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Night of the Demon Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    170

    Night of the Demon Review
    “Like one, that on a lonesome road

    doth walk in fear and dread ...

    because he knows a frightful fiend

    doth close behind him tread.”

    The above quotation from The Ancient Mariner serves as the perfect introduction to this latest offering in our little retro-fest of vintage chillers, Jacques Tourneur's spectrally evocative Night Of The Demon from 1957. As usual with these influential genre milestones, high marks are virtually obligatory. For me, they stand the test of time and technology, instilling the exact same excitement, wonder and spine-tingling frisson that they did the very first time I saw them on grainy old, late-night television.

    An adaptation of the short story, Casting The Runes, by esteemed English author M.R. James, Tourneur's film is an acknowledged classic of the supernatural, weighing up the battle between cool, lucid logic and hair-bristling, irrational superstition against a backdrop of quaint English stateliness. His creative coup, and a huge departure from the source material, was the decision to add a sceptical, hard-nosed American into the mix, to become the determined, and ultimately futile, weapon of common-sense, our hapless anchor in this dark and demented world of the Black Arts. The yanks had helped us to win the war, they were a super-power full of heroes and one-man-armies, so surely they could point the finger of cold, hard science at our medieval beliefs and fears, and give us a cynical slap for falling for such nonsense as demons and enchantments? But poor Dana Andrews, as the belligerent psychologist Dr. Holden, is going to suffer a lot more torment for his lack of perception than merely some disturbed shut-eye on his flight to Blighty when he faces the dreadful Night of the Demon.

    “You said do your worst, and I have.”

    The sly plot of the film revolves around the mysterious and, indeed, Satanic, teachings of one Dr. Julian Karswell, and the foolhardy attempts of academia, from both sides of the Atlantic, to debunk his theories. The start of the movie sees a terrified Prof. Harrington (Maurice Denham) pleading with Karswell to call off the demon that has been plaguing him - a demon conjured by Karswell after the professor refused to take back his damning thesis on the warlock's dark practices. Sadly, this is a no-win situation for the boffin, as the all-important parchment that governs his fate has escaped him, and his hideous date with doom cannot now be thwarted. Tourneur elects to throw us straight in at the deep end, immediately setting up the truth of all this hocus-pocus in a spellbinding tour de force of escalating panic. We have been introduced to the main antagonist, and left in no uncertainty as to the validity of his powers as the nightmarish demon duly manifests itself and claims Harrington's stricken soul in a blazing display of monstrous retribution. That Tourneur actually reveals his demon in all its hellspawn glory at this early juncture has been a matter of furious debate ever since the film's release. In truth, it is a risky gamble, and one that would, had the beast, itself, been a special effects calamity, have sank the film right then and there. But, since it is such a fabulously conceived creature - brilliantly reminiscent of an old woodcut that we are shown later of a medieval fire-demon - it is even allowed to proudly dominate the movie's poster. Credit goes to Wally Veevers, then, for giving unholy, brimstone-breathing life to his intricate construction, and creating a real vision of pure evil. It's pre-materialisation, again not skimped on despite a rapid introduction to the narrative, is also lovingly revealed - an eerie, glowing ball of smoke and light that pursues the chosen victim accompanied by a sound not unlike that awesome chittering of the ants in Them! The cleverest manoeuvre performed with this early reveal is that it places us, the audience, in the uncomfortable position of being total believers. And this means that when we see bullet-brained Dr. Holden - who assumes the unfortunate Harrington's role in attempting to prove what a charlatan Karswell is - take what we know to be foolhardy chances, our own nerves are sure to be shredded, long before his own.

    “Take it kind of easy on our ghosts. We English are sort of fond of them.”

    Ram-raiding his way into the tale, Dana Andrews makes acquaintances with Harrington's niece Joanna, a perky, and cute, gal-of-the-times in Peggy Cummins, various intellectuals who are in London to enjoy his highly publicised expose of Karswell's demonic cult and, in a delightfully sinister, yet strangely polite encounter in the British Museum, Dr. Karswell, himself. It is, of course, this very un-coincidental meeting, that seals Holden's fate, as a parchment inscribed with ancient runic symbols is surreptitiously passed to him. This is the first, and essential, step in the vicious hex that will bring forth that grotesque demon to hunt him down. As he did with Harrington, Karswell allows a certain breathing time for Holden to feel the creeping, unknown terror lurking at his threshold. A cruel device constructed to have his victim suffer the madness of paranoia and fear as the knowledge of his doom begins to take a hold of him.

