Tuesday, October 4, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Night of the Demon (1957)

"It's in the trees. It's coming!"

This has been recommended to me a few times, including just this past week. It's a film I've seen, but not for a while. I do remember being completely pulled out of the movie when the  above quote occurred, because it's in the intro to Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" and I never knew where that came from.

This is a movie I never saw before I was an adult, and I've always been slightly disappointed with that. It looks and feels like a movie I would have seen on late night TV or a Saturday afternoon, something that should have been a part of my childhood like Them! or Day of the Triffids. I want to have a sense of warm nostalgia watching it. I want to remember the demon like a child would, all teeth and claws and eyes - like the way the Triffids always seem bigger and more menacing in my memory than they are in the film. Can you miss something you never had? Is this way too philosophical for a 50's era satanic-panic flick? Probably. Let's move on...

The Medium
So, yeah. I was keen on watching this movie tonight - I just felt in the mood for a classic, black and white horror movie. This didn't appear to be available on any of the streaming services for free, BUT it looked like both versions (the original, longer version, Night of the Demon and the US Curse of the Demon) were available in one rental on Amazon. So I rented it.

Unfortunately, it's only the US version, AND it's cropped to 4:3 for television. It's not a particularly good print either.

In the end, I did get to watch the original on another site. Technically the British version is in public domain, so I don't think it was illegal - but it sure wasn't in HD. There ARE restored versions, but none, that I know of, are available in the US. (Apparently the French blu-ray is region free, though.)

The Movie
Night of the Demon starts out with a desperate man in a car, racing down dark roads in the middle of the night. This is professor Harrington, and his destination is the house of Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Harrington has planned to do an exposé of Karswell and his cult at a scientific convention. Karswell, an avowed Satanist and magician has set something monstrous in pursuit of Harrington, who pleads with him to call it off. Unfortunately, it's far too late, and after Harrington returns home something, some THING appears in the woods and chases him to his death.

"Hello? My car broke down and I'd just like to use your phone..."

This section of the film and a final one are additions by the producer against the strong objections of the director, Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, amongst others). Tourneur wanted a more ambiguous film, with the audience never being sure if the demon - or any other 'supernatural' incident in the film - was real, or only in the heads of the victims. That would probably be a creepy and interesting film on its own, but damn if that demon isn't effective! All teeth, horns, hair and eyes - it's really the most standout image of the film. Even with the slightly awkward walking effects (particularly in the opening sequence), it's still a horrific vision.

From there we're introduced to John Holden (Dan Andrews), Harrington's colleague and partner in the investigation of Karswell's cult. He's disturbed to hear of Harrington's death, but waves off any suggestion of the supernatural and vows to continue with the research and the exposé. During a research trip to the British Museum's library he meets Karswell who gives him a warning - and a little something extra as well.

"You'll find him under V for 'villain'"

The vast majority of the film is a kind of cat and mouse game between Karswell and Holden, only Holden refuse to believe he's the mouse. His dogged insistence in the rational - in Science! with an exclamation point - is never really the strength he thinks it is. His own colleagues urge him to keep an open mind, but he laughs at them.  Professor Harrington's niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins) even shows him - through a diary - that Harrington himself had come to believe that something supernatural was after him. None of this makes an impact on the ablative armor of Holden's skepticism. Even a demonstration of Karswell's powers - a sudden windstorm at a garden party - is shrugged off, much to the black magician's annoyance. Karswell declares that Holden will die in three days.

Dammit, Karswell, stuff like this is why people hate clowns.

It's not until Holden breaks into Karswell's house (because nothing says 'rational actor' like a little B&E) that his steadfast insistence on rational explanations is shaken. Because there IS more than the a housecat on guard in the study. And there IS something more than swamp gas chasing him through the woods (he was warned!). Earlier in the film Holden discovers that Karswell has slipped him a piece of parchment on which are written several runic symbols. It becomes apparent - through reading the diary, a séance, and interviews with a family involved in the cult - that the parchment serves as a kind of death note. Anyone who has been given such a thing will die. And before he knows it, Holden's three days are down to just hours.

And it'll take him two days just to find his way out of this hotel.

Holden's understanding of the stakes - and his only chance at survival - become clear during a hypnotherapy session at the scientific conference. The subject is the only survivor of one of Karswell's curses and, before throwing himself out a window (in retrospect sodium pentothal AND methamphetamine was probably overkill) the poor man reveals the only way to survive is to return the parchment to the person who gave it to you. Holden rushes out of the conference determined to find Karswell - because it's already night, and the demon is about to appear again.

It's weird little details I like in this movie. In the opening scene, Karswell and his mother are playing cribbage. I THINK she's actually winning, which is interesting given how things play out. Any time Karswell works his 'magic' on Holden, Holden's vision blurs and distorts (an effect that also occurs when the demon appears). The way the parchment flutters and jerks through the air - it's fishing line, I know it is, but it works really well. And it's a simple dubbing effect, but I even like the way the medium's voice changes during the séance.

The singing? Not so much.

MacGinnis' Karswell is actually my favorite character, because he's such a baby. He's a man who's used magic to gain exceptional wealth and power, but he's also incredibly petulant and reactive when things don't go his way. He goes from childish glee at performing magic for children to another, pettier sort of glee at conjuring up the windstorm that ruins the same party. He's alternatingly didactic, annoyed, magnanimous, scared and arrogant. In other words, he's interesting - and as much as Holden is cast in the 50's science hero mold and Joanna is a strong, educated scientific mind in her own right, they're kind of flat in comparison. I like them - and I like Holden's scientific colleagues even more - but Karswell is just more complicated. Hell, Holden's smug arrogance for much of the film annoyed me almost as much as it did Karswell.

Also, all the good villains should have a cat, don't you think?

The film is really well made, shot, acted and edited. The only things I didn't like were small things - I've been to Stonehenge, for instance, and there are no runes upon those stones. (Of course we weren't allowed to go as close as Holden goes, so maybe I missed them!) There's a moment in the train when Holden appears to be writing something on a spare piece of parchment - as if he's going to do a double cross with Karswell - but it's not followed up on. (Maybe a leftover from the less supernatural version of the film.) They're minor things, though, and overall I was impressed with the film.

The Bottom Line
This is now my favorite Jacques Tourneur movie, even more than I Walked With a Zombie. It's got great mood, buildup and characters - and I know he didn't care for it, but I love the demon as well.

As an FYI - Night of the Demon is based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James. If you're interested, the text is in the public domain and can be read via a number
 of sources. Libravox also has a couple of audio versions.

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