Night of the Demon
Jenny Davies recalls fond memories of 1957 classic Night of the Demon and how trouble behind the scenes have not detracted from a piece of perfectly crafted storytelling…
Even as a child I was always drawn to the occult, the strange and the macabre. Night of the Demon was one of many horror films my Dad would record for me, and it would become part of my ‘select few’ – my carefully chosen collection of well-loved VHS tapes, watched repeatedly, sometimes daily if it was the school holidays (yes I was a weird child, I know).
I can remember watching Night of the Demon with my grandad, and he would roar with laughter when the demon appeared, saying you could hear the wheels squeaking as they pushed the figure along on a trolley. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that sound was actually the unearthly chittering of a fire demon. Yes ok, the demon was a bit ropy. Yes, some say that revealing the creature in the first ten minutes of the film ruined the suspense. But to me, that reveal just added to the impending sense of inevitability. We know the demon is real, but will our sceptical protagonist John Holden realise before it’s too late?
Night of the Demon (UK, Jacques Tourneur, 1957) is the tale of American psychiatrist John Holden (Dana Andrews) and his battle of wills with a satanic cult leader. Holden has come to England to investigate this cult and how it uses powers of persuasion and suggestion to manipulate its followers. Cult leader Julian Karswell (played with villainous relish by Niall MacGinnis) is not a happy chappy about being exposed, and politely warns Holden off. He has already threatened Holden’s colleague Professor Harrington, who upon Holden’s arrival in England has suddenly died in an accident with some power lines ‘But his body should have only been burned – it was mutilated, horribly!’ beseeches his niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) as she warns Holden of the danger he is in.
The curse that Karswell places on his enemies gives them three days to live, after which time a fire demon is invoked to brutally kill them. It is the three days of psychological mind games that I love about this curse. It begins with feelings of being followed, hearing strange folk music meant to invoke the devil, unexplainable cold, and even being chased by ‘a monstrous smoky shape’. Whether Holden believes in witchcraft or not, he is certainly being psyched out.
At one point Karswell’s Mother tries to help Holden by calling upon her medium friend Mr Meek to hold a séance. There follows a fantastic scene of comic relief, with Mr Meek’s wife and Karswell’s Mother wailing along to a crackly old gramophone recording of ‘Cherry Ripe’ to help invoke the spirits. Holden mocks the medium scathingly until Meek is suddenly possessed by the voice of Professor Harrington and warns Holden to drop the investigation. Kate Bush fans will recognise his cry of ‘The Demon! It’s in the trees! It’s coming!’ as the intro to ‘Hounds of Love’. Perhaps one of the film’s most enduring legacies in pop culture.
Night of the Demon was based on the M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. For US audiences it was retitled Curse of the Demon to avoid confusion with the similarly titled The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964) The film was allegedly beset by many conflicts. There was an ongoing disagreement between producer Hal E. Chester and director Jacques Tourneur over whether to fully reveal the demon. Then there are many anecdotes about Dana Andrews’ struggle with alcoholism during filming, which threatened to disrupt production altogether. Many have criticised Andrews’ performance in this film, but I find his slightly wooden delivery really enhances his displacement in the world of witchcraft and devil worship. As an American discovering strange British folklore and customs, he really is a stranger in a strange land.
Arguably, Niall McGinnis is the star of this production. He has some fantastic pieces of dialogue which he delivers in a perfect Shakespearean baritone: ‘If it’s not someone else’s life, it’ll be mine. Do you understand, Mother? It’ll be mine’.
Diehard fans of the film may like to seek out ‘Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon’ (Tony Earnshaw, 2005). Now sadly out of print, you can expect to pay upwards of £70 for this fantastic companion book. The very fact that it even spawned such a publication is a testament to the importance of Night of the Demon in British folk horror history. But to me, it will simply always be one of very few films that stands up to multiple rewatches, that never fails to give me chills and to make me hang on to every beautifully crafted line of dialogue.