    “We were just talking about devils and demons. What are your views on the subject?”

    “Oh, I believe in them. Absolutely.”

    With the anxieties of Joanna chirping incessantly in his ear, vague sensations of unease when alone in his hotel corridor and the pages torn out of his diary after the 28th - the last day before Karswell's demon supposedly strikes - Holden perseveres with his scepticism. The more the weird and the unexpected bruise their way into his life, the more he determines to carry on with his debunking, yet, hour by hour, we can sense a sly dread seeping into his mannerisms. The marvellous first visit to Lufford Hall, Karswell's country seat, reveals the man to be a harmless magician pulling puppies from a hat for the entertainment of the village children. This is actually an ironic twist on James's original story, which had Karswell performing sick and frightening pranks on the poor kids instead of innocent white magic. But, it is Tourneur who is playing tricks here. Just watch the tense and disturbing moment when Karswell conjures up a storm just to prove his point to Holden. He cuts a truly demonic image as he stands there, unaffected by the swirling tempest that wreaks havoc with the garden party, his clown makeup only enhancing the mischievous smile playing about his pudgy face. Despite his outwardly calm and accommodating manner, we are all convinced that his devotion to black magic far outweighs his temptation for the safer white variety. But, of course, Holden still clings to those new-fangled notions of psychology, suggestion and plain old sleight-of-hand to excuse the phenomena that his own eyes are witnessing. Again, our hearts are in our mouths ... Holden, you fool! Why can't you see? Just you wait till the 28th .

    “You could learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark until we tell them it's not so. Maybe we've been fooling them.”

    Often cited as being wooden, and allegedly drunk on set for much of the time, Dana Andrews is accused of carrying the can for much of Night Of The Demon's supposed shortcomings. I disagree completely. Andrews possesses that hard-faced, blunt stoicism of many American leading men of the era, for sure. But, I feel that this translates well to his portrayal as a bluff, arrogant and, somewhat, patronising man of science. His cynical nature is a wall of logic that, despite all the evidence to the contrary that he encounters, is a rock to which he must cling. If his values seem reckless to us, his beliefs as dogged as they are rigid, then his ultimate fall from proud sceptic to terrified advocate is the movie's main triumph. Witness his fears surfacing on that moonlit walk back through the woods, and his subsequent anger for being duped by something he chooses to believe Karswell “rigged up.” Despite his cold, analytical response to what he has seen, whilst sitting in the relative sanctuary of a rural police station, we know that he is beginning to believe in his own pragmatic resilience as little as we do. Holden's hold on his own sanity is slipping right there before our eyes, for all of his staunch arrogance. So, wooden be-damned! His performance is utterly within character - Andrews never overacts, never snaps the credibility of his brooding, defiant mind and, even when the nightmare is only moments away from reaching for him, he keeps his cool because his instincts are so well-honed, so attuned with practical cause and effect (as he so playfully explains to Joanna during a pushy early flirtation) that the horrors he now understands to be real, just serve to shift his viewpoint a little wider than before.

    “Maybe you're a good loser.”

    “I'm not, you know. Not a bit.”

    In another neat irony, Tourneur ensures that Niall MacGinnis's nasty warlock Karswell actually comes across as a jovial old maverick, more human and pleasant to be around than our sour, glum-faced hero, at any rate. Articulate, witty and devilishly cheerful, this rotund little figure betrays his wizardry only with a malevolent twinkle in his eye, and the ever-useful prop of an impish goatee beard. This polite conversationalist adversary to Holden's brusque, self-centred egotist is a marvellous tweak of genre convention. In other, less refined hands, Karswell would have been a depraved, cackling old sorcerer, possibly typified by a hazy shot of him giggling maniacally as the parchment flutters out of Holden's anguished grasp. But Tourneur allows MacGinnis, who had once been a rugged outdoor hero type (and even Zeus in Jason And The Argonauts) to bumble his way through the part - “Oh, dear, how clumsy of me,” - exuding the exact opposite of the villainy we all know he is capable of. His intensely close, yet altogether proper relationship with his dithering mother (played with a very sympathetic, and reluctant air by Athene Seyler) and his cat, Greymalkin, also help to play down his visible threat considerably. And yet, perhaps it is just these homespun traits that make us fear him most. He is the serpent in this particular garden - an oily, devious trickster whose outward charm masks a diabolical heart. “Nothing for nothing,” he reminds his mother when her careless hospitality threatens to undermine his plans, proving that their power and status have come at a fearful price. He has, perhaps, made the ultimate sacrifice for all this grandeur and earthly dominion, but at the cost of a gaining a very precarious and delicate foothold on the twilight fringe of Heaven and Hell. Yet, this peculiar claim to be as much a victim of his own powers as those who seek to betray him, only make us dread his abilities all the more. Karswell is a fascinating character.

