Saturday, July 30, 2011

Movie Review: Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon

Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon* (1957)
directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis

*Night of the Demon was the original British title. For the American release, the film was edited and re-titled Curse of the Demon. For clarity's sake, I'll refer to the film in my review as Night of the Demon since I chose to view the original, uncut British version.

(Note: This is my entry for the '50s Monster Mash Blogathon, hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.)

The renowned Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an expert on hypnotism and superstition, flies to England to attend a symposium on the supernatural. Holden plans to participate in an investigation of a mysterious devil-worshiping cult and their eccentric leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). However, when Holden arrives, he finds out that one of his colleagues, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), has died under mysterious circumstances. Karswell appears to Holden and warns him away from proceeding with the investigation, but Holden laughs it off. His skepticism is challenged by the arrival of Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), Professor Harrington's niece, who believes her uncle was killed by something supernatural, something to do with Karswell's cult. The two team up to find out the truth. 

Holden refuses to admit the existence of the supernatural, but how does he explain the strange events happening around them? Why does he feels chilled when the weather is hot, why does he see visions of living smoke, and how does Karswell appear to summon wind storms and wild cats? Holden is further puzzled by finding a scrap of paper slipped in amongst his things, with runic inscriptions on it. Holden and Joanna discover that Professor Harrington received a similar paper, three days before he died. With the furtive help of Karswell's elderly mother, (Athene Seyler), the pair find evidence to suggest that Holden too is doomed to die in three days. Unless he can find out the secret of the runes before it's too late. Before he is caught by Karswell's curse. The curse of the demon.

Night of the Demon was based on M.R. James' classic story, "The Casting of the Runes," often acclaimed as one of the greatest scary stories of all time. In James' original tale, the focus was on a mild-mannered academic named Dunning, who becomes the target of the mad and bad Mr. Karswell, after Dunning rejects Karswell's rather incoherent paper on alchemy. Mysterious things begin to happen to Dunning. He sees cryptic messages, he feels nervous all the time, his servants mysteriously develop poisoning symptoms. It's only after he encounters John Harrington, brother of the late Henry Harrington, that he begins to understand what happens to the enemies of Mr. Karswell. And what may happen to him. The power of James' story comes from the dry, understated way these unsettling details begin to pile up, the way the darkness peeks out between the cracks of the maddeningly deliberate prose. 

Jacques Tourneur's film takes this story and manages to craft a great horror film that honors its original source material while managing to deepen and enrich the story's themes. Night of the Demon changes the protagonist from a conventional British academic to a hard-headed American scientist named John Holden, whose journey to England results in a clash not just of culture, but of science against superstition. As one of his colleagues tells him, "Take it kind of easy on our ghosts. We English are sort of fond of them." The John Harrington of the story becomes Joanna Harrington, the niece of the mysteriously dead Professor Harrington. She helps Holden try to uncover the mystery of Mr. Karswell, who has been promoted from the frustrated academic of the James story into a powerful cult leader. James' story clung to the ordinary trappings of English life; the action was confined to railway cars, hotels, and small private rooms. Tourneur's film ranges all over, taking Holden from apartment buildings to isolated farmhouses to a spooky manor house, even to Stonehenge. And unlike the original story, which plays as an exercise in "is it or isn't it," Night of the Demon boldly opens with the gambit of actually showing the reality of its supernatural threat, as personified by the demon.

The question of the demon has plagued fans of this film since the very beginning. There is one camp, let's call them Anti-Demon, who swear up and down that Jacques Tourneur never planned to actually show the demon in the movie and that its actual appearance is a serious letdown from a subtle psychological horror film. For the record, Tourneur himself was in the Anti-Demon camp and remarked in interviews that the creature's appearance was forced on him by producer Hal E. Chester. But there's also a Pro-Demon camp, who insist that the demon is genuinely frightening and that the movie wouldn't be nearly as satisfying without it. Author Tony Earnshaw, in his book Beating the Devil: The Making of the Night of the Demon, claims that the demon's appearance was planned from early on, rather than shoehorned in at the last minute.

For myself, I have to stand in the Anti-Demon camp. It isn't because I think the monster shouldn't have been shown, it's because of how it's shown. At first when we see the demon, it always appears from a distance, shrouded in smoke and slightly blurry, so that it could be mistaken for an illusion. In those moments, it's genuinely unsettling, this strange black something that's coming closer and closer. Tourneur, quite craftily, always places the demon in settings where its appearance echoes something more ordinary. There's not much difference between a monster and the flash and smoke of an oncoming train. Or much difference between a demon and the sparks of a crashing telegraph pole.

