Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Maurice Denham, Athena Seyler
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: M.R. James (Story), Charles Bennett (Screenplay), Hal. E. Chester (Screenplay)
Running time: 95 minutes
Night of the Demon, or as it is known in America as Curse of the Demon, is quite possibly one of the greatest horror films ever made. Director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People 1942) is responsible for some of the finest horror films ever made and has crafted a near masterpiece in Night of the Demon. The viewer’s own imagination is relied upon a great deal in Tourneur’s films, the key element is not what you do see that’s frightening, it’s what you don’t see that sends chills down your spine. It’s the lost art of “less is more” style of filmmaking that really sets the tone for this film, and provides almost all of the chills. After all, a viewer’s own imagination can produce something infinitely more horrific than almost anything a filmmaker can put on screen.
Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews-The Fearmakers) arrives in England to attend a psychology conference on paranormal studies. He has come with the intention of debunking a known Satanist and cult leader, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis-Torture Garden). Dr. Holden is skeptical of Karswell’s supposed powers until a series of events eventually changes Holden’s mind. Dr. Holden’s associate, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham-Countess Dracula) was killed in a freak accident before Dr. Holden arrived in England. Harrington was helping to expose Karswell as a fake. Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins-Meet Mr. Lucifer) believes her Uncle’s death was no accident and that Karswell was responsible.
Karswell secretly slips Dr. Holden a parchment with runic symbols written on it. The parchment is a curse stating Dr. Holden’s death at a predetermined point and time in the future, that a demon would come for him and kill him. Through a series of creepy supernatural events, Dr. Holden slowly begins to believe the curse placed on him may in fact turn out to be true and Julian Karswell does in fact have some sort of supernatural powers. Dr. Holden realizes that the only way to save himself is to somehow secretly pass the parchment back to Julian Karswell before the demon comes for him.
Director Tourneur was enraged when he found out that the producers had inserted shots of a demon at the beginning and ending scenes of the film. They thought the audience needed to see a physical demon in order to make the movie scarier, thus producing a bigger box office draw. Tourneur on the other hand wanted to leave everything up to the audience’s n. The inclusion of a physical demon, which was both a puppet and a man in a suit, in my opinion is still frightening enough to help the movie and I feel it works in the films favor. To this day, there is great debate over whether the inclusion of the Demon was a detriment to an otherwise gem of a film or if it helped to add an additional fear factor.
There are many people who rage over this very topic at conventions and online. Some film fanatics agree the design of the onscreen demon is surprisingly similar to old wood-carvings of a fire demon from ancient times and it adds authenticity to the film. Watch the film and you decide. Tourneur was Val Lewton’s protégé at RKO studios in the 1940’s; together they crafted some of the finest horror films of all time, including Cat People 1942, I Walked with a Zombie 1943, and The Leopard Man 1943. All of these films contain Tourneur’s own particular brand of stylistic filmmaking. He uses everything in his arsenal to concoct such a truly suspenseful and scary film. The exquisite balance of light and shadow from scenes in the bright outdoor sunlight to shadowy menaces in the dark forest all help to maintain a constant air of dread throughout the entire film.
Actor Niall MacGinnis’ performance as Julian Karswell is amazingly good as the villain; a really good villain is truly hard to find in films. MacGinnis steals practically every scene he is in as the uncharacteristic heavy. Karswell is not your average over-the-top, evil laughing Satanic cult leader, on the contrary, he is the opposite of all that. His performance is understated and mundane, he is a momma’s boy, he hosts Halloween parties for children and he can perform black magic on command. I had read that the Karswell character was patterned after the infamous Satanist Aleister Crowley.
Night of the Demon was not the instant classic that the film has now become, on theatrical release, the film did not do as good as producers had hoped, but over the years it has garnered quite a fan base across the world and has achieved almost legendary status. This is a film that anyone that calls themselves a horror fan has to see at least once, it is imaginative, smart, and downright scary. I give Night of the Demon my highest recommendation.