17 October 2008

Movie Review: Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon)

Night of the Demon (1957)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis.

I’ve written recently about The Omenspecifically, its soundtrack—so I feel I should dwell on another one of my “Five Favorite Halloween Horror Films.” I’ve selected the one least familiar to general moviegoers, even though it’s an inarguable horror classic. However, it doesn’t feature Dracula or the Frankenstein Monster, nor has it gotten re-made in recent years, so I believe it needs a bit more examination than the other four on my list. There honestly isn’t any point in telling people how great Bride of Frankenstein is. On the other hand, rescuing The Haunting’s memory from the vomitous 1999 re-make might be worth my while one day, but that would require going back and watching the re-make again to make the comparisons. I am not doing that.
 (Update: I went and reviewed the film anyway, but I safely ignored the re-make, and my sanity remained intact.)

Anyway, on with our tale of runes and sorcerers and a veddy cool Ken Adam monster.

Night of the Demon (originally released in the U.S. in a shorter version as Curse of the Demon) is one of the most influential of horror films. It helped kick-start the massive British influx of horror that Hammer Films would come to dominate, and it moved the Gothic terrors of the Victorian fright tale into the contemporary world. The horror films of the 1950s were mostly science-fiction-based; supernatural and Gothic menaces were left behind with the Universal and Val Lewton cycles of the 1930s and ‘40s. But the success of Night of the Demon paved the way for the supernatural to once again return en masse to movie screens.

The movie is based on a 1911 short story by M. R. James, “Casting the Runes.” James was the premiere ghost story author of his time, and defined the Victorian spook tale with his volumes about antiquarians poking into the unknown realms of specters and creaky mansions and castles. James’s specialty was understated and genteel subtlety, and Night of the Demon keeps this attitude, while injecting modern psychology and the growth of the pseudoscience of parapsychology—and adding one damn impressive demon into the mix. The two appearances of the demon that bookend the film are a point of controversy which I’ll get into later.

Seated in the director’s chair is Jacques Tourneur, a steady hand with horror and dark visuals from his association with producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. The Lewton-Tourneur team produced such fright classics as Cat People and Leopard Man (based on Cornell Woolrich’s great novel Black Alibi). Tourneur also directed one of the masterpieces of film noir, Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Tourneur’s craftsmanship with mood and subtlety make him the ideal director for Night of the Demon, and he doesn’t disappoint.

The movie’s script by Charles Bennet and producer Hal E. Chester follows James’s story closely in structure, but expands it with further characterization, changing one of the original male characters into a female love interest (Peggy Cummins), giving Satanist villain Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) a more prominent role, adding a subplot about about one of Karswell’s followers imprisoned over a mysterious murder, adding more hallucinations, and altering the antiquarian British protagonist Mr. Dunning into square-jawed American skeptical psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who needs much more convincing that supernatural causes lay behind his troubles.

The core plot of “Casting the Runes” remains intact: Karswell enacts revenge on a professional who stands in his way by passing a sheet of runes to the man which will cause a demon to track him down and kill him at a specific time. The protagonist discovers this after a combination of fearful occult premonitions and warnings from a relative of Karswell’s most recent victim. The hero must find a way to stop the inevitable attack . . . and the only solution is find a way to trick Karswell into taking back the runic paper. The movie script includes many names and places from the story, and even drops in the quotation from “Ancient Mariner” that James uses to clue in Mr. Dunning, Karswell’s target, as to what is happening to him.

In “Casting the Runes,” Julian Karswell is a lone practitioners of the blacks arts and a singularly unlikeable man:
Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody. . . . he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.
He’s also petty. His reason for unleashing a runic death spell against Professor Harrington and then Mr. Dunning is that they rejected a paper he sent to a professional association for peer review, a claptrap screed about alchemy.

The Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon is a different fellow all together, and most of the credit should go to Niall MacGinnis for his against-the-grain portrayal. Karswell is the leader of a Satanic cult, although he stresses that he utilizes white magic as well. When a scientific exposé headed by Dr. John Holden threatens to destroy his group, Karswell uses runic magic to target the investigators. He first kills Professor Harrington, and then secretly passing the runes to the persistent Dr. Holden. Yet Karswell seems a remarkable likable fellow at first. M. R. James’s Karswell delights in showing inappropriate magic lantern shows to youngsters, but the movie’s Karswell enjoys putting on family-friendly carnival magic tricks for local children while dressed in a clown outfit. He has a charming and fussy tea-and-crumpet mother (Athene Seyler) who badgers him about getting married and dropping all this silly black magic business. Karswell is initially disarming, pleasant, and a bit goofy—until he turns to the serious business of the cult of devil-worshippers he has gathered. He utters a chilling and matter-of-fact statement to Holden that he will die on the twenty-eighth of November, and makes his threats almost likes cat purrs. But he is afraid as well; he’s unleashed something that he can’t fully control unless he drives forward constantly. It’s a unique and riveting performance.