It's only when the film suddenly zooms into a close-up of our monster, as in the still above, that all mystery vanishes and it becomes just another '50s movie monster. And it's not bad by '50s movie monster standards, it's just that it seems so out of place with the almost subliminal glimpses we were getting before. There's one lingering shot of the demon shaking a man like a rag doll that veers straight into comedy. It doesn't feel organic to the film, it feels like a money shot, like the filmmakers are telling us we got our money's worth in special effects horror. There's a similarly silly moment earlier in the film, when Dana Andrews is attacked by a cat that morphs into a leopard (call-back to Lewton and Tourneur's Cat People?) and the camera lingers long enough for us to realize that Andrews is fighting a stuffed cat. And I think these problems aren't because of bad special effects (Modern CGI would be just as much of a let-down), it's because these shots don't fit with an otherwise suggestive film. Night of the Demon ends on the words, "Maybe it's better not to know," and in this case, the film should have taken its own advice.

That complaint over with, I am free to linger over the many strengths of this film. Aside from the demon itself, Night of the Demon's production design is gorgeous; each set we see is carefully detailed and feels exactly right for the character that inhabits it. The strange geometrics of Karswell's mansion with its spiral staircases, Holden's cramped apartment, Joanna's striped wallpaper in the firelight, it's all fantastic. I kept wanting to pause the movie to linger over the details and I'm sure there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than in trying to parse the visuals of this film. 

Jacques Tourneur's direction here is on par with his best work. Night of the Demon creates a mesmerizing, disquieting world, in which every shot seems designed to constrict your breathing. You can spot a lesser horror film by the way the movie deflates in between shock moments, as if the director doesn't know what to do when there's no big scary thing to shake in your face. Here though, Tourneur never loosens his grip. The echoing corridors, the barren countrysides, everything reflects back the fear and paranoia that slowly begins to grip our protagonists. Even a library becomes a horrifying labyrinth straight out of Crete. Tourneur mainly eschews "gotcha" tricks in favor of a suffocating sense of unease that occasionally veers into the hallucinatory. The way Holden's point-of-view sometimes blurs; is it a sign that he's losing his hold on reality? The way a hand appears on a balustrade, seemingly out of nowhere. In Night of the Demon, there's no easy distinction between the ordinary and the supernatural. They exist together.

At this point in his career, Dana Andrews was very much a sideliner, his alcoholism having relegated him to B-parts. In her brilliant essay on the career of the fascinating and vastly underrated Andrews, Imogen Sara Smith writes, concerning his work in Night of the Demon, that "the slur in his voice and uneasiness in his manner make him intriguing in a role that could have been played by Kent Smith." There was always that unease to Andrews, that lurking discomfort underneath the surface, so it's interesting here to see him play a character who is so determined not to look beneath the surface. The hyper-rationalist character of John Holden is, in fact, so stubborn, so smug and self-assured, that the film's sympathy often shifts away from him to the side characters. Even a group of daffy seance-seekers singing "Cherry Ripe" seem more reasonable. It's only by admitting his fears and doubts, however, that Holden can find a way to fight Karswell. And their battle of wits is something to see, indeed.

It's always a treat to see the talented Peggy Cummins although she doesn't really get to stretch herself as the "horribly bright" Joanna Harrington. Joanna, the professor's niece, is a bit of a stock character. B-movie scientists always seem to have a surplus of beautiful nieces/daughters/granddaughters that pop up out of nowhere, carrying research notes and ready to risk their lives. Still, Cummins adds some spark to the character and Joanna's willingness to accept the supernatural is the necessary foil to Holden's skepticism. Her best moment is when she snaps at the perpetually condescending Holden, "Please don't treat me like a mental patient who has to be humored. I also majored in psychology."

But the real treasure of this cast is Niall MacGinnis as the charming but sinister Julian Karswell. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this has to be one of the great horror movie villains of all time. At first glance, he's like a cross between Clarence the Angel and Mephistopheles. He threatens, but with a smile and a joke. He's fond of children and his mother, but he also summons demons from hell. He seems confident in his dark powers but to his mother, he confesses the terrible cycle he's caught in. "My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It's part of the price." Unlike the Karswell of the original short story, a "horrible man" who combines the evils of devil worship with the evils of badly written papers and whose only actions are malignant and petty, the movie Karswell is more fascinating. He's unpredictable, which makes him all the more powerful as an enemy. But there's also a shred of sympathy for his character, who must continually find new victims or else become a victim himself. Ironically, our hero Holden has to find that same ruthlessness within himself by the finale, if he plans to survive.

