witchfinder general


Giving the devil his due:

The Demonic

in British horror cinema

Johnny Restall grows horns and takes a personal look at the Satanic highlights of British horror cinema…​

Following the success of The Exorcist in 1973, demonic possession seemed to be all the rage in the horror movie world. Up close, personal, and often accompanied by some deeply reactionary undertones, Satan and his demons apparently could not get enough of possessing unsuspecting innocents, and tormenting troubled priests by making salacious comments about their mothers. This image of the diabolical still holds currency in the popular imagination today, but it is far from the only interpretation of the devilish committed to film. This article is a personal selection of some alternative portrayals of Lucifer and his minions in British horror cinema.

Night Of The Demon (1957, Jacques Tourneur) was adapted from M.R. James’ short story Casting The Runes and tells the tale of the sceptical Dr Holden (Dana Andrews), who finds himself stalked by sinister occult powers. Although James’ original is coy about explicitly naming or depicting the satanic, the film is quite literally upfront about it, with the titular demon seen in the opening sequence (to the infamous displeasure of director Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett, who both favoured a more ambiguous approach). The design of the creature, by Ken Adam (best known for his elaborate set designs for several James Bond films), was inspired by the suitably Jamesian source of medieval woodcuts depicting fire demons.

Leaving aside the controversially visible demon, the main antagonist of the film is Dr Julian Karswell (beautifully played by Niall MacGinnis). In James’ story, Karswell is presented as a straightforwardly unsympathetic villain, dedicated to using his dark powers to destroy those who dismiss his work on witchcraft (with the author snobbishly noting his bad grammar and lack of Oxford education as further evidence of his evil). MacGinnis’ Karswell is a far more complex characterisation – erudite, cunning, ruthless and formidable, but not entirely unsympathetic. He seems to genuinely enjoy using his more benevolent magic to entertain local children on his estate (even if the ensuing scene in which, dressed as a clown, he conjures up a ferocious storm to try and convince the doubtful Holden of his powers, is among the most chilling in the film). He indulges his eccentric mother even when she interferes directly with his deadly plans, while fearfully aware of the limits and the dangers of the powers he has unleashed, knowing that he will pay a terrible personal price if he does not continue to pass the runes.

the demonic in british horror cinema

A central theme of Night Of The Demon is the battle of beliefs between rational science and the supernatural. No such concerns hold sway in Hammer’s blood-and-thunder adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel The Devil Rides Out (1968, Terence Fisher). The hero, Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) firmly believes in the existence of the powers of darkness summoned by Charles Gray’s Mocata, and the film is briskly dismissive of the faithless or agnostic. Wheatley apparently partly based Mocata on the infamous real-life occultist Aleister Crowley (occasionally if unattributably also cited as the source for James’ Karswell). Gray’s gleeful, purring wickedness in the part is a marked contrast to MacGinnis’ more sympathetic interpretation of a similar character, with Mocata portrayed as unshakably committed to Satanic evil as an ideological choice, rather than for personal survival. Similarly, while Dr Holden is left shaken out of his certainties at the close of the former film, Richleau explicitly exhorts his fellow survivors to be thankful to God, seeing the conclusion as vindicating his beliefs.

Richard Matheson’s adaptation dispenses with Wheatley’s ponderous prose, and, under the direction of old Hammer hand Terence Fisher, the film belts along like an old-fashioned ripping yarn. Despite his prominence in the title, ‘the devil himself’ only appears briefly, in the form of Baphomet at the sacrificial rite. His presence is largely embodied by Mocata, and by the range of supernatural threats menacing the heroes during the celebrated magic circle sequence. Beneath the stylish surface, Wheatley’s conservative politics remain in place – the young are foolish and require a paternalistic, aristocratic guide (Richleau), and good is very clearly delineated as white, male and Christian. 

While Mocata seems keen to initiate followers from the wealthy ‘respectable’ classes, Night Of The Demon’s Karswell seems to have drawn his following from the poorer, superstitious country folk who live near his estate. The notion of the demonic influencing a working-class rural community, implicit but largely unexplored in the earlier film, is investigated in detail in The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971, Piers Haggard). In the early 18th century, a ploughman accidentally uncovers strange, inhuman remains in a field (including an eye). This discovery creates a diabolical cult, led by the provocative and ironically named Angel (Linda Hayden), who cull the mysterious patches of fur now growing on the bodies of various unfortunate locals, with the aim of reviving the demonic remains. 

