Night of the Demon (1957)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler, Liam Redmond, Reginald Beckwith, Maurice Denham
There are those films regarded as classics, even amongst the horror genre. This is one of them. Released here in the states as Curse of the Demon, the story is a simple battle between the forces of good and evil. But it is also about what you believe in and if maybe, just maybe, there is something out there in the dark waiting for you. That the supernatural and all that goes with it, is real.
Dana Andrews is our protagonist, Dr. Holden, a scientist that comes over to England to attend a conference to debunk some of the these so-called magicians, fortune tellers, and others that supposedly practice the art of occult and supernatural. One of these ‘others’ is Julian Karswell, wonderfully played by Niall MacGinnis, giving the horror genre one of its most memorable villains. MacGinnis doesn’t play Karswell like one of those over-the-top Saturday matinee baddie, twisting his mustache as he belts out a devilish laugh. Instead, he plays him very straight, as a seemingly kind man, that even entertains children as a clown / magician by hosting large parties at his estate. Although, if you cross him, or deny his powers or abilities, then you’ll meet the nasty side. But even then, he still is very restrained and calm.
Director Tourneur delivers what some filmmakers only wish they could, an intense and frightening horror story, with basically no monster. He had plenty of practice working for Val Lewton in the ’40s. Yes, there is a demon, which I’ll will get to in a minute, but most of the story all relies on suggestion. Is there something out there waiting for you? Or is it already coming for you? When Karswell tells you the exact day and time that you are going to die, while one may scoff at it and pay it no mind, as that deadline comes closer, your mind just might start to play tricks on you. Or could it be just the power of suggestion?
In the beginning of the film, we see Prof. Harrington making a terrified trip to see Karswell, begging him to stop what he’s started. Once again, Karswell is calm, and almost apologetic, but refuses to release Harrington of the curse has been cast upon him. As Harrington makes his frantic way home, he is killed after what seems to be a freak accident. The audience knows it’s not an accident because we saw what was chasing him. Once Holden shows up, he is soon butting heads with Karswell as well, refusing to believe in any power this charlatan might have. Karswell continues to play the helpful and misunderstood character here, even offering up a rare book for Holden to study. When Karswell politely asks Holden to stop his investigation into him and his members, Holden flat out refuses. Then just like Harrington, Karswell tells Holden the exact date and time he will meet his end. He blows it off as poppycock, until he starts getting these strange feelings that something is coming for him. He soon learns that he may not know as much as he once thought, and attempts to use Karswell’s own powers against him in a fantastic showdown of will and slight of hand.
Now any fan that has paged through more than a couple of horror reference books over the years has seen the face of the demon from this movie, so it would be hard to watch for the first time and not recognize it. And we see this beast right in the beginning of the film, so we know that in the context of the film, the supernatural is real. In Tourneur’s vision, we never see the monster, other than a few quick frames at the end, leaving the audience wondering if they really saw something there or not. He felt that, plus the footprints made by some invisible creature that was chasing Holden, would be enough to let the audience know was what going on. But the producers were adamant that the film had a monster and wanted to make sure the audience knew it as well, right from the beginning. So some shots were added in after Tourneur had finished and came back home to the states. Needless to say, the director was not too happy about it.
As cool and memorable as the demon looks, within the first few minutes of the film, it does tip the hand of the story, letting us know the supernatural exists, which then leads nothing to the suspense of what might happening. This means all the arguing our “hero” Dr. Holden is doing, we know he’s full of shit, being so closed-minded to giving any thought to the notion that there might be something real in this supernatural stuff. While I do agree that is a slight flaw in the story itself, and the way it is played out, it has never bothered me while watching the movie. Sure, it wouldn’t have been one thing to be like Robert Wise’s The Haunting, never fully explaining what is going on, but I think the demon in this film is so great, adding this particular strange and unnerving sound when it appears, it is extremely effective, and I don’t feel takes the film down at all.
No matter how you might feel about what was done to the film after Tourneur was finished, Night of the Demon remains a staple of the genre and offers up one of the best of the best. Well acted, directed with style and craftsmanship, it shows what an intelligent storyline can become in the right hands. Even with a little tampering afterwards…