It's hard to write a review for a film like this without feeling you've only barely scraped at the surface; it's just that fascinating. You could watch it solely for the beauty of Tourneur's visuals. Or you could watch it for the sly humor of Charles Bennett's script. Or for the moment when Dana Andrews stands next to Stonehenge, utterly dwarfed by the mysteries he knows not. Or watch it so that you and your friends can have a rousing debate of Pro-Demon/Anti-Demon. It's a fine horror film and eminently worthy of its cult status.

Favorite Quote:

"How can you give back life? I can't stop it. I can't give it back. I can't let anyone destroy this thing. I must protect myself. Because if it's not someone else's life, it'll be mine. Do you understand, Mother? It'll be mine."

Favorite Scene:

For my money, the party scene at Karswell's house is just about perfect. Holden and Joanna go to Karswell's property to question him and are taken aback by the luxury and size of the place, hardly appropriate for the home of some crackpot con artist. And when they find Karswell, what is this master of dark magic doing? Why, he's dressed up as a clown and doing magic tricks for the local children ("A magic puppy! Now, who'd like to stroke a magic puppy?"). And his mother's even making ice cream. This is one instance of the film completely reversing a scene from the original story. In "Casting the Runes," Karswell is a sadist, who gives the local children a gruesome slide show in order to terrify them.  Here, Karswell is genuinely sweet to them, which makes the underlying menace of his character all the more interesting. As he and Holden pass by a pair of kids playing a game of Snakes and Ladders, Karswell remarks whimsically that he always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing up ladders. Holden responds that maybe it means Karswell's a good loser. Karswell turns to him, coldly serious. "I'm not, you know. Not a bit of it."

Final Six Words: 

It's in the trees! It's coming!


  1. This is such an excellent tribute, Rachel. I truly enjoyed reading it and sharing in your obvious enthusiasm for this film. For me, just reading about since I've never seen it - but I'm thinking I just might. (If I don't chicken out.) I'm not a big fan of Dana Andrews, but I do want to read the essay you linked to.

    I love when someone is enthusiastic about a film and it spills over into their writing. You want to share the news with the world. :)

    A very fine and well written piece. I am definitely intrigued. Thanks, Rachel.

  2. What a terrific post, Rachel! You hit the nail on the head with your discussion of the unnerving, suffocating sense of unease in Jacques Tourneur's supernatural suspense films. Heck, the man could even make a film noir like OUT OF THE PAST chilling and fatalistic! NIGHT/CURSE OF THE DEMON is one of those films that I keep coming across halfway through on TV channels such as TCM, and I keep swearing that one day I'll sit down and see the whole film from start to finish. Thanks to your compelling, beautifully-written blog post, I'm determined to do that sooner rather than later!

  3. I used to be in the anti-demon camp but lately I've come around to the pro-side. Could it have been executed better (and you're right, I think the cat-fight scene is much more a suspension-of-disbelief buster than old Toothy McToothy), absolutely, but the best way to explain my argument for the inclusion is the whole Hitchcock bomb theory. Is it more suspenseful for the audience if a character knows there's a bomb or more suspenseful if they don't realize the true danger they're in. In Andrew's case, he's convinced there's no bomb but the audience knows better and knows how much trouble he's really in. It all depends on the viewer's taste, meaning, really, there is no right or wrong answer. Only the argument.

  4. I'm not sure which camp I would fall into...I may have to watch the movie to decide...

    Once again you have proven yourself to be one of the best bloggers that we have, Rachel! Fantastic review! Informative, fascinating, and gripping!

  5. Yvette: Thanks for those kind words. Well, if you're not a Dana Andrews fan, I don't think this movie will convert you; his character is not that complex.

    DorianTB: I've yet to see a Tourneur film that I couldn't get pleasure from. I think I have to give I Walked With a Zombie the edge over this one, but that's personal preference. And it's probably a good thing you didn't try to watch the last half of the movie; it's much better when it can build the suspense.

    W.B. Kelso: I agree with you about the Hitchcock-bomb idea and I think the suspense works in the movie's favor. I just think they could have confirmed the demon's existence without the closeups of Snogglewort over there. Ah but you're right though. Matter of personal taste.

    Nathanael: And once again you have proven yourself to be one of my most generous commenters as well as a wonderful host.

