Night of the Demon (1957)

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*. I’ll start with The Question: should they have shown the demon or not?
*. There were arguments over this right from the beginning. Director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett didn’t want to show it (in Tourneur’s case I don’t know if he got this reticence from Val Lewton, or if it was the other way around). Producer Hal E. Chester, however, had other ideas, and planned on showing the demon right from the start.
*. Here’s my opinion: they definitely should not have shown it right away, killing Professor Harrington. That was tipping their hand far too early in the film, erasing any seed of doubt in the audience and giving us too concrete a picture of what our heroes would be up against. Just the sinister lit smoke effects in the woods and then some reaction shots from Harrington would have been more effective.
*. At the end? That’s harder to say. I think it depends on what you think of the demon. If you think he’s scary, then sure. If you think he looks like a crazy muppet on the rampage, then no. I fall somewhere in between. From a distance I think he looks pretty good, especially with the way he moves coming out of the cloud of smoke. I would have left those shots in — and, let’s face it, they were going to have to show something. But the close-ups of his face make him look silly and I would have avoided those.
*. Dana “All scientists don’t wear thick glasses” Andrews was pretty bold casting as a professor of parapsychology. But the gamble pays off: he looks the part of a no-nonsense mythbuster, and we can be sure that if he’s starting to feel a bit of doubt then we really do need to be worried.

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*. The movie is all but stolen though by Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Karswell. What makes a great villain? Personality. An articulate, eccentric ego. Karswell wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie: a man of wealth and taste, arrogant and voluble, but not without some odd idiosyncrasies, in particular his relationship with this mother. Is he gay? Or Gacy? I think it’s a fair question to ask only because of the Hitchcock connection.

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*. The screenplay took its premise (and little else) from the M. R. James story “Casting the Runes.” It was a project dear to the heart of long-time Hitchcock writer Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, etc.). Danny Peary catalogued the similar themes and motifs to those found in Hitchock’s oeuvre, but doesn’t emphasize what stands out the most for me: the juxtaposition of suspense and horror with macabre and incongruous humour.
*. There’s a lot of funny stuff in this movie, both of the ha-ha and funny-weird variety. In the latter category I’d put the appearance of Karswell as a magician-clown complete with big nose and the seance with Mr. Meek speaking in the little girl’s voice. That whole seance sequence is a masterpiece of shifting tones, especially with the invocation of the spirits with a silly sing-along. In the category of just plain funny I have to put the ending, which also brilliantly adjusts its tone as Andrews tries to palm the runes off on Karswell, who isn’t having any of it. To end such a suspenseful film with this hilarious bit of delicate social pantomime was genius. Then Karswell’s pursuit of the runes as they’re blown down the track is another bit of comic business with wonderfully threatening overtones.
*. I wonder if that game of rune tag had any influence on Ringu. Probably not, though it’s not a common premise: the curse that has to be passed along in order to save the original victim, and the countdown to the day when the demon will appear and the curse will be enacted.

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*. There are a few scratchings, but I don’t believe there are any actual runes carved into the rocks at Stonehenge. What’s interesting is the way Holden can just walk up to them. You could do that in 1957. And indeed you could still do that in the 1970s, when I visited them. Now the site is overgrown with tourist administration and you can’t get too close to the stones. When I was a kid you could climb all over them if you wanted to.
*. Hats off to whoever came up with the creaking sound effect that suggests the presence of the demon, building a sense of creeping dread that foreshadows its arrival. Even the hallway in Holden’s hotel seems a threatening place when we hear it, especially combined with that deep-focus emptiness.

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*. This movie was released in the U.S. under the title Curse of the Demon, but with some ten minutes cut out (mainly the trip to Hobart’s farm). The reason they changed the title, according to Bennett, was that they didn’t want it to be confused with The Night of the Iguana. Which is truly incredible.
*. Bennett really wanted to direct the film too, but Tourneur was a good choice, as this is very much a Lewtonesque project. Like Lewton’s horror films from the ’40s it’s a bit sui generis, which fits the source material. M. R. James is one of the most famous horror authors of the twentieth century, but few of his works have been made into films aside from this one, which was (sort of) picked up again by Sam Raimi in Drag Me to Hell (2009). This is odd given how adaptable James would seem to be. In any event, I can think of few other horror film that so successfully juggle different moods while capturing a slowly growing sense of otherworldly dread.

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