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Night of the Demon - Examining the Runes

The film rightly deserves its place as a horror icon; it's a masterwork in tension and terror

by Simon Crust Jan 13, 2014

  • Movies Article


    Night of the Demon - Examining the Runes
    Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon as it’s also known) is a 1957 horror film from auteur Jacques Tourneur (whose other notable output include Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man) and is one of the most involving, thought provoking and downright terrifying pictures ever made. And all this from a tortured production that saw huge studio interference and a completion of the film without the consent or involvement of the director! It is a testament to Tourneur’s pure talent that what was promoted and shown as a pulp ‘B’ horror flick, is actually terribly unnerving and edge of the seat viewing, especially at the climax. Hold on to your runic papers as we turn the stones on tonight’s main feature: Night of the Demon.

    The film opens up with a frantic looking individual speeding down a dark country lane. When he reaches his destination his desperation is at fever pitch, refusing to leave until he speaks to the master of the house. The man is Professor Harrington (played by the hugely recognisable Maurice Denham) and he is convinced he is in trouble and the only person that can help him is the mansion owner Dr Julian Karswell. Karswell is the leader of a satanic cult, who not only believes in, but practices the Dark Arts; he is also one who values his privacy and reputation, and it is the smearing of that reputation that is the cause of Harrington’s current panic. For Harrington is heading up an investigation into Karswell and his cult, wanting to expose him for a fraud, and when threatened, scoffed at the idea of a Hex. But now he believes, believes with fervour, as he begs Karswell to stop what he has started; he’ll do anything, retract his findings, apologise, stand broken and humiliated – if only it can be stopped.

    In a brief moment of compassion Karwell asks for the paper, the paper with the Runes on it, only to find out that it has burned to ash, all by itself. Taking stock of the time and now with some urgency, Karwell agrees to help Harrington, and tells him to go home and wait. A huge weight seems to be lifted off poor Harrington’s shoulders and he gleefully leaves. But nothing has changed “some things are more easily started than stopped” and without the runic paper and this late in the night, some things are impossible to stop – but Harrington does not know this. Ignorance is bliss. Arriving safely at his house, Harrington exits his car only to hear that strange high pitched beating, the wind rises and is that something coming towards him out of the trees? In sheer terror, Harrington jumps back into his car with the intention of escape, but he backs into an electrical pole bring down the cables upon him; it seems the Hex was true, this night brought about his doom.

    Night of the Demon

    This opening segments tells us all we need to know about what we are in store for, and quite a bit more due to an overzealous producer and a studio that was hell bent on marketing the feature as a B movie scheduled for the ‘drive-ins’. (Indeed the feature was even edited by some 13 minutes by the American studio before it was released there - so please avoid this cut, it is woeful). We are introduced to Harrington, we know from his short discussions that he is a sceptic, a scientist and someone that holds quite a standing in the scientific community – normally his beliefs cannot be swayed; but something has happened to him, something diabolical. This normally rational mind has become unhinged and he believes he is cursed. The cause of this is our antagonist, the enigmatic Dr Karswell. When we meet him he seems quite an innocuous fellow, portly, living in luxury and with his mother. But he seethes menace, see him scowl at Harrington when he knows he now has the upper hand.

    But, and here is the delicious duplicity to the man, when he realises that the demon cannot be stopped, see him suddenly shake in his boots, he cannot get rid of Harrington quick enough; oh yes, the man certainly has power, but it is a power that even he cannot control once unleashed – and this makes him very dangerous indeed. We see another glimpse of this later when he is giving a magic show to the local children and our main protagonist, Holden, comes to meet him. See how jolly he is with the kids (in a gross perversion from the original short story, where he terrified them with moving pictures) as he shows off ‘white’ magic, pulling puppies from a hat. But then see him turn on Holden who continually scoffs at his dark powers, and unleash a wind storm of magnificent proportions. Then see him apologise for that very act; seems he wanted a light breeze, so that even a relatively easy demonstration of his powers is fraught with dangers that he simply cannot control.
    This normally rational mind has become unhinged and he believes he is cursed
    A great deal of his nature is wonderfully played by character actor Niall MacGinnis, who elects to give the man a very human side. His discussions with his mother show an almost spoilt child and this spills over into his ‘working’ life, it’s why he behaves as he does placing curses and hexes on people who ridicule him; yes he has powers and he wants to show them off to anyone that makes fun of him; perhaps he was bullied at school, perhaps, and this is more likely, his mother was very overbearing and controlling. But he has the power now, he reminds his mother that their wealth and wellbeing has come with a price, though not explicit, we can infer that that price is his soul for his power and this new control is part of the deal. See his mother’s intervention at all times to try and circumvent his actions that soon spiral out of control; she must love her son very much if she wishes him to be stopped.

