ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Night of the Demon (1957) Blu Ray (Indicator)
A cursed hero
This classic horror thriller begins as Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) takes a night-time drive to the mansion of Doctor Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). The latter has placed a curse on Harrington due to his attempts to expose his satanic cult. He begs Karswell to call it off in exchange for him keeping his findings (which he had intended to present at a paranormal convention in London) secret. However, since the runic parchment which had been passed to him had previously spontaneously incinerated, there’s nothing that they can do. When Harrington returns to his home, he is attacked and killed by a huge demon.
The following day, the American Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) flies into London in order to attend the convention. However, in contrast to Harrington and a number of the other attendees, he takes a strictly skeptical standpoint towards anything supernatural and intends to debunk Karswell’s alleged powers. When he arrives, not only does he learn of Harrington’s demise but he also receives a subtly intimidating phone call at his hotel from Karswell urging him to drop his investigations.
When Holden carries out some research at the library in the British Museum, Karswell approaches him in person and invites him to his mansion in order to give him the opportunity to read a rare book on the dark arts. Before Karswell leaves, he hands Holden both his business card and a file which he had accidentally dropped on the floor. When he walks away, Holden looks at the card and sees some glowing writing on it referring to Harrington. When he looks again, it is gone - so he sends it to a lab to detect if it has a trace of some substance on it.
Later on, Holden attends Harrington’s funeral and bumps into a woman (played by Peggy Cummins) whom he saw sitting behind him on the plane journey. She introduces herself as the deceased’s daughter, Joanna. They agree to meet in Holden’s room in order to discuss the mysteries surrounding her father’s death. Joanna has read his diary and is convinced that Karswell had put a curse on him. However, since Holden is a natural skeptic, she struggles to get through to him. Just as she is about to leave the room, however, the phone rings. The scientist at the lab who examined the business card could find no trace of any substance. With that, Holden and Joanna decide to visit Karswell’s mansion to get answers.
When they arrive, they find this mysterious cult leader in a clown costume entertaining various local children via a series of magic tricks such as pulling puppies out of hats. Afterwards, when Holden and Karswell wander the grounds together, the latter demonstrates his powers by appearing to summon a fierce wind. When they seek shelter from the storm inside the mansion, Karswell tells Holden that he has placed a curse on him and that he has only three days to live. He reveals that, when he handed him the file in the library, he slipped a runic parchment inside and thus afflicted him with the spell.
While Holden still holds on to his doubts, various sinister occurrences start to make Karswell’s threats seem all the more real.
Watch a trailer:
A well-crafted demonic chiller
Night of the Demon is a classic horror film with one slightly contentious aspect: the demon itself. Reportedly (although this has been disputed by some sources), director Jacques Tourneur wanted to keep the horror aspects more ambiguously psychological as per his excellent Cat People. According to him, the producers added the creature effects in post-production without his consent because they believed that the audience would feel cheated otherwise. While some viewers love the appearance of the demon, others feel that it looks unconvincing and mars the film’s otherwise subtle and intelligent approach. Myself, I’m on the fence. When seen from a distance (a superimposed effect of a puppet shrouded in brightly-illuminated smoke), it is an ominous and terrifying presence. In close-up, however, it looks all-too-obviously like the cheesy rubber prosthetic that it is. Apparently, Ray Harryhausen was approached to do the effects but was already tied up with another production at the time. One wonders what it might have been if the master of stop-motion was available.
That aspect aside, the film is a master class in crafting a well-made, imaginative chiller. Tourneur’s abilities to create atmospheric, expressionistic scenes and deploy effectively off-kilter camera angles is evident right from the stark opening, featuring Harrington driving through a foggy forest landscape in order to reach Karswell’s mansion. Another subtly impressive sequence involves Holden creeping around the same mansion while someone (represented by a hand seen looming large in the foreground) stealthily trails behind him. When the camera angle changes to one which should provide sight of this stalker, however, nobody is to be seen. It’s cleverly and carefully composed to send a subdued chill down the spine. There’s also that storm sequence which comes out of the blue and a dramatic suicide involving one of Karswell’s followers throwing himself through a top-floor window, not to mention the suspenseful, clock-ticking climax.
Moreso than its cool individual setpieces, however, Night of the Demon is all about gradual build-up and the odd details which are woven into its onscreen world. The depictions of the mystical and the demonic feel cohesive and well-researched, adding to the overall sense of believability. The portrayal of Karswell himself is insidiously subversive. Niall MacGinnis’s performance is charming and polite rather than the usual stereotypically cackling sociopath which passes for villainy in other films. When Holden and Joanna first meet him at his mansion, he seems less like a Bondian megalomaniac surrounded by high-tech gadgetry or a shadow-cloaked Dracula clone, and more like a jovial, clowning pillar of the community. His relationship with his mother (Athene Seyler) is so strong that they live amicably together - despite the fact that it becomes increasingly clear during the course of the film that they don’t always see eye-to-eye. As one of Holden’s colleagues, Professor K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott) says, the devil is “most dangerous when he’s being pleasant.”