  6. I agree with Wild Bill -- I used to be in the anti-demon camp, but I've since defected to pro-demon. My reasoning is pretty much the same, too, though I think the first time I found myself arguing in favor of showing the monster derives from the old quote "If you shoot at a king, you must kill him."

    That having been said, I love Night of the Demon. LOVE. IT. I like to refer to it as "the greatest film Val Lewton never made"--it's unsettling and scary as all get out, simply because it works on that primal fear of the unknown working on us. Tourneur remains one of my favorite directors, and I think this is probably his best film (though Stars in My Crown certainly makes it a race).

    I can generally take or leave Dana Andrews, but his performance in this film is my positive favorite. And not only is Niall MacGinnis great in this movie, he's sensational as "Zeus" in my favorite Ray Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts. I love Karswell's suave civility (straight out of a Hitchcock movie) and how his villainy is clouded by the fact that he himself is frightened of the forces that he must deal with (the look on his face when he discovers he's doomed is amazing).

  7. Superb review, Rachel, of what's probably my favorite horror film. For the record, I'm in the pro-demon camp just because, in most of the shots, it's terrific-looking creature. You and I agree on the best scene in the movie. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the children's party scene in DEMON influenced a similar one in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. I really like your comments on the set design, which frequently gets overlooked. I agree (again!) that Dana Andrews really adds nothing to the film and Peggy Cummins (so wonderful in films like GUN CRAZY) is woefully underutilized. But Niall makes up for a lot and there are some genuinely eerie scenes like the chase through the woods and Karswell running frantically after the runic slip of paper during the climax. This was an awesome choice for the blogathon.

  8. Rachel, I really enjoyed your thoughtful, intelligent look at another masterwork from Tourneur.

  9. Rachel, I have not seen this film but you masteful review here and a film by Jacques Tourner makes this a must see on my list. will definitely keep an eye out for this!!! Great job!

  10. Ivan: I still haven't seen Stars in the Crown, unfortunately. You can definitely see the Lewton influence, not just in the "fear of the unknown," but in the forays into myth and legend, the eccentric little side characters, the way the sympathy goes out to the monster as much or more than to the hero. I don't know how much of it was conscious homage, but either way, I'll take it.

    Rick: Well, the screenwriter Charles Bennett did write many Hitchcock scripts. In fact, I have a vague memory of a creepy children's party in Young and Innocent, though it's been a long time since I've seen that one. Maybe Hitchcock encouraged his screenwriters to crib from Bennett.

    Caftan Woman: Thank you for the compliment. Now that I think of it, there really needs to be a Jacques Tourneur blogathon in the future.

  11. Twentyfourframes: It's definitely worthy of at least one viewing and, judging by Ivan and Rick, its fan base is flourishing.

  12. Fascinating review Rachel! I've never heard of this film before, but it sounds interesting, I'll have to watch it sometime. I remember seeing Dana Andrews as the lead in the Twilight Zone episode "No Time like the Past."

  13. RVChris: Thanks for stopping by. I think that's one of the few Twilight Zone episodes I haven't seen.

  14. Gah, Stars in My Crown, not Stars in the Crown. I must be tired.

  15. Rachel! I just finished watching "Night of the Demon" thanks to your great review!

    I LOVED it! Thank you for bringing this classic to my attention!

    As for which monster camp I fall into...let me quote my mini review from my other site:

    "My problem isn't that they show the monster. After all, many films that flirt with the idea of whether or not the supernatural exists end with a shot revealing the monster: The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, and, more recently, Paranormal Activity. My problem is that they show the creature only about five minutes into the film, completely erasing the suspense and destroying the ambiguity that Tourneur wanted to invoke. However, I'd be lying by saying that I wish that they kept the monster out. The final scene where the demon kills the head of the cult is genuinely one of the most chilling things that I have ever seen in a horror film."

  16. Nathanael: Glad you enjoyed it! And yes, his death is truly haunting (although, as I said before, the shaking I could have done without). I guess that's the power of the film, that we're still arguing about it over 50 years later.

  17. "It's in the trees, it's coming" is sampled at the beginning of the Kate bush song "Hounds of Love". Maybe she's a fan of the movie. :)

    I love this movie. I think Tourneur is still pretty underrated. Curiously, he said about this movie: "I detest the expression 'horror film'...I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe in it". In a way, I can see a sort of "realistic" approach to the supernatural in the film.

  18. Thomas Duke: That's an interesting comment from Tourneur, I hadn't heard it before. I think you get that sense from his movies, that he's not "talking down" to the material at all.

