investigation into Karswell's satanic cult, if only Karswell will reverse the curse he's put on him.  Karswell says it's too late, Harrington won't survive the night. Harrington rushes home, as he closes his car in the garage, a mysterious cloud of smoke appears.  It billows out toward him and in the smoke stands a giant horned demon, come to collect his soul.  Harrington panics, jumping back in his car, backing out of his garage and straight into a set of power lines.  The power lines crash down on the car, sending sparks flying beside the driver's side door.  With the demon coming ever closer, Harrington has no choice but to climb out.  He does so falling into the power lines and being electrocuted to death.

Meanwhile, John Holden (Dana Andrews) flies to England to assist his friend Professor Harrington with the investigation into Karswell's supposed black magic cult for an international conference on the subject, not yet aware of Harrington's untimely death.  When Holden arrives at his hotel he meets with fellow men of science from the conference, Mr. O'Brien (Liam Redmond) and Mr. Meek (Reginald Beckwith) who inform him of Harrington's death.  Holden being the biggest skeptic of them all sees nothing strange in the circumstances surrounding his death, even though the rational O'Brien and Meek do.

Holden encounters Karswell in the Reading Room of the British Museum, as he pores over the books Harrington used for his research.  Karswell tries to persuade him to stop his investigation, but Holden won't budge.  Karswell leaves his card.  Written on the card in cursive is "In Memoriam of Henry Harrington, 2 weeks allowed", but when Holden hands the card to a stranger the writing is gone.  He chocks this up as a trick, but later when the card is tested by a laboratory it's found to have no trace of chemicals of any kind.  At Harrington's funeral, Holden bumps into Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the Professor's niece, who believes Karswell is responsible for her uncle's death.  The pair team up to get to the bottom of things.

The film shows us supernatural and/or unexplainable occurrences from Holden's point of view and then reveals them to be false, leaving the viewer to question what's real and what's imagined.  Is Holden really cursed or is he going mad?  This is a common movie trope today, but in 1957 it was a novel idea, perhaps being one of the earliest instances of this theme on film.  Jacques Tourneur was known for his ability to make the most of a low budget, (see his films for producer Val Lewton, Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), for proof).  With the great Out of the Past (1947), perhaps his best film, already under his belt he had developed a unique style of emphasizing the unseen, the darkness and the shadows, allowing the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks of the story with their own worst nightmares.  It's this style which elevates Night of the Demon beyond your average demon schlock picture.  That combined with the great performance by Niall McGinnis as the affable, yet devious, Karswell (an obvious stand in for England's real life master of the occult: Aleister Crowley) and a standout single-scene-performance by little known British character actor Brian Wilde, as Rand Hobart, a farmer who managed to escape Karwell's curse of the demon, the shock leaving him in a catatonic state.  Wilde is convincing as hell, committing to the role with an intensity uncharacteristic of the period.  The screenplay written by Charles Bennett was based on a short story, "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James, an English author famous for his ghost stories, who's since had many of his stories adapted for British television.

There was some dispute between producer Hal E. Chester and Tourneur as to whether they should show the demon at all.  Tourneur opting for the less is more approach and Chester campaigning for the opposite.  Allegedly Chester shot additional footage clearly showing the demon and inserted it in the opening and closing scenes, without the consent of Tourneur, Bennett or Andrews.  While I can see how the film would play better without a definite answer as to the existence of the demon, I still enjoyed the film a lot and thought the demon was pretty awesome looking.  I'd like to see a version without the demon footage, but alas none exists.  There are two versions of the film: the U.S. release (82 mins) and the UK release (96 mins.).  I saw the U.S. version, but from what I've read the UK version isn't much different, only incorporating some extended and deleted scenes with no alterations made
to the demon sequences.

My Rating:  4 Runes out of 5

P.S. the film is available for streaming on  I recommend checking them out, they've got a good selection of horror films.


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