    Night of the Demon

    And all this from a short opening scene, there to introduce the film and let us know what we are to expect. Had the scene ended rather enigmatically with the death of Harrington by unseen forces it would have left the audience to infer whether or not Karswell did actually have the powers he claims - and here is where I will discuss the demon in the room - for the above scene does not end on an inferred note; no it is clear and explicit, a huge fire demon descends from the sky and smothers poor Harrington, thus we, the audience, are in no doubt that Karswell does indeed possess the powers he professes; he controls the demons and has them do his bidding. But this was not the original intent. The director and writer wanted to lean far more heavily in the direction of the original short story: Casting of the Runes by M. R. James.

    Though quite difficult to read nowadays, due to its old English sentence construction and writing style, the story is never explicit in its detailing of the demons. Yes characters die, but they die in mysterious circumstances that could just as well be explained by freak accidents. But it is the idea of the runic incantations that drives the story, that someone could be possessed by the belief that the runes were to cause your death and that that very belief invited your doom.It’s provoking stuff and it’s what drew writer Charles Bennett and subsequently auteur Jacques Tourneur to the project; for they wanted to rely on suggestion and interpretation, there was never supposed to be a monster shown at all. But the money men had very different ideas, and this has led to the ‘great debate’ – is showing the monster a good thing or not?
    The audience, are left in no doubt that Karswell does indeed possess the powers he professes
    There are two camps. Those that believe that showing the monster at the very beginning leaves everyone in no doubt about the powers; thus when the protagonist comes along, we already know what is in store for him. Therefore we watch as his scientific logic fails in the face of true demonic powers. Clearly there is some merit to this idea but it also misses the fundamental idea behind the story. As written in its script form, and what the writer and director were aiming for, is the second camp; the story revolves around science and faith (albeit Satanists) so that every demonic act can be explained rationally (vestiges of this remain throughout) but if someone actually believes they are going to die, they inevitably will; the universe will bend to their interpretation and they will bring about their own death.

    Thus the audience would have two clear but opposing beliefs from the film, both competing with each other: did Karswell have any actual powers, or was he just a master showman with powers of persuasion so strong that they led people to their deaths? Seems incredulous, but have you seen the latest series’ from Derren Brown, how he manipulates people to do the most extraordinary things? Could this not also be the same thing? Personally I would have loved to have seen this film (now that would be a remake worth making no?) but as the annals of history have testified, it was not to be. In the end the money won out (as it normally does) and we have a monster movie, both at the beginning and at the end – as well as adorning all the poster art – much to the chagrin of Bennett and Tourneur, both of whom had nothing but bad words (and sometimes worse) to say about producer Hal E. Chester! (As stated above, he cut the film and even renamed it for its American release). So let’s have a look at the film as it is, not how it could/should have been.
    But it is the idea of the runic incantations that drives the story, that someone could be possessed by the belief that the runes were to cause your death
    After this opening scene we are introduced to our main protagonist, Dr John Holden. He’s an American sceptic brought over by Harrington to chair the exposé on Karswell. A pragmatic fellow he is almost religious in his scientific belief of the rational and, as such, watching him unravel becomes the linchpin of the movie. Playing the part is Dana Andrews who by this stage in his life was a fully fledged alcoholic leading to him being hard to deal with on film sets. While his behaviour on this picture is probably exaggerated do a degree, it never harmed his and Tourneur’s relationship; they got on so well that Andrews insisted that he wanted him to direct his next film – The Fearmakers – which he did. Some also point to his drinking as being a defining factor for this film, in that he was very wooden, stilted and emotionless; I’m not so sure.

