Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Night of the Demon
“Like one upon a lonesome road he walks in fear and dread,
because he knows that close behind a frightful fiend doth tread.”
Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) is a (largely) subtle and atmospheric movie set in England and based on the M. R. James short story Casting the Runes (1911). Many critics regard it as one of the high points in the horror genre, despite the somewhat clunky, though brief, monster footage that was in keeping with the contemporary trend in horror ‘monster’ movies; think of Jack Arnold’s Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954), for example, or the giant ants in Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954).
The plot concerns an American Professor, John Holden, flying to England and investigating a Satanic cult’ led by Julian Karswell. He had been invited there by Professor Henry Harrington, but in the interim, he has mysteriously died and his niece, Joanna, blames Karswell. Holden, of course, becomes involved with Joanna but remains sceptical of Karswell’s powers until it is almost too late.
As you’d expect from Tourneur, who had directed several unnerving classics of the genre like I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People (both 1942), as well as the seminal film noir, Out of The Past (1947), the mise-en-scène's combination of cinematography and lighting creates an atmosphere of fear – take the sequence where Holden leaves Karswell’s house and returns to Joanna Harrington through the menacing woods; the séance that starts off comical but swiftly
turns unsettling; the children’s party at Karswell’s estate when he demonstrates his powers to the sceptical Holden; or Holden alone in the dark, narrow, empty hotel corridor.
However, you will have to be charitable to the special effects involved in the demon’s two brief appearances and Holden’s fight with a stuffed ‘leopard’!
Screenwriter Charles Bennett, who had worked with Alfred Hitchcock on a number of films (The Thity Nine Steps (1939), Sabotage (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), among others), held the rights to the original story and wrote a script based on it under the title The Haunted. He sold the script to independent producer and former child actor Hal E. Chester, who initially planned to make a monster movie aimed at a teenage audience. However, when the script was submitted to the BBFC, they balked at a film that seemed to acknowledge the existence of demons and the successful practice of black magic and demanded a number of changes, including the removal of a scene in which a painting of a black mass was to be shown! Eventually, it was decided to go for an X certificate and an older audience, but even then, the BBFC demanded cuts, including references to what being a “true believer” entails. Bizarrely, this sequence remains in the final cut that was released in the UK.
Tourneur has since claimed that he rewrote some of the script to give it a “pseudo-honest” feel to it. He was brought in to direct under recommendation to Chester from the producer Ted Richmond; the producer of Tourneur's previous film Nightfall (1957). Arguments occurred during filming between Chester and Tourneur. One event was during the filming of the wind scene, Tourneur tried to convince him that he needed to upgrade his two electric fans to two airplane engines. When Chester hesitated, Tourneur's friend and leading actor Dana Andrews threatened to leave.
Although it’s often suggested that Chester insisted on the inclusion of the monster after most of the movie was shot, it’s now apparent that he wanted this from the start to make it more commercial and he secured the help of blacklisted Cy Enfield to intergrate the monster in the story and Enfield may even have directed the process shots involving its appearance – against the wishes of Tourneur who claimed, “The scenes where you see the demon were shot without me...the audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon."
Tourneur, speaking to Midi-minuit fantastique, as printed in Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press), by Chris Fujiwara, claimed, “The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. All except one. I shot the sequence in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by this sort of cloud. This technique should have been used for the other sequences. The audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon. They should have just unveiled it little by little, without ever really showing it. They ruined the film by showing it from the very beginning with a guy we don’t know opening his garage, who doesn’t interest us in the least.”
However, it was in the original script and its presence had been debated over before any of the film was shot, so there is no doubt Tourneur knew of it.
Bennett’s reaction to the visualisation of the demon was even angrier: "If [Chester] walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead."
An American ‘star’ was vital to help the film’s distribution in the US – a factor in the appearances of many American actors in British films of this time, whether second-grade types like Forrest Tucker in Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman (1957) or former starts like Brian Donleavy in the same studio’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957). Dana Andrews fits into this second category – a major star whose career was experiencing a downturn (not unlike Tourneur’s) and like Donleavy, it was said that his drinking hampered his performance and there are certainly scenes in Night of the Demon where he seems a little off-key.
The most striking performance is Niall McGinnis as Karswell; his affability conceals his sinister intent and while he is ruthless to others, he is aware that he's tapped into the secrets of demonology to gain power, but he also knows he is vulnerable to the forces of the demon too.
The film’s production designer was Ken Adam, later to make a name for himself on the James Bond series as well as by his work with Stanley Kubrick. A particularly fine example of his art is the set for the interior of Karswell’s house. While its columns and statues suggest a temple, the chess-board floor pattern indicates the battle of wills between Holden and Karswell and the space of the set is beautifully exploited by Tourneur’s use of deep focus when Holden breaks in and is filmed from the top of the stairs, seemingly alone until a hand dramatically grabs the top of the banister.
Chester cut thirteen minutes of the film for the American film release and the title was changed to Curse of the Demon. Some of the narration is absent from the titles, the aeroplane sequence is shorter and some of the scenes with Karswell and his mother are cut. One key scene missing is the one with Karswell's mother showing Joanna the occult book; another is Holden's visit to the Hobart farm to secure a release for his examination of Rand Hobart. Holden's experience in the hallway of the hotel is moved and the new fades and dissolves aren’t well-disguised and one cut even occurs in the middle of a previous dissolve!
Night of the Demon was released in the UK in December 1957 as part of a double bill with the American film 20 Million Miles to Earth. In the United States, as Curse of the Demon, it played drive-ins and cinemas with The True Story of Lynn Stuart and The Revenge of Frankenstein.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Director: Jacques Tourneur Writer(s): (in credits order) M.R. James (story Casting the Runes) (as Montague R. James), Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester
Cast: Dana Andrews - Dr. John Holden, Peggy Cummins - Joanna Harrington, Niall MacGinnis - Dr. Julian Karswell, Maurice Denham - Professor Henry Harrington, Athene Seyler - Mrs. Karswell, Liam Redmond - Professor Mark O'Brien, Reginald Beckwith - Mr. Meek, Ewan Roberts - Lloyd Williamson, Peter Elliott - Professor K.T. Kumar, Rosamund Greenwood - Mrs. Meek, Brian Wilde - Rand Hobart, Richard Leech - Inspector Mottrarn, Lloyd Lamble - Detective Simmons, Peter Hobbes - Superintendent, Charles Lloyd Pack - Chemist, John Salew - Librarian, Janet Barrow - Mrs. Hobart (deleted from US print), Percy Herbert - Farmer (deleted from US print), Lynn Tracy - Air Hostess (deleted from US print), Ballard Berkeley - 1st Reporter, Shay Gorman - Narrator, Walter Horsbrugh - Bates, the Butler, Michael Peake - 2nd Reporter, Leonard Sharp - Ticket Collector
A detailed piece on the film:
A comparison between the source material and the film:
A website dealing with M. R. James:
M. R. James; Casting the Runes:
A good book on the making of the film and some of the controversies around it is Tony Earnshaw's Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon (The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and Tomahawk Press, 2005)
The title song of Kate Bush's album Hounds of Love, uses a soundbyte of dialogue from Night of the Demon: “It’s in the trees…it’s coming", a line spoken during the séance as someone has a vision of the demon’s attack.