  19. Oh yes, a Jacques Tourneur blogathon! That would be great. I am pro-monster, but I agree with you that the close-up ruined the more effective creepiness of the long shots. The movie would not have been as interesting to me without the monster though. I don't always have to see the source of horror in a flick, but in this one I demanded it. There had to be something to break the tension.

  20. This is a great article. I not only want to see this, I want to review it for my site as well. I wonder which side of the demon argument I'll be on.

  21. KC: Thanks for stopping by. See, if it weren't for those close-ups, I think I'd be Pro-Demon too. I was quite happy to have confirmation of the monster. I just wish it had been better handled.

    Initforthekills: I'm glad you liked it. And I'll be eager to read your review.

  22. Thanks for such a great and beautifully written post on a great horror film. It's certainly one of the most eerie horror films of the 50s. I like your comment on the library looking like the labryninth of Crete - so many of the scenes in this film are so hauntingly suggestive. One of my own favorite scenes in the hypnosis session, which has that 'shock' moment of the patient screaming at the camera. I can't say if I'm pro- or anti-Demon. I love the original MR James story, which focuses on a tongue in cheek subtlety, but beautifully maintains the tension. I think that the film does introduce the Demon way too early and too blatantly. And the close-ups make it too obvious that it's a creature of rubber and fur, although the SFX may have looked better to 1950s audiences. But it's always fun to debate it!

  23. I'm a huge fan of Night of the Demon. I wrote a long essay about it for a book a few years ago. You can read the long version here, if you're interested. I'm glad you picked up on some of the same visual motifs. For what it's worth, production designer Ken Adam would go on to design the "look" of James Bond films, but you probably already knew that.

  24. I'm in the pro-demon camp, just because that demon is so creepy looking.

    It's been awhile since I've seen this, but isn't there a seance sequence featuring the most average, middle-class people imaginable, getting together like they're going to be playing cards. I love stuff like that.

    Niall MacGinnis' Karswell is one of the great villains in moviedom. Hitchcock couldn't have improved on him.

  25. Grandoldmovies: Thank you for the kind words. And I'm pretty much in agreement with everything you said about the film.

    Vulnavia: Your essay is a beautiful piece of work; it's on a much higher level than my review. If I'd had the time, I think it would have been worthwhile to do a really deep analysis of the film's visuals.

    Kevin Deany: Yes! That seance sequence was great. A nice bit of British humor in the midst of the darkness. And Karswell deserves his own spin-off, even if there are obvious reasons why he shouldn't have one.

  26. I have to admit to liking both Dana Andrews and Cat People, so Night of the Demon just went on my Netflix queue! I'll let you know if I'm pro- or anti-demon, although I have a strong feeling I'll fall into the "anti" camp, as well. What a great write-up.

    P.S. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  27. Lauren: Well, it was my pleasure. I love finding new blogs and yours was a treat.

  28. You've written a great piece for a great film. I agree: the party sequence is phenomenal, with as much sardonic moral tension and wicked nuance as anything Hitchcock managed. You've managed to critique the film without diminishing its impact as a well-written (and acted), beautifully constructed descent into a really dark corner. Thanks for sharing.

    p.s. And thanks for your kind words about my "Tingler" entry.

  29. Paul: Your compliments are making me blush. There's so much to analyze in that party sequence; I didn't touch on half of it. And right now, I'm happily exploring your blog.

  30. I did a review of this one too for the blogathon but mine is far less analytical and lengthy. Nice job! You made my smart-ass review look, well, just smart-ass by comparison. You're a fine writer!

  31. Mr. Exploit: Thanks for stopping by! And now, I'm very curious to read your review.

  32. A great post! I think a lot of 1950s horror movies had a tough time editing when the creatures came on the screen; the lingering shot of the stuffed cat is a good example. While I often muse on the issue -- have tastes simply changed, were the scenes technically difficult, did studios demand more screen time for an expensive effect? -- I have no answers.

    I love this movie. It's so crisp with such wonderful visuals, and I don't mind the goofy demon. I compare the demon here to the demon-grasshopper-aliens in Quatermass and the Pit, because they're both kind of silly and not convincing, but I don't much mind because the films are so wonderful.

  33. Stacia: You bring up many good points. Like you, I can't begin to answer the question (maybe someone more knowledgeable will drop in?), but it does make you wonder.

    And yes, the visuals were so much fun. I had some trouble making my screencaps because there were too many good-looking shots. It was hard to choose from them.