Friday, October 31, 2014

Night of the Demon: If Hitchcock Had Made a Horror Movie...

Although made in the late 1950s, Night of the Demon (US: Curse of the Demon) owes its inspiration to producer Val Lew-ton's 1940s “B” horror films. Constrained by a low budget, Lewton knew he couldn’t afford to show a scary monster, so he made psychological thrillers like The Leopard Man in which the film’s menace was implied. One of Lewton’s directors was Jacques Tourneur, who would later helm the film noir classic Out of the Past and, of course, Night of the Demon.

According to legend, Tourneur’s original cut of Night of the Demon never showed the title creature. The producers felt it wasn’t creepy enough, though, and inserted two scenes with a gruesome two-horned, fanged demonic creature created by Wally Veevers. Whether the tale is true or not, the decision to show the demon works to the film’s advantage. The creature’s rare appearances make quite an impact and Veevers’ work is quite impressive.

The real star of the film, though, is Niall McGinnis, who plays devil cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell. At the beginning of the film, Karswell receives a visit from Professor Harrington, who has been investigating the cult. A frightened Harrington tells Karswell that he will stop the investigation and pleads with Karswell to “call it off.” Karswell notes that “some things are more easily started than stopped.” Later that night, a hideous demon kills Harrington.

John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychologist, and Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the professor’s niece, pick up the investigation. Holden, who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, pays a call on Karswell at the latter’s country estate. Karswell, sporting clown make-up, is giving a Halloween magic show for the local children. It’s my favorite scene and features such great dialogue as:

Holden: I see you practice white magic as well as black.

Karswell: I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from Hell for them. Or for myself for that matter. As we’re not protected by the magic circle, we’d both of us be torn to shreds.

Holden: And you’d spoil the party.

Karswell: You’re so right…but how to make the point.

To do just that, Karswell summons up a wind storm (a medieval witch’s specialty, he explains later) that sends screaming children running inside the house—a scene that foreshadows a similar children’s party gone awry in Hitchcock's The Birds.

The film's most famous sequence, though, is probably Holden's late night trek through the woods. After an encounter at Karswell's country estate, Holden makes for a quick exit out the study door. Karswell politely advises him not to take the path through the woods, but the defiant Holden does just that--setting the stage for a chase very reminiscent of those in Lewton pictures like The Cat People.

A creature worth showing!
Night of the Demon was loosely based on M.R. James' short story "Casting the Runes." The witty screenplay was co-authored by Charles Bennett, who worked on early Hitchcock classics like The 39 Steps. He gives McGinnis almost all the good lines. When Karswell finds the skeptical Holden searching his study, the cult leader remarks about Joanna: “At least, she doesn’t have her head in the sand. She believes she can see. She can. She believes that she’s alive. She is. She believes that you will die tomorrow night. You will.”

Indeed, the film’s only weakness may be that Karsell is so much more interesting than Holden. It doesn’t help that Dana Andrews gives a bland performance as the disbelieving hero and the talented Peggy Cummins has very little to do. The film's second best performance is given by screen veteran Athene Seyler, who plays Karswell's mother. Their mother-son relationship is straight out of Hitchcock (who seemed to have a soft spot for his villains' mothers).

Sadly, Night of the Demon would be the last significant film for director Jacques Tourneur. He worked mostly in television in the 1960s, directing episodes of shows like Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and T.H.E. Cat. Still, his final two films weren't without interest: War Gods of the Deep (1965) was a bizarre, entertaining adventure film about an underwater city and The Comedy of Terrors was an amusing trifle written by Richard Matheson and starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone.

As Tourneur's swansong in the horror genre, he couldn't have done better than Night of the Demon. I've often thought that if Hitch had made a horror film, it might have looked something like Night of the Demon. He probably would have wanted to avoid showing the title creature, too. I’d have to disagree, though, because, in close-up especially, that disagreeable demon is quite chillingly memorable.

