(1957) Directed by Jacques Tourneur; Written by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester; Based on the story "Casting the Runes" by Montague R. James; Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis; Available on DVD
“But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?” – Dr. Karswell
Like many of director Jacques Tourneur’s earlier efforts such as Cat People and The Leopard Man, Night of the Demon relies on less-is-more storytelling, with atmosphere taking precedence over cheap thrills. Tourneur realized that the mind is the most effective tool for constructing nightmares. The audience is essentially encouraged to come along for the ride, and let their imaginations run wild. What lurks in the shadows, just out of our range of vision, is often scarier than what we can see (although when the demon is revealed, it’s pretty scary too). Night of the Demon was released in the U.S. in a somewhat truncated version as Curse of the Demon, but both versions are now available on DVD for your perusal.
Dana Andrews plays Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist who travels to England to assist in the investigation of a cult practicing witchcraft. Holden is a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, accustomed to reason and observing with a cold, scientific eye. His cynical mind refuses to allow the possibility that there are some things that go beyond the explainable. When he learns about his colleague Professor Harrington’s untimely death, he refuses to accept the notion that there was a supernatural cause. Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) fails to convince Holden that there was a link between the cult and her uncle’s death. Even when he discovers that there’s a hex hanging over his head and his life will end in three days, Holden continues to adhere to his contention that everything is part of some elaborate hoax, and that a logical mind will prevail. He intends to expose the cult leader as a charlatan, but the deeper he goes in his examination, the greater his self-doubt grows. Over the next few days, however, his fundamental world views will be challenged and subsequently unravel one layer at a time.
The cult’s leader is Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a charismatic middle-aged man living on a sprawling country estate with his elderly mother (Athene Seyler). His bookish appearance belies the fact that he’s an astute scholar and practitioner of the occult. In a conversation with his mother he laments the fact that he can’t stop what he’s started for fear of the repercussions. He explains that his followers are loyal out of fear, and he perpetuates the cycle on account of his own fear. Karswell is motivated not so much by malice as self- preservation. He doesn’t dare defy the powers that he’s unleashed. He’s not a master of his own fate, doomed to live with the consequences of harnessing dark forces that he can scarcely control or understand. In one scene he entertains the local children with a magic show, which could be interpreted as lingering in a stunted state of development, but I tend to believe that it’s his attempt to regain a part of his lost innocence.
The stunning black and white imagery in Night of the Demon creates a brooding, otherworldly mood, reminiscent of a film noir crime thriller, rather than a horror movie. Shadows dominate the scenery, and a palpable sense of dread lies around every corner. Although it only appears briefly, the titular demon deserves a proper mention. It was added at the insistence of the producers, despite Tourneur’s objections. Tourneur probably felt that nothing could live up to the slow build of anticipation and would likely have preferred to keep the demon strictly in the mind’s eye. Nevertheless, its entrance is striking, heralded by a ghostly screeching sound and billowing white smoke. The result remains one of the more memorable creatures to come out of the 1950s. Dr. Holden’s associate Dr. O’Brien suggests that there is a collective unconscious at play, asserting that variations of the demon have appeared throughout the ages and independently among various cultures.
Night of the Demon goes beyond simple shocks and thrills. Tourneur ratchets up the tension as Dr. Holden slowly comes to the realization that there’s no way out from his predicament. The film is a decidedly more adult, cerebral, venture compared to many of the throwaway drive-in flicks that dominated the 1950s (not to suggest that they didn’t serve their purpose as well). Tourneur doesn’t insult our intelligence with gratuitous scenes of monster mayhem, but embraces our ability to fill in the blanks from our minds’ deepest, darkest recesses.