    “Oh, I'm not all that brave ... but I'm not all that gullible, either.”

    With the pieces all in play, Tourneur turns his attention to the playing board with equal élan. He makes terrific use of Lufford Hall. Always well lit, when we enter it the film seems to widen, opening up to reveal the size and space of the mansion, as if to suggest that there can't be anything nasty lurking about. And, whilst mother's presence adds to the homeliness - all twittering fuss with homemade lemonade and Julian's books - the camera angles slide about, skewing our senses, unsettling and alienating us. Holden's intrepid, and decidedly risky, incursion behind his enemy's lines during the night, showcases the magnificent use of framing and composition. When he treads softly down the regal staircase, try not to recoil at a seemingly magnified, and spidery, hand as it clasps the banister behind him. And, in a neat about-face, contrast Prof. Harrington's house, a place of supposed safety, with its profusion of sharp shadow and clamminess. The feeling of an outside threat encroaching closer and closer around its meagre fire and wan candlelight is almost tangible. And it is here that Holden discovers the elusive parchment secreted within the files that Karswell picked up off the floor for him at the Museum. Watch how it attempts to escape from him, fluttering and dancing its way towards the fire. For Holden, of course, this bizarre behaviour is attributed to the wind suddenly blowing open the door ... but Joanna knows different. Her uncle went through the exact same thing.

    “When cats prowl and witches dance. Oh, they do dance. I've seen them.”

    One element that I've always loved about this film, is the inclusion of Stonehenge. We first see this enigmatic monument as a backdrop for the titles, whilst a rather haughty narrator warns us of the powers of ancient runes. Later on, after a fateful call upon the sparse cottage of a family of Karswell disciples, Holden pays the standing stones a visit to compare their Neolithic graffiti with the symbols on the cursed parchment he needs to pass back to Karswell, before the looming night of the demon. Asides from a cameo appearance in Carpenter's Halloween III Season Of The Witch and John Mills' ill-fated TV Quatermass, this eerie landmark has been cruelly neglected by the fantasy genre. And, speaking of cameos, don't forget to check out Brian Wilde (Foggy from Last Of The Summer Wine) as the poor Devil's acolyte, Rand Hobart, roused from his demon-induced catatonic state by Holden's experimental hypnotherapy. I doubt the NHS would approve of such procedures, myself. Demons or not.

    “You passed them. You slipped them in my pocket.”

    The more you view Night Of The Demon, the more suggestive it becomes. Clifton Parker's florid orchestrations sets up the appropriate tone with a theme that successfully depicts the ominous nature of the Black Arts, and of one's time running out. Even the comic asides of Mr. Meek's quite ludicrous séance - altogether now, “Cherry ripe! Cherry ripe!” - seem to possess deeper, and darker, meanings and the intelligent screenplay pokes insidious fun at the establishment of academia. The film proves, as Gandalf, himself says that, “there are fouler and more ancient things in the deep places of the earth,” and, perhaps only naturally, there is a certain familial resemblance between Night's demon and the Balrog from The Lord Of The Rings. Further proof of Night's (and, consequentially, M.R. James's) influence can be found in Nakata's Ringu cycle and its dumb American retreads - with a cursed video that must be shown to another person in order to pass on the hex. It's just a technologically-advanced parchment. And that seven-day time limit on a victim's life?Stolen from the Demon, again. The occult has never been dealt with as assuredly as when Tourneur raced with the Devil, and only a handful of films have attempted the genre with any degree of similar conviction. To my mind, Night Of The Demon, remains unsurpassed for mystery, menace and its macabre sense of sly mischief. Remember, “The Devil's most dangerous when he's being pleasant.”

    Check your pockets, folks.