As this synopsis suggests, the plot is somewhat bizarre and leaves much unexplained (perhaps because the film was originally conceived as three separate but linked stories, before being changed into one narrative). Despite the disjointed storyline, it is richly atmospheric and memorable, aided immeasurably by Marc Wilkinson’s eerie score, which makes very effective use of the ‘Devil’s interval’ tritone. Although Satan is named in the title, the demonic creature unearthed is more frequently described by characters as a ‘fiend’. It appears to have no particular Christian frame of reference, and the character of Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) has little interaction with it in any spiritual sense and no impact on the eventual outcome. Judging by its small, capering, animalistic form when revealed in the fiery climax, it seems a minor demon at best rather than Lucifer himself, and a world away from Mocata’s suave and sophisticated devilry. 

the demonic in british horror cinema

The ambiguous final shot of The Blood On Satan’s Claw suggests that one evil may be being replaced by another, of a more human kind. The eye of the strict Judge (Patrick Wymark) is framed by the flames, echoing the opening image of the demon’s disembodied eye staring out from the earth, the scourging fire of zealotry burning out more primal religious beliefs. In some senses, this recalls Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General, based on the 17th-century witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (and whose historical accuracy or otherwise is discussed in this article). 

Hopkins’ self-created role was to find witches and worshippers of the Devil, in the name of righteous Christian faith. He would put them on trial using the ‘objective evidence’ he had obtained, most famously by dunking the suspects in water to see if they would float (the idea being that baptised Christians would be ‘accepted’ by the water and sink, while the evil would remain unembraced, floundering on the surface). The film’s Hopkins (played by Vincent Price at his most cold and menacing) is an utterly venal, sadistic fraud, happy to prey on old superstitions for personal gain, wrapped in false religious authority. Where the Judge of The Blood on Satan’s Claw at least uses his harsh powers to destroy something appearing authentically demonic, Hopkins knowingly butchers innocent people for money and power.

Witchfinder General’s theme of human greed and cruelty is the basis for allegations of witchcraft is taken to its extreme in Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils. Based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils Of Loudon, it recounts the historical story of Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who is accused of a pact with Lucifer by a disturbed and sexually obsessed abbess (Vanessa Redgrave). As Grandier stands in the way of their political schemes, agents of the church and state ruthlessly exploit her claims for their own purposes. Despite the title, and the hallucinatory scenes of mass exorcisms and sacrilegious orgies (which came to define much of Russell’s work from then on, to the point of self-parody), the only ‘devils’ present in the film are very much human in nature. It utterly refuses any supernatural explanation, presenting instead an utterly damning view of a world where religious, moral and sexual hypocrisy run wild. 

the demonic in british horror cinema

The film that ties all of these demonic elements together is Hammer classic Quatermass And The Pit (1967, Roy Ward Baker), adapted by Nigel Kneale from his own 1958-9 TV series. Its influence has been enormous, from Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers (1987) to John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness (1987), to various episodes of Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-), and even music, with Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s seminal electronic hauntology album Séance At Hob’s Lane. Workers digging a new tube extension (a simple building site in the original series) unearth ancient skeletal remains and a mysterious object, initially thought to be a bomb, which turns out to possess diabolical powers…

Quatermass And The Pit ingeniously manages to have its cake and eat it. It is haunted by unearthly terrors and old ‘satanic’ beliefs, yet sceptical; supernatural, yet scientific. Kneale has ghosts, possession, and devilry mixing with contemporary knowledge and technology, balancing all of these elements right to the very end without entirely dismissing any of them. The film finds at least a little bit of truth in them all, managing to actively combine them in scenes such as the ‘scientific’ séance in the Underground, using cutting edge equipment to channel haunting visions of the ‘demonic’ past (an idea the author returned to in The Stone Tape (1972, Peter Sasdy)).

The ‘Devil’ himself manifests at the film’s climax, and brilliantly meets his match in fundamental scientific principles, appropriately inspired by ancient superstitions – the basic laws of a ‘new’ faith (physics) applied literally in the face of founding tenets of far older religious beliefs. However, the sobering conclusion declines to let humanity off the hook. The ‘Devil’ may have been an alien force, but the capacity for cruelty and intolerance it embodied has been proved to be deeply ingrained in human nature, with even Quatermass himself afflicted (a definitive performance as the character from Andrew Keir). We are left sitting in the rubble, facing an uncertain future with our terrible new self-knowledge.

the demonic in british horror cinema

Of course, this article has only scraped a cloven hoof across the surface of the demonic in British horror cinema. For example, Clive Barker took an entirely different approach with his iconic Cenobites in Hellraiser (1987), thoroughly explored in Graham Le Neve Painter’s article for Horrified. More recently, 2013’s The Borderlands (2013, Elliot Goldner) refreshed these themes to deeply unsettling effect, as Ellis Reed discussed. 

Clearly, there is life in the old Devil yet…

Johnny Restall

Johnny Restall

Johnny Restall draws and writes. You can find out more by clicking his name (above)


Creeping through the countryside

At once sublime and horrifying, the English countryside is increasingly the backdrop in horror that explores a growing unease about our place in the world. Melissa Elborn digs deeper into why the ground beneath our feet is revealing our darkest…

1 thought on “Giving The Devil His Due: The demonic in British Horror Cinema”

  1. Isn’t Blood on Satan’s Claw 17th Century? And thanks for the excellent article. Night of the Eagle fits in with the canon too.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.