Saturday, 16 November 2013

Night of the Demon (1957) - Review

1957 British horror film Night of the Demon focuses on American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) who upon arriving in England discovers that his colleague, Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), has died in a mysterious “accident” following his attempts to discredit infamous occultist Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Being the sceptic he is Holden dismisses Karswell's ominous warnings as supernatural nonsense, even when he and Harrington's niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins), are confronted by a series of unsettling and confounding events. Holden realises that Karswell has slipped him a piece of paper featuring ancient runic symbols, a sign that, like Harrington before him, he has been marked for death at the hands of a fire-breathing demon after three days pass. As the night of his annihilation draws nearer, the increasingly terrified Holden begins to suspect that Karswell has been telling the truth all along...

Adapted with style to spare from the brilliant short story Casting the Runes by M. R. James, Night of the Demon holds a special place in my heart as one of the most memorable movies screened by BBC2 as part of their legendary (and sorely missed) Saturday night horror double bills of the late seventies and early eighties.  These double bills were for me the gateway drug via which I was transformed from a normal(ish) child into a rabid horror obsessive who loved little more than to be scared witless.  Where other kids worshipped football players I idolised Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price (my unholy trinity).  Night of the Demon was a crucial part of my baptism in all things horror and as such I have a great fondness for it.

It was, by all accounts, a troubled production with producer Hal E. Chester apparently lacking confidence in Tournier and scriptwriter Charles Bennett’s more psychological approach to the material.  He engineered the inclusion of scenes with the demon as a corporeal presence as opposed to the more enigmatic direction the director and writer wished to steer the movie in; something that both works for and against the film.  If Night of the Demon were to have remained true to the ethos of the source material the end result would have been a far more ambivalent atmosphere more in keeping with the director’s earlier work.  Chester, however, wanted to give the audience some bang for their buck and in the end got his way.  This manoeuvres Night of the Demon into more standard horror/thriller territory with the demon making an appearance in the first five minutes of the movie.  Many have lamented this as an ill-conceived, damaging decision but while it tramples into the ground the more mysterious vibe the director was aiming for it achieves something else.  The viewer knows from the off that the demonic threat is real and this creates a tension entirely different from that the director intended but one that is in its own way crudely effective.  Would the movie have been better if Tournier had been given free rein to pursue a more cerebral direction?  Perhaps.  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that Night of the Demon is, regardless of any studio meddling that took place, a remarkable exercise in sustained tension and mounting dread.

The performances from all involved are first rate with Dana Andrews excellent, if at times less than sympathetic, as the cynical hero of the piece and Peggy Cummins equally effective as his more open minded foil.  The standout performance is, however, delivered by Nial MacGinnis as the nefarious but personable master of the occult arts Julian Karswell.  In the original short story Karswell never approaches centre stage but the more expansive plotting of the movie provides this great character actor with several scenes within which he not only shines but effortlessly acts everyone else off the screen.  The threat presented by Karswell, is a subtle one; but it’s there nonetheless, hidden beneath a layer of fake bonhomie and the almost petulent evil the character represents is all the more effective as a result of the understated nature of the execution.  It would have been very easy to turn Karswell into the leering personification of evil. That this doesn’t happen is as much down to MacGinnis as it is the writing.  In effect he's actually a far more charming individual than the cynical somewhat lecherous, chain-smoking hero of the piece.   

The difference between the movie and the source material isn’t limited to the less subtle, more in your face visual manifestation of the demonic threat and the fleshing out of Karswell.  Most obvious is the inclusion of the Joanna Harrington character who was completely absent from the original story.  It’s probably true that without her open minded acceptance of the occult and constant nibbling away at Holden’s disbelief he would have met a grisly end at the hands of the demon once the three day grace period drew to a close.  Other differences are legion but, crucially, none of them do anything to dilute the effectiveness of the core concept; that of a man facing infernal death.

Undoubtedly it would have been fascinating to witness Tournier’s unfettered vision to see how it stacks up against the way the movie turned out.  However if the end result had featured only the tiniest glimpse of an on-screen demon at the conclusion (as the director had planned) I’m not certain it would have terrified me the way it did as a child or have stuck in my head for all the years between then and my revisiting the movie for the purpose of this review.  As it stands Night of the Demon has earned its place as one of the milestones of fifties horror and although it didn’t receive the critical praise it was due at the time of release its repute has grown in the decades since with many critics now considering it a masterpiece.  They're not wrong.  It’s an elegant adaptation of the original short story that manages to take an already exciting concept and embellish it in all the right ways whilst maintaining a potent atmosphere of approaching doom and presenting more than enough in the way of subtle terrors to ensure that fans of M. R. James aren’t left feeling insulted.  Simply put this is one of the most thrilling, expertly crafted horror thrillers to ever see the light of a projector and as such gets my highest recommendation.



A new adaptation of Casting the Runes may be on the way courtesy of Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins, Matinee) and starring Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz).

Casting the Runes has been adapted for the small screen twice.  Once in 1969 as part of the ITV anthology series Mystery and Imagination and later, once again by ITV, in 1979 as part of another anthology series called ITV Playhouse.  I've seen the latter and although it is in some ways more faithful to the original story it's no match for Night of the Demon.

The great Ray Harryhausen was approached to design and animate the demon but was too busy with his own projects.  Shame.

Night of the Demon was edited from it's original run-time of 95 minutes down to 81 minutes for US release and renamed Curse of the Demon to prevent the potential audience mistaking it for The Night of the Iguana. Both versions of the movie are available on the R1 and R2 DVD releases.

No comments:

Post a Comment