Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Night of the Demon.

criterion logoWhen psychologist John Holden’s colleague, Professor Harrington, is mysteriously and brutally murdered, Holden denies that it is the devilry of satanic cult leader Doctor Julian Karswell, until he becomes the next target of Karswell’s demonic curse!  A cult classic starring Dana Andrews as the unyielding debunker of the paranormal, Peggy Cummins as Harrington’s devoted niece, and Niall McGinnis as the charming master of dark forces, this British horror noir recalls director Jacques Tourneur’s previous work with famed B-horror film producer Val Lewton and stands as the filmmaker’s last great masterpiece.  Presented here in new restored editions are both the original version released in the UK and the truncated American version, re-titled Curse of the Demon.

Disc Features:

  • Includes new digital transfers of both versions of the film: Night of the Demon, the 96-minute British cut, and Curse of the Demon, the 81-minute version released in the United States
  • New video introduction by Martin Scorsese
  • Interview with Peggy Cummins
  • A video essay with film critic Chris Fujiwara
  • Samuel Wigley on the script of Night of the Demon
  • Gallery of production photos and promotional materials
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Danny Peary and M. R. James’s 1911 source story, “Casting the Runes”

Son of the great French filmmaker Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur established his legacy by his revered collaborations with B-horror movie producer Val Lewton.  Together, Lewton and Tourneur were responsible for such low-budget RKO masterpieces as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943).  In the years that followed, Tourneur made classic films noir like Out of the Past (1947) and various other genre works including westerns, swashbucklers, adventure films, thrillers, and science fiction movies.  The greatest of these films (excepting perhaps Out of the Past) is the British horror noir Night of the Demon (1957), an adaptation of M. R. James’s 1911 story “Casting the Runes.”  Night of the Demon bears a decided resemblance to Tourneur’s atmospheric works for Lewton and recaptures the magic of those eldritch forces influencing a chiaroscuro reality.

Night of the Demon‘s acclaimed plot is well known.  The film opens with one Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) begging satanic cult leader and sorcerer Doctor Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) to call off a curse he has cast upon him, promising to publicly withdraw his denouncements of Karswell and abandon his investigation.  Karswell agrees, but Harrington nevertheless is killed by a massive, fiery demon.  Harrington’s colleague, psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews), arrives in London to participate in a conference on “International Reports from Paranormal Psychology” and commences an investigation into his colleague’s death with Harrington’s niece, Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), only to find himself the target of Karswell’s demonic curse – one that can only be avoided if transferred back to Karswell.

The interventions of producer Hal E. Chester during the film’s production and his amendments to Tourneur’s supposed vision for Night of the Demon still resonates with film historians and critics.  Dana Andrews supposedly threatened to leave the project during filming if Chester continued to pester the director with notes and instructions.  Nowhere is Chester’s hand more controversially prevalent than in the overt appearance of Karswell’s towering, bat-winged monster at the beginning and end of Night of the Demon.  While Tony Earnshaw maintains in Beating the Devil – The Making of Night of the Demon that the creature was always intended to be shown early in the film, most critics accept Jacques Tourneur’s subsequent protestations at the demon’s appearance, asserting that he only wanted it to appear for 4 frames during the film’s final sequence, thereby leaving the audience wondering if they had actually seen the monster at all.  The decision to reveal the demon belonged to Chester (presumably acknowledging that 1950s audiences accustomed to seeing giant bugs and lizards in their sci-fi disaster movies would desire and accept this reveal early in the film) and the director reportedly relented to the proposal with the belief that the demon would not be shown in explicit detail.  Tourneur is often quoted as saying, “They ruined the film by showing it [the demon] from the very beginning.”  For many, including Tourneur, Chester’s use of the demon undercut the psychological horror of Night of the Demon and its tension between the seen and rational world of Holden and the darkly mystical world of Karswell, however the film is clearly on the side of the paranormal even without the demon, from Holden’s otherworldly visions and perceptions, to the cursed parchment that acts with a life of its own (a wonderful special effect even when the wire guiding it is perceptible), the conjured windstorm at a children’s party, the unseen watcher on Karswell’s staircase, and the feline attack on Holden in Karswell’s study.  Infernal forces are obviously at work in the film, demon or not, and it’s hard to see in Night of the Demon the same potential ambivalences that are present in Tourneur’s horror films at RKO from a decade earlier.  And if the supernatural is as firmly and obviously entrenched in Night of the Demon as we suggest, then it certainly helps that Karwell’s demon is as terrifying as it is, being one of the truly great cinema monsters up there with the Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold 1954), the “Id monster” from Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956), The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., 1958), H. R. Giger’s titular Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), and the updated monster of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The depiction of the demon at the film’s start is an absolutely essential element to what makes Night of the Demon such a remarkable film.  The supposed tension between the world as we conventionally understand it and the paranormal world that hides in its shadows is something we accept in horror cinema, something we even suspend our disbelief to accommodate.  We observe the process of disbelievers becoming believers and watch with apprehension as they unwarily descend into the inky blackness and then save themselves.  Night of the Demon slams the door on disbelief right from the start, putting Holden on the wrong side of its supernatural power.  For some, it negates the ambiguity Tourneur desired, that ever-present fear within us all that he hoped to awaken and make conscious in his supernaturally-themed films, but the appearance of Karswell’s demon at the outset does not negate the psychological horror constructed by Tourneur in his gothic noir atmosphere.  Rather, the demon’s early appearance gives greater threat to the shadows, the summonings, the visions, and the clouds that appear throughout the film.  As Dr. O’Brien (Liam Redmond) notes to Holden, “I know the value of the cold light of reason, but I also know the dark shadows that that light can cast.  The shadows that blind men to the truth.”  Holden, who occupies the uneasy position of heroic protagonist and hubristic jerk, is obviously wrong in his denials of the paranormal forces working around him, and the cold light that he shines, powered by his own close-mindedness, is truly blinding, casting shadows so dark and so long that even a creature as huge as Karswell’s demon can hide itself from him.  Holden’s denial is so exhaustive that the film must balance itself with the long claws, fiery breath, and leathery wings of the sorcerer’s monster right from its start.  It’s a bold and inspired strategy in keeping with the era of its production (even if Night of the Demon feels more like Tourneur’s films of a decade and a half earlier), one that rejects the convention of withholding the monster and replaces it with the anticipation of seeing it again.  To have withheld the creature’s appearance would not have been to preserve some imagined nuance between the real and the unreal, but to rob Holden of his near-tragic arrogance and remove the character flaw that makes him compelling.