The performances are generally well above average by horror standards, not only from MacGinnis but also from the film’s stoically engaging lead, Dana Andrews, who gets some great Cary Grant-style dialogue throughout. Peggy Cummins also shines as his plucky female companion.
All in all, despite its slightly silly-looking demon, Night of the Demon is an effective and highly entertaining old-fashioned bone-chiller.
Runtime: 96 mins
Dir: Jacques Tourneur
Script: Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester, Cy Endfield (uncredited), based on a short story by M.R. James
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Maurice Denham, Athene Seyler, Liam Redmond, Peter Elliott
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The restoration of the film looks stunning, with near-flawless contrast and texture. While I picked up one slight break in the soundtrack early on while watching the 96-minute version, the sound is otherwise smooth and vibrant. Just the thing for a chilly autumn night in.
Indicator’s release has been spread over 2 discs. On the first disc, there are three full-length (96-minute) versions of Night of the Demon: the British version in both 1.75:1 and 1.66:1 aspect ratio presentations, and the U.S. version entitled Curse of the Demon. This first disc also contains the audio commentary track.
The second disc includes two versions of the shortened (82-minute) original release cut, one under the British title of Night of the Demon and the other under the U.S. title of Curse of the Demon. All of the remaining extras bar the commentary, a poster and an 80-page enclosed booklet are on this second disc.
Audio Commentary with Tony Earnshaw
Tony Earnshaw is the Head of Film Programming at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford and the author of Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon. He dedicates this commentary to actress Peggy Cummins, who passed away late in 2017. While he sounds a little too obviously like he’s reading from a pre-prepared script, he gives us a decent critical appreciation of the film. He also counteracts the often-held viewpoint that the demon effects were added without Tourneur’s involvement; while the director himself and the star Dana Andrews (both of whom were known to have clashed with executive producer Hal E. Chester) have maintained that this is the case, assistant director Basil Keys has refuted this. There’s also evidence in BBFC script notes and Ken Adam’s production sketches that some onscreen depiction of the demon was always intended from early on.
His commentary is particularly interesting when it touches upon the history of the film’s script. It was originally written in 1954 by Charles Bennett, who adapted it from the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James. He included some comedic elements in an attempt to get a BBFC A rating (which would mean that children could watch it if accompanied by an adult). However, the BBFC told him that an X rating (meaning that nobody under 16 could see it) was inevitable due to its subject matter relating to devil worship. It subsequently did the rounds at various Hollywood studios until producer Hal E. Chester purchased it. Since Chester wanted to go for a more serious tone, he drafted in Cy Endfield to rewrite it. However, due to the fact that Endfield was on the Hollywood blacklist at this time, Chester took the co-writing credit in his place. Ironically, Endfield returned to the public eye that same year when he received full credit for writing and directing Hell Drivers, which also starred Peggy Cummins.
As well as Casting the Runes, the script also takes influences from Margaret Murray’s writings on witch cults, while the adapted version of the character of Karswell bears a considerable resemblance to the controversial occultist Aleister Crowley.
Speak of the Devil
Actress Peggy Cummins, production designer Ken Adam and others contribute to this decent 20-minute featurette. Cummins reveals that, while she didn’t think her part in the film was particularly great, she took the opportunity because she had a lot of respect for actor Dana Andrews. Andrews, meanwhile, was apparently so drunk that he fell down the steps while disembarking from the plane when he arrived in Britain - resulting in producer Hal Chester distancing himself from the star in interviews by insisting that his casting was purely at Jacques Tourneur’s behest. Nonetheless, Cummins maintains that he was always professional on set and delivered his lines perfectly from the first take.
Cloven in Two
This 22-minute documentary, narrated by Jon Robertson, compares and contrast the film’s different edits. The 82-minute version was likely edited down to fit into Columbia’s standard policy at this time of presenting genre films as double bills (in this case, it was released in combination with 20 Million Miles to Earth).
A series of contributors give us their thoughts on just about everything connected with Night of the Demon. While this is a rather substantial collection of featurettes to get through in one sitting (the longest one runs for more than half an hour), it’s interesting to hear their diverse takes on different aspects of the film.
