Based on the short story Casting of the Runes by horror writer M.R James; Night of the Demon sees an American psycologist (Andrews) investigating a Satanic cult lead by the charismatic and sinister Julian Karswell (MacGinnis). Karswell claims to have cursed Andrews with a spell which will cause a demon to kill him in three days time.
The worst thing about Night of the Demon is the visual representation of the demon itself. Director Jacques Tourneur only wanted to show the actual demon in a couple of frames during the climactic scene, his intention being to build ambiguity as to whether there really is a demon or if Karswell is just a delusional crackpot before ending with a glimpse so brief that the cinema-goer would have to watch Night of the Demon twice to even be sure they’d seen it at all.
The film’s producer, Hal E. Chester had other ideas, insisting the monster be seen in the opening salvo too. The monsters appearance is more befitting of a classic Dr. Who villain, but Tourneur was far too good a director to let that detract from the suspense and unease of the overall piece. Using throughout the full benefits of the eerie creepiness of black-and-white film, when we first see the monster it’s at the end of a night-time sequence where the blacks are so dark as to be almost supernaturally so and the white contrast extreme on the retina. ‘Maybe it’s better not to know,’ is the film’s sign-off line, only the audience knows all too well from the get-go that the demon is real.
Thankfully Tourneur certainly doesn’t let the argument around how much or how little we see of the monster stop him making Night of the Demon an unsettling watch with some uncanny directorial choices and some masterful shots.
He gets top performances from his leads. Dana Andrews – wearing his trousers up to his armpits – is the American psychologist John Holden who is attending a conference which aims to expose the vicious cult lead by the terribly sinister Julian Karswell – a magnificent Niall MacGinnis. Tourneur is happy to imply rather than directly show the threat to Holden; either through repeated warnings from others, from Karswell summoning a raging wind out of nowhere to ruin a children’s party, or in the most obvious scene having Holden be chased through the woods as night by an unnaturally moving smoke-monster.
He also includes a wholly unsettling scene with Brian Wilde (better known as the genial Mr. Barraclough in Porridge) playing a desperate man who has survived the demon only to be driven to madness by his experiences.
There is a tenancy in current mainstream horror to saturate the picture with jump-scares; the teasing that something shocking is going to happen and then to suddenly pull the trigger without warning. This is laziness: If you shout in the ear of a sleeping person their natural reaction is to jump up suddenly as they literally can’t help it and that is all this technique boils down to. Here, Tourneur uses this trick only once and without any pre-warning at all; the scare comes exploding suddenly in an other wise quiet talking sequence which seems only to be using dialogue to progress the story. The result is terrifying. My point is that you have to work at keeping an audience in suspense, you can’t claim to have earned it by repeating the same cheap trick over and over again. Tourneur combines shot selection, light contrast, music and all the other tools in his directors toolbox to create a thick layer of mood and suspense. Its just a shame about those opening few minutes.
The Verdict: One of the best British films ever made and one of the better formed horror films anywhere, Night of the Demon is a masterpiece; although one person wasn’t so forgiving toward the meddling producer. ‘If Chester walked up my driveway now, I’d shoot him dead,’ said the screenwriter Charles Bennett.