Things aren’t so excellent on the side of Karswell’s victim, American actor Dana Andrews as Dr. Holden. British genre films of the 1950s often used American stars to help with international sales: Brian Donlevy in The Quatermass Xperiment, Dean Jagger in X the Unknown, and Forrest Tucker in The Abominable Snowman. This was before the UK started growing their own stable of international stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Night of the Demon has stalwart Dana Andrews playing even more stalwart psychologist John Holden. Andrews is a bit bland, especially up against the performance from MacGinnis as Karswell and the radiance of Cummins (egad, she’s gorgeous in this movie) as Harrington’s niece who’s out to uncover the truth behind her uncle’s death and possibly save Holden from his stubbornness. But the stolid nature of Andrews’s performance does play into his role as the doubter and hard-headed skeptic who won’t see what Karswell is actually planning. In the real world, Holden would be correct and Karswell would be nothing more than crank, but that wouldn’t be much fun in a horror movie, would it? One reporter succinctly frames Holden’s opposition to the supernatural as American Empiricism against British Tradition: “Take it kind of easy on our ghosts. We English are sort of fond of them.”

Tourneur and cinematographer Ted Scaife craft numerous memorable sequences with high contrast shadows and threatening camera angles. The early parts of the film have a flat documentary appearance, which makes the suspense sequences more impressive when they start to intrude on the everyday. The first time Holden hears the “demon noise” after he’s received the cursed rune parchment from Karswell occurs in a hotel hall that looked quite normal a few scenes previously, but has shifted into a sinister passage of deep shadows and dagger-like slashes of light. The visual creepiness reaches heights when Holden breaks into Karswell’s mansion and moves through a chiaroscuro dreamscape and into an encounter with a cat-demon in the library (shades of a similar attack in Tourneur’s Cat People). Holden then has to make an escape through the woods, with the footprints of an invisible creature and a huge cloud of roiling smoke following him. Spooky hooky stuff.

Tourneur also creates great menace out of seemingly ordinary scenes, such as Holden visiting the Hobart Clan, a family of Karswell’s followers. The eerie blocking of the glazed-eye family as they gather around the table as if sitting in tribunal of Holden and their chilly archaic English responses to the psychologist’s questions about their relative Rand Hobart’s involvement in a murder elicit an anxious sense of impending danger. (“He has been chosen. Let no one raise a hand to defend him.”) Ridiculously, this essential scene was cut from the American release.

The finale of Night of the Demon is one of the finest in any horror film. The dramatic confrontation between Holden and Karswell inside a train compartment, both men edgy and desperate but trying to out-cool the other as if nothing is wrong, unspools with masterful tension. The climax, with the demon re-appearing at the front of a barreling locomotive and Karswell's futile pursuit of the flying piece of parchment that seals his doom, delivers an exhilarating shock—and even a touch of tragedy. Karswell, for all his scheming, is ultimately also a victim of the Things that Live in the Shadows.

The films that Tourneur directed with producer Val Lewton rarely feature visible monsters, in stark contrast to the Universal movies of the time. Cat People is the best example of this approach. However, we do see the demon—quite clearly and up close—in Night of the Demon, which has led to the suggestion among critics and historians that producer Hal E. Chester forced Tourneur into showing the creature, or inserted it in post-production, against the director’s wishes.

I’ve never found firm confirmation or repudiation of this claim anywhere. Apparently Tourneur and Chester had a rocky relationship on the production, but did Tourneur honestly think the film would work if we never saw the demon?

Absent any conclusive answer to the debate, I can only offer my assessment of how the use of the demon works for me. James’s story only gives the slightest hint of what sort of demonic forces Karswell uses against the people who cross him, but Night of the Demon gives us a full view of its title creature. As I mentioned before, it’s one damn cool monster. Designer Ken Adam, who would later become the visual core of the James Bond series and also design Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon, based the creature on images from medieval woodcuts, giving it a cultural authenticity rarely seen in films of the time. Even though the smaller model of the demon moves a touch stiffly, the visual work, photography, and rattling sound effects make the demon’s appearance chilling. Regardless of who wanted the demon put in there, it was the right choice. The picture works wonderfully with it—the finale is one of horrordom’s greatest—and I wouldn’t have the demon eliminated for all the levels in Hell. So much of the film has perfect understatement and tension that these two moments of full-blown infernal horror aren’t destructive but enhancing in shock value.

The current DVD of Night of the Demon from Columbia Home Video advertises itself as a “Double Feature.” This is a disingenuous claim, since the two “separate” films on the disc are Night of the Demon and the shorter U.S. version, Curse of the Demon. Having the briefer Curse on the same disc is nice for comparison’s sake, but there is no way you can legitimately call that a double feature. Imagine if you went to the theater when it was advertising a double feature, only to find out that the second flick on the bill was the just the first movie over again, only thirteen minutes less of it. You wouldn’t find that amusing. Aside from this shifty advertising, it’s a nice disc with a crisp image and preserves the 1:1.85 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions.