Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Night of the Demon (1957)

Who's In It: Dana Andrews (Laura), Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy), and Niall MacGinnis (Jason and the Argonauts).

What It's About: A scientist (Andrews) travels to England to debunk a self-proclaimed warlock (MacGinnis), but his skepticism is challenged by strange doings and a threat on his life.

How It Is: When the British film Night of the Demon was released in the United States in 1958, it was chopped down by thirteen minutes and renamed Curse of the Demon. Though the cut footage isn’t crucial to the story, it does help set the film’s tone, so the original Night of the Demon (which is only 95 minutes long to begin with) is the one to watch. The reason I bring up the US version at all is because of the title change.

According to the film’s screenwriter, Charles Bennett, Columbia Pictures thought that Night of the Demon sounded too close to the title of Tennessee Williams’ short story, “Night of the Iguana.” That’s odd, because the famous stage play that Williams eventually created from that story wouldn’t premiere until three years after the release of Curse of the Demon, and the even more famous John Huston film adaptation of it didn’t come out until three years after that in 1964. Tennessee Williams was far from an obscure writer in the late ‘50s, so maybe mass audiences knew about the “Night of the Iguana” short story, but it does seem weird to rename a horror film because of one word it has in common with a story in a completely different medium. Still, the Night of the Iguana comparison is interesting because the Huston film and Night of the Demon share something important: an adjacency to the film noir movement.

Even though neither movie is true noir, important noir directors were in charge of them and brought in elements that call that genre to mind. Night of the Demon’s Jacques Tourneur also directed Out of the Past, one of the definitive noir films, in addition to other horror pictures like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. His use of light and shadow and cinematography gave his films a look and feel that fit right in with other noir films, even when his were about were-panthers and voodoo magic.

Night of the Demon has more in common with noir that just its look though. One of the things that stands out most about it is how it blurs the line between good and evil; quite a feat for a story about Satan worshipers. Dana Andrews (whose Laura is another film noir masterpiece) plays Dr. John Holden, a scientific skeptic from the US who travels to England to debunk the supernatural claims of a cult leader named Julian Karswell (MacGinnis). While there, Holden meets Joanna Harrington (Cummins from the film noir Gun Crazy), the niece of the last man to try to disprove Karswell’s abilities. Because Joanna’s uncle died horribly and mysteriously, she’s beginning to believe that Karswell may have the power he says he does. Holden believes none of it though. He stubbornly refuses to accept the supernatural, even when he sees evidence that he may be on the same path as Joanna’s late uncle.

Holden’s obstinate close-mindedness and his relentless persecution of Karswell keep him from being completely heroic and sympathetic. He’s also arrogant and not always pleasant to be around. Karswell, on the other hand, throws lavish parties for the kids near his estate and is convincing in his assertion that he only wants to be left alone to practice his religious beliefs with his followers. Of course those beliefs include killing those who stray from the flock, so he’s clearly the bad guy, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s dressing like a clown to do magic tricks for children.

Though it looks and feels a lot like film noir, Night of the Demon is inarguably horror. The film doesn’t rely on cheap shocks or even images of its titular monster to scare the audience, but Tourneur still delivers the creeps though stylish atmosphere and his viewers’ imaginations. The investigation story also builds tension and keeps the audience riveted as Holden gets closer and closer to the horrible truth.

The film doesn’t rely on images of the demon for scares, but it would have used them even less if Tourneur had had his way. His original plan was to be ambiguous about whether Karswell really had the power to summon demons, but his producer forced a definitive answer. In Tourneur’s initial vision, the demon would have never been shown, leaving the audience to decide for itself if Karswell had supernatural abilities or was just an extremely effective charlatan who perhaps believed his own lies. Producer Hal Chester had other ideas though, so the demon appears in the first several minutes of the film for the death of Joanna’s uncle and again at the film’s climax (you’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens there). Chester had to film the demon sequences after principal shooting though, without Tourneur’s help or cooperation.

While Tourneur’s version would have added a cool layer to the mystery, the version that exists is still an excellent, atmospheric, scary film. The vast majority of it operates on the principal that nothing’s as powerful as what you don’t see. But as effective as that is, the demon’s pretty scary too.

Even though the monster effects are primitive by modern standards, the design of the creature – based on actual, ancient drawings of mythological demons – is pretty terrifying. Tourneur’s version would have been stronger had it reinforced the themes of faith and skepticism by making the viewer decide which end of that spectrum he or she falls on, but the creature’s appearance doesn’t make the movie less unnerving. In fact, Martin Scorsese listed it as one of the eleven scariest movies of all time and he’s absolutely right.

Rating: Five out of five cordial conjurers.

This post was adapted from a guest post I wrote for my pal Ken's That F'ing Monkey blog.

Also, maybe check out my modern re-casting of the movie. I'm still really pleased with those choices.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I'm itching to see this one on Turner Classic Movies on Halloween night!

Unknown said...

One of my absolute favorite horror movies. If you dig the atmosphere of this - and haven't seen it yet - I can't recommend ''Dead of Night'' (1945) strongly enough. It's a fantastic bit of creepy horror, which often pops up on TCM, too.

There are also some great BBC adaptations of M.R. James, filmed under the ''Ghost Story for Christmas'' series. Each is only about 45 minutes long but they're superb and if you enjoy the ''corner of the eye'' horror of Night of the Demon, you'll love these.

Michael May said...

Dead of Night is really good, especially the mirror and ventriloquist stories.

I'll check into those BBC adaptations of James. That sounds great! Thanks!


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