Night of the Demon is a true masterpiece and volumes have deservedly been written exploring all that makes it such a wonderful film.  Alas, we have only so much space to consider them all here.  Tourneur’s film does resemble his horror films of 15 years earlier, using the same wonderful high contrast lighting and dynamic set-ups to create an equally mesmerizing and arresting movie.  Performances are excellent across the board, right down to Reginald Beckwith’s single scene appearance as the medium Mr. Meek.  Andrews’ typically stiff acting style serves his portrayal of the intolerant Holden well, and his aging years and heavy drinking (you’ll notice some scenes with slurred lines if you look for them) only adds to the character’s unusual unpleasantness.  Charles Bennett’s masterful screenplay is noteworthy for its reversal of some typical Hitchcockian conventions that includes making its protagonist somewhat unsympathetic.  (Bennett wrote stories and scripts that included Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Saboteur (1942).)  Holden’s willfully rational blindness makes him Night of the Demon‘s least likeable character, certainly lacking the charm of Karswell, the devotion of Joanna, or the goodwill of Karswell’s mother (Athene Seyler).  It’s fascinating that Bennett, such a frequent Hitchcock collaborator, places Mother Karswell as a central figure of compassion who loves her son, opposes the manner he uses his magic, and tries to help Holden despite his ugly rejections of those in her community.  Bennett offers no shrewish or humiliating maternal figure here to excuse Karswell’s evil ways.  The film is loaded with slow-burn scares and the occasional “Lewton bus” shock.  Wonderfully cinematic locations are utilized, including Stonehenge, the circular Reading Room of the British Museum, and Brocket Hall and Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire.  Best of all, Night of the Demon manages to satisfy tastes for both the nuanced horror of the uncanny and the outright terrors of monsters and heart-thumping effects.  A French all-region Blu-ray of Night of the Demon reveals that the existing Region 1 DVD could be improved upon, and a Criterion edition of the film would finally provide the title with the superior package it deserves.

Dan BreretonThe expression “monster noir” brings to mind but one name – Dan Brereton.  Brereton’s painting evokes bygone eras of exploitation art, merging crime, horror, and pulp into a colourfully sinister style.  His comic book work on titles like The Nocturnals and Thrillkiller imagine worlds of unreal crime, the latter occupying the transitional period between the ’50s and ’60s, while his Giant Killer mini-series reveals his love for gigantic monsters.  Brereton’s work has extended beyond comics to promotional materials, album and video game packaging, and concept art.  Set for a Criterion cover treatment, Brereton would be comfortably at home with Tourneur’s atmospheric lighting, Andrew’s trench-coated hero, and the demonic creature towering above it all, all while elevating the film by his bold and unwavering embrace of colour.

Credits: We’ve included both versions of the film as offered on the Region 1 Columbia disc.  Despite some modest edits in the American cut, they are not significantly distinguishable, although the British version is still preferable.  The Martin Scorsese introduction arises from his inclusion of Night of the Demon in his 11 film list of his favourite horror movies.  In his book, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Chris Fujiwara provides excellent close readings of Tourneur’s more fantastic sequences, and goes so far to suggest that Professor Harrington’s nighttime escape through the woods with his car’s headlights breaking through the trees suggests a reference to the film apparatus itself.  We’d like to see Fujiwara’s analysis expanded upon and seen against the film itself, so we’ve included a new video piece featuring the critic discussing the film.  The BFI prominently featured Night of the Demon as part of its Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film program and its Monster Weekend at the National Museum earlier this year, so we’ve included a piece by Samuel Wigley further to his brief post on the film’s script and pressbook.  Our chosen essayist is cult film expert and Night of the Demon champion, Danny Peary.

Last, but not least, have a happy Halloween everyone!

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