Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Night of the Demon (UK/1957)

Psychiatrist Dr. John Holden travels to England for an international scientific conference, where a colleague, Henry Harrington, plans to deliver an exposé on devil cult leader Julian Karswell. Upon arrival, Holden learns that Harrington was killed the night before in a freak auto accident.

Holden, who debunks paranormal phenomena, decides to delve deeper into Harrington's research, hoping to expose Karswell's phony supernatural power----which he believes is simply the result of autosuggestion and mass hysteria, and is being used as a ruse to stop people from looking into the man's affairs.

After the investigation leads to a rare book on the occult, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons, Holden is warned that if he doesn't stop digging, he'll die on October 28th at 10PM. It's then that he discovers a piece of parchment that has somehow ended up in his possession--on which is written a series of indecipherable runic symbols.

Based on M.R. James' short story "Casting the Runes," this excellent British film was released in North America (with a shorter running time) as Curse of the Demon. The smart, suspenseful story has a film noir feel, which benefits from the stark, moody cinematography by Edward Scaife, and the deft use of music and sound effects.

For the most part, director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) leaves the terrors off-screen, but the infamous demon itself--which is used extensively in the marketing material--appears early on in the film. Many feel that this takes away from the story, and there's some dispute as to whether or not Tourneur shot these scenes, or they were added after the fact by the producer. The screenwriter, Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps), was also against this addition, and other changes that were made to his original script.

Regardless, the story still delivers quite a few chills to this day, with some humorous moments that alleviate the dread over Holden's pending doom--despite his firm belief that nothing supernatural is going on.

Niall MacGinnis as Julian Karswell
Although Dana Andrews (as John Holden) is given top billing, it's really Niall MacGinnis who's the standout here. His portrayal of Julian Karswell is at times charismatic, sinister, and even sympathetic. He is often shown with a deck of cards in his hand, as if dealing the fates of those around him.

Whereas Holden is a disbeliever to a fault, Karswell discusses his use of white and black magic as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. Their ongoing debate over science versus superstition, and the real versus the imagined, really adds to the story.

Thanks to the demon scenes, and how it was marketed, this film has historically been treated as a B-movie--but it really rises above such trappings, and is one of the top horror/suspense films of that era (and certainly worthwhile viewing by those, like me, who are jaded by what modern filmmakers consider to be "horror"). There are also some great scenes of Stonehenge; this was shot back when the area was undeveloped, and the prehistoric monument still seemed like part of the natural environment. (There's one scene that shows ancient runes carved into the face of one of the stones, but these do not actually exist.)

John Holden (Dana Andrews) visits Stonehenge

An interesting bit of trivia: this movie had an impact on writer/actor Richard O'Brien, who referenced it in his opening song, "Science Fiction/Double Feature," from The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show:

Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes,
and passing them used lots of skills.

Those who have seen Night of the Demon will get the reference, so if you haven't yet had the opportunity, do so! It's now available on DVD; if you have the option, definitely watch the original British release over the American edit. (I considered adding the trailer to this post, but it gave away too many of the more thrilling scenes...)


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