Christopher Frayling: The Devil’s in the Detail
Writer Christopher Frayling takes a look at script writer Charles Bennett (who worked in a number of Alfred Hitchcock films during the 1930s), the similarities and differences between M.R. James’s story and the film, the late-1950s/early-1960s British strand of supernatural horror and the film’s place in acclaimed production designer Ken Adam’s career. He also examines Adam’s sets by comparing them with original production sketches and finishes off with some interesting trivia about the British Museum Reading Room which was one of the film’s key locations. Aleister Crowley apparently tested an invisibility spell out by walking through it naked. The fact that he wasn’t even noticed could probably be put down less to the fact that that it worked as intended, and more to the fact most of the library’s patrons would have been too engrossed in what they were reading to even look up!
Chris Fujiwara: Horrors Unseen
Screenwriter Fujiwara discusses the life and career of Jacques Tourneur up until Night of the Demon. He looks at the similarities between it and his earlier psychological horror films with Val Lewton as well as his various signature filmmaking traits and tropes.
Kim Newman: Sinister Signs
Yet again, the opinionated and eccentric Newman gives us his entertaining two cents worth. He opines that he prefers the explicit depiction of a demon in this film to the more ambiguous/subtextual ghost story adaptations of The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963), which use this device as a way of distancing themselves from being true horror. He also takes a look at how Night of the Demon may be a precursor to the later British folk horror cycle (e.g. The Wicker Man).
Ramsay Campbell: Under the Spell
The English horror writer reveals that he read M.R. James’s original short story, Casting the Runes, at a very young age. He first saw Night of the Demon by sneaking into a Liverpool suburban cinema at the age of 14 (by pretending to be 16 as required by the X certificate), where it was presented on a double bill with The Tingler. He loved it so much that he went in again the following night. He also reads out a passage from the short story relating to the forest chase, a passage which is quite closely replicated in the film.
Scott MacQueen: The Devil Gets His Due
UCLA’s Head of Film/TV Preservation provides one of the more interesting appreciative pieces. He discusses Columbia’s policy of releasing low-budget SF and horror films as double bills, his experience of visiting Dana Andrews after one of his stage productions and his thrill at the discovery of the 96-minute version of Night of the Demon. We also get a quick glimpse of some alternate footage (taken from a trailer) featuring a bat-like version of the demon. MacQueen also talks briefly about Ray Harryhausen’s involvement with producer Hal E. Chester on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Let’s just say that he didn’t have fond memories of working with him; apparently, several people involved in its production “disappeared” due to the fact that its budget was raised via mob money. In this context, it’s perhaps understandable that Harryhausen wouldn’t have wanted to work with Chester again for Night of the Demon!
Roger Clarke: The Truth of Alchemy
The author of A Natural History of Ghosts discusses Casting the Runes, author M.R. James’s time as a provost at Cambridge’s King’s College and his rivalry with Oscar Browning, a figure who may have been the inspiration behind the character of Karswell.
David Huckvale: The Devil in Music
Huckvale, who has written several books about both music and the horror genre, discusses the musical theorem behind Clifton Parker’s score. He plays various key musical cues on his piano, some of which make use of what he terms “forbidden intervals” which evoke the illicitness of the film’s occult theme. A must-watch for music buffs.
Scott MacQueen: A Note in Fear
It’s the second featurette with MacQueen This time, as with Huckvale, he sits at the piano and gives us his thoughts on the film’s score.
Hal E. Chester Interview
A 51-minute onstage interview with Chester, conducted by Gil Lane-Young at the 7th Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester (1966).
Dana Andrews Interview
An audio interview with Andrews and his wife Mary Todd which was conducted and recorded in 1972 by Scott MacQueen at the Candlewood Theater in New Fairfield, Connecticut. This is the interview which MacQueen refers to in his featurette The Devil Gets His Due. While the audio quality understandably isn’t great, Andrews’ lively personality comes through as he describes Hal E. Chester as “a horrible little fella” and maintains his view that the demon should have been left to the imagination. He also discusses the original fate of Karswell as written in Charles Bennett’s version of the script; it seems that he was intended to be killed by a falling tree which was struck by lightning. Curiously, in the finished film, this is the manner in which Professor Harrington dies in the opening sequence.
Casting the Runes Read by Michael Holdern
This 1984 spoken word recording of M.R. James’s original short story is narrated by the well-regarded English actor Michael Holdern, who passed away in 1995. While Holdern is eminently listenable, it’s a somewhat dry reading. Nonetheless, it’s worth a listen to compare and contrast it with the film version.
Escape: Casting the Runes
A 1947 radio adaptation of the story.
The remaining extras include an isolated music/FX track, a Super 8 version, a theatrical trailer and an image gallery.
This classic horror gets the presentation it deserves. There’s enough to keep the most devoted fan enchanted for a long time here.