    Let’s look at the character; stoic in his scientific knowledge, sure of himself and resolute in attitude, as such when he talks he is measured in his comments, even when flirting. Thus his general character is wooden. But what of when he is unravelling, trying to reason the unreasonable? Here the character suppresses the unreal and tries to rationalise logically, even when the odds are stacked against him; see how he gets angry with himself for ‘allowing’ himself to believe ‘Karswell’s trickery’. And at the climax when he finally believes what’s happening to him, he doesn’t descend into madness, rather he uses his scientific mind to find a way out - pass the paper in the most efficient way possible; no, Andrews delivers a strong performance, one of a man out on a limb, but one with the knowledge to walk that fine line.

    Night of the Demon

    So the highlight of the film is the demon itself. No, of course it’s not. The studio wanted stop motion god Ray Harryhausen to lead the design and animation of the creature, but he was embroiled in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad so that opportunity was missed, and knowing Harryhausen’s commitment to the art we can only wonder at how the film might have looked had the master been a part of it. The creature is only on screen for about fifty seconds (maybe less) and despite the arguments of whether or not it should be just at the end of the film (or not at all) there is no denying it’s design is actually very good, indeed it’s gone on to be extremely influential. It is at its most effective when we can’t really see it, as it comes through the trees bathed in smoke and fire. When shown full on the effect is slightly diminished, perhaps some more shadow would have been advantageous, but it’s mauling of its victims is nevertheless quite graphic for a late fifties film – little wonder it received the certificate it did.
    Tourneur’s timing is excellent, his use of light and shadow and his relentless building of tension is masterful in the extreme
    So, if not the demon, what is the star of the show? Well it’s clearly Tourneur’s direction. Being no stranger to the horror genre he also brings a typical French flair to everything that bears his name. In fact it is entirely due to his influence that Night of the Demon is quite the film it is, for even though the demon itself firmly places the flick in the ‘monster’ category, that only bookends the piece, it is the central portion, the character exploits is where the real meat is. Tourneur’s art of framing is sublime, drawing off German expressionism where light and shadow draw you into the picture but feel oppressive and claustrophobic, even with wide camera lenses. Look at Holden’s ill-fated burglary of Karswell’s mansion, and his subsequent run through the woods for some exquisite camera angles and lighting. But on a more general note, look at two of the main sets, that of Kaswell’s mansion and Holden’s hotel room; the former is framed wide and brightly lit as if we are to feel ‘safe’, and the latter is far more oppressive and dim, as if there is no safe haven there – this is a wonderfully realised perversion of the truth and it subliminally sets our minds on edge.

    Tourneur has an uncanny way of eking out the story, but giving tremendous pace at the same time; each scene relentlessly building on the tension of the last and each time chipping away at Holden’s confidence; the visit to the catatonic Hobart's family (a character believed to be the only survivor of one of Karswell’s hexes), the sojourn to Stonehenge to inspect the runic symbols carved there, the séance and finally to the traumatic interrogation of Hobart himself. Each scene is a nail into Holden’s psyche and the climatic conclusion to the Hobart interview seals his fate, Holden believes. Tourneur’s timing is excellent, his use of light and shadow and his relentless building of tension is masterful in the extreme. And perhaps the finest is showcased at the climax, where Holden tries to pass the runic paper back to Karswell – here the tables have turned, Holden is now in charge, his firm scientific mind set on the task at hand, while Karswell is furtive and jittery and can’t think straight; he, for all intents and purposes has lost his mind, for when the paper slips from his grasp, watch as blind panic over takes him.

    Night of the Demon rightly deserves its place as a horror icon; it is a masterwork in tension and terror. The runes must have been in alignment for this one, for despite the studio interference the film still manages to break free of its shackles and surpasses its ideals, becoming nothing short of perfection. Beware the dark and don’t accept anything from strangers, for the night might come to get you when you least expect it. A must see.

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