NIGHT OF THE DEMON crept out of Britain late in 1957, spinning its you-can’t-get-away nightmare over 95 minutes of escalating unease and imaginatively conceived fright. Several months into the following year it came to the U.S., dumped onto a double-bill as Curse Of The Demon, reedited and shorn by 13 minutes. Both play well, but why settle for less? Stick with ‘Night‘—and watch it at night. Then stay (a) out of a devil-worshipers house (b) nearby woods, and (c) railroad tracks.
“You could learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark, although we tell them it’s not so. Maybe we’ve been fooling them.”
Science-minded American psychologist ‘Dr. John Holden’ (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to assist a colleague in debunking Satanic cultist ‘Dr. Julian Karswell’ (Niall MacGinnis). The mysterious death of a former skeptic brings his niece (Peggy Cummins) into contact with Holden, and together they investigate the well-mannered, occasionally jocular, but always unsettling Karswell, discovering there are indeed things that go bump in the night. They might also tear you to pieces.
Charles Bennett wrote a screenplay based off the 1911 short story “Casting The Runes”, written by the celebrated ghost-crafter Montague R. James. Bennett sold the script to Hal E. Chester: they share screen credit, and Chester served as producer. Jacques Tourneur directed. *
“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”
Allowing for a few continuity bumps here and there, and leaving self-styled ‘purists’ to spout forth on editing choices, what remains is justifiably recognized as a horror classic, probably the best since the Universal heyday of the 30s. Smart dialogue, excellent performances (especially a calmly devilish MacGinnis), Tourneur’s stylish direction emphasizing an ominous atmosphere and lurking dread, an effective score by Clifton Parker and goosebump cinematography from Edward Scaife score point after point on the way to a superbly staged climax. Highlights, besides the terrifying hell-spawn conjured up, include a spooky storm blown in out of seeming nowhere, a bizarre séance (Reginald Beckwith shines), a frightening walk through a dark forest, and an eerie encounter with a suspicious clan of country folk decidedly out of sync with the modern era. In the same year that Britain’s Hammer team began injecting explicit blood & sex into their new takes on the old Universal monsters, the more subtle Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie) opted for fear-generating tension through fundamentals like sudden sounds, darkness and confusion.
“Oh yes, I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them.”
As for the ‘controversial’ glimpses of the demon, since the budget didn’t allow for stop-motion work from Ray Harryhausen, who’d done The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms for producer Chester, and was busy anyway creating creatures for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the title fiend was accomplished through masks, puppetry and clever use of smoke.
“Well, what do you expect me to do? Nobody’s free from fear. I have an imagination like anyone else. It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner. But I refuse to let this thing take possession of my good senses. If this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well give up right now.” Uh, paid any attention to the news lately? Add “morons”.
With good work from Athene Seyler, Maurice Denham, Liam Redmond, Brian Wild, Janet Barrow and Percy Herbert. Production design was by future Bond stylist Ken Adam. Back then, it tagged 95th place in the States, grossing $2,600,000. Those who ignored it in the late Ike Age would find the demon would catch up with them later: you can’t outrun a summons from Hell.
* Devil in the Details Dept: talents, styles, temperaments and conditions collided during the shoot and gripes re-engaged in post-release spats that persist into the following century. Producer/co-writer Chester was at odds with original scenarist Bennett, the director and the star. Andrews heavy drinking added to hassles, though it’s not reflected in his performance (he’d worked for Tourneur 11 years earlier in the superb western Canyon Passage). Tourneur was outmaneuvered by Chester on including footage of the demon, and Bennett threw a fit. Just can the pontificating—the demon is wonderfully horrific, period.
** American Invasion, Part 2: “bring the green and leave our birds alone”. Dana Andrews was just one of the 2nd-tier U.S. actors who landed in England in the late 50s as affordable box-office insurance for Brit fantasy films. Gene Evans battled The Giant Behemoth. Brian Donlevy bossed locals around in The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2. Forrest Tucker batted a triple with The Abominable Snowman Of The Himalayas, The Crawling Eye and Cosmic Monsters. Since we thoughtfully saw fit to rescue them from aliens, apparitions and the odd Yeti, they felt obligated to return volley a few years later and pull our hapless C.I.A. clods out of jams by sending over their one-man problem solver. “At least he won’t be using heroin-flavored bananas to finance revolutions.”
Tall, burly and imposing, top-rate Irish character actor Niall MacGinnis (1913-1977) boasted scores of credits starting in 1935. Along with his scene-stealing Karswell in this movie (modeled on occultist Aleister Crowley), he’s most familiar from playing a bemused Zeus in Jason And The Argonauts and one of Peter O’Toole’s brutish barons in Becket.