Sunday, 28 November 2010

Night of the Demon

Year: 1957
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester, based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural

Summary: American scientist Dr. John Holden (Andrews) arrives in England to work with Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was planning to expose a notorious Satanic cult led by Dr. Julian Karswell (MacGinnis) at a convention. However, when Holden arrives he is told that Harrington died the previous night in strange circumstances. Harrington's neice, Joanna (Cummins), believes that Karswell summoned a demon to kill Harrington, but the sceptical Holden laughs this off. As Holden continues the investigation into Karswell, he discovers that he has been slipped a paper covered with runic symbols, and is informed that he is in for three days of increasing supernatural terror before the demon comes for him.

Opinions: This British film (which was released under the title Curse of the Demon in the USA) is often acclaimed as one of the great horror films. In his previous films, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), Tourneur developed a reputation for hinting at the horror without explicitly showing it, the idea being that often what you don't see is scarier than what you do see. This film uses a lot of his trademark style, such as deep shadows surrounding the characters, odd camera angles and the use of sound more than visuals to hint at the horror. However, the film's producers decided to show the demon itself right at the beginning of the movie, against the director's wishes (Tourneur later stated that "the audience should never have been completely certain of seeing the demon"), although, despite the common belief that the demon shots were inserted after the principal shooting was finished, some have said that showing the demon was planned early on in the production. The addition of the demon has long been divisive among fans of the movie. I think the film would have been stronger if the creature was implied rather than explicitly shown, and, certainly when seen today, the rubbery looking monster is almost more comical than scary.
The film's producer Hal E. Chester did not endear himself either to the film's star, Dana Andrews (who said that he would walk off the set if Chester did not stop interfering with Tourneur's work) or to screenwriter Charles Bennett (who, unhappy at changes to the script made by Chester, said that if Chester "walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead").
However, despite the production problems, the film remains a powerful and genuinely chilling film, with some great performances, in particular from Niall MacGinnis, as the avuncular but evil Karswell, complete with the most diabolic beard in cinema history.
Incidentally M. R. James, who wrote the original story, "Casting the Runes", is one of the greatest horror writers Britain ever produced. His stories, while not particularly gruesome, are genuinely creepy and very well worth checking out.
Similar territory to "Casting the Runes" and Night of the Demon was explored more recently in the Sam Raimi film Drag Me to Hell (2009), the basic storyline of which is quite similar to this one.

The controversial monster from Night of the Demon

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