Night of the Demon (1957)
There are surprisingly few film adaptations of M.R. James’s short stories – I assume because many of James’s stories are more creepy than they scary. His works are populated with professors, researchers, and antiquarians digging up weird myths, creepy factoids, and bizarre histories, but – unlike fellow acronym H.P. Lovecraft – very often that’s where the stories end. Night of the Demon, however, takes the basis of James’s short story “Casting the Runes” and builds a more complex narrative around it, with Dana Andrews in the professorial lead.
Andrews is John Holden, professional skeptic, who arrives in London to attend a convention with the purpose of exposing a devil cult run by former magician Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). When Holden arrives, he finds that one member of the convention, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), is already dead, while the others are troubled by weird reports surrounding his death. Enter Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), not nearly as skeptical as Holden, who believes that her uncle was cursed by Karswell. When Karswell informs Holden that he must cease his investigations or be subject to the curse, Holden refuses. Karswell tells him told that he will have three days to live before the demon comes for him.
Night of the Demon is directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps best known for Cat People, another horror film that pits skepticism against belief. That dynamic is – a bit more annoyingly – on display in Night of the Demon, with Andrews playing a man so skeptical that he’d probably deny the existence of gravity because he can’t actually see an apparatus that produces it. As Joanna leads Holden around to seances and even scientific demonstrations in an attempt to convince him to take the curse seriously, she and the audience become increasingly exasperated. This reaches its height when Holden actually sees the demon begin to manifest in the woods, and subsequently concludes that it must be a magician’s trick.
Belief and skepticism fuel this film, with the usual arguments about mass hysteria and psychological experience becoming more diabolical as Karswell’s own fears are revealed. MacGinnis is delicious as the devil-bearded magician whose apparent faith in himself conceals a slightly hysterical nature. The film, in fact, is populated with excellent character actors of the period, including Athene Seyler as Mrs. Karswell (you’ll recognize her as one of the old ladies in the Avengers episode “Build a Better Mousetrap”), and Richard Leech (of “Traitor in Zebra”) as a police inspector.
I heard someone refer to this as “horror noir,” and it’s an apt description. As with Cat People, the use of chiaroscuro makes every-day scenes take on demonic significance. Hotel hallways stretch off into the dark unknown, POV shots create a wobbly world of demoniacal interference. The only blot on Night of the Demon’s escutcheon is the rather hokey appearance of the actual demon (which occurs within the first five minutes, so I promise I’m not spoiling anything). Part wolfman and part Muppet, the demon unfortunately removes a bit of the mystery and some of the argument of the film by externalizing the evil. I was reassured, however, to learn that this element was actually forced on Tourneur by producer Hal E. Chester, who inserted the monster over the objections of director, writer Charles Bennett, and Dana Andrews. I don’t have to blame Tourneur for this one, then.
Night of the Demon is a very enjoyable piece of British horror, straddling the divide between studio filmmaking of the 1950s and the more location-heavy horrors of the 1960s. If one ignores the hokey-ness of the actual demon and the occasional pedantry of Dana Andrews, it’s a film that stands right up there with Cat People.