15 comments:

  1. NIGHT/CURSE OF THE DEMON is a superb film, and while not showing the monster would have made for an intriguing movie, I completely agree that the bit parts in which we see the creature is creepy and memorable. Tourneur was a tremendous director, and his work with Val Lewton produced some incredible films. Rick, your review of this flick is great, and I can't really add anything to it. In fact, I agree with everything: from Dana Andrews' fairly tepid performance to a highlight being the eerie, windy sequence. I wish NIGHT OF THE DEMON was a little more popular so that more people could talk about it. As it stands, I spend more time recommending it than anything else. Wonderful start for the 13 Days of Halloween!

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  2. I have never seen this, Rick. I enjoyed reading your review. I find it interesting that Dana Andrews went from making top tier films to B-films like this. Of course, this happened to the great Bette Davis, too, but it is still surprising. That monster is pretty creepy looking,

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  3. Rick and Sark, you are preaching to the choir when it comes to me -- I LOVE Night of the Demon. I'm in agreement with your assessment, Rick, except for one thing. I did not like the demon being depicted the way it was. If it had to be shown, I think it would have been better to see only eyes or a silhouette -- the one they designed is creepy enough, but it just didn't match my view of what it should be. To me it kind of looks like a crazed Godzilla. Just my opinion, of course -- but I am prepared for your irate disagreements. LOL.

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  4. One of my favorite old horror films. I watch this whenever it is on televison. When I saw it as a kid, I thought it was really scary. It doesn't have the same effect today, but I enjoy it. I like the film with or without the demon being shown. You are right about Dana Andrews, Rick. He acts like he is bored with his role and wants to just go home. Enjoyed your review.

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  5. Put me down for yes for showing the demon, though I would have preferred to not show it at the beginning. Maybe suggest it at the beginning, and then unleash it at the end.

    Wonderful movie, though, and a terrific seance sequence as well.

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  6. Rick, I enjoyed reading your very scary review. I hope TCM plays it soon. I would really like a chance to see it.

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  7. Great movie. Showing the demon only at the end was the right touch since they felt they had to have a visible monster.

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  8. I'm a great fan of Lewton's films where the horror is implied without being shown (though I want to point out we do see the "monster" briefly in Kent Smith's office in CAT PEOPLE). That said, I wouldn't change anything about NIGHT OF THE DEMON. As I wrote, I think it's just a cool-looking monster (especially during its first appearance). Second by showing the demon coming out of the cloud at the start, it heightens the effect when Dana Andrews is running through the woods and we see the cloud forming again. He's not sure what the spooky cloud means...but we know because we saw what it brought forth and what it did to Professor Harrington! Ironically, I just watched Lewton's LEOPARD MAN (review coming during the 13 DAYS) and William Freidkin talks about this effect on the commentary. He describes a scene (unrelated to LEOPARD MAN) where two people are talking in a restaurant and there's a suitcase under the table with a bomb in it. If no one--even the viewer--knows about the bomb, then it's shocking when the bomb explodes, but not tense or horrifying. On the hand, if the viewer knows--but the two people don't--then that knowledge builds tension and horror during the scene. We want to scream at the characters: Hey, there's a bomb under the table! It's a very different effect.

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  9. Your points about the cycle of suspense are excellent, Rick! The bomb story is the Hitchcock way, and who knew suspense better? I suppose with horror movies I am more of a Val Lewton-type...I like the shadow, the silhouette, the glimpse out of the corner of the eye...my inner eye makes monsters that are much scarier than anybody's special effects. The only actual monster type that I remember being terrified of was in a movie that I can't recall, darn it, not even a very good movie maybe. But it was like a human with no hair, no eyes and no ears. It just came at you. You couldn't communicate with it at all, no pleas for pity, no eye contact for hope of compassion, nothing -- just this thing feeling around for you in a small space. Ooh, I just scared myself!

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  10. I love a good film discussion, Becky. For me, the demonic cloud in NIGHT is the same as Friedkin's suitcase. We know what's inside...Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins don't. I suppose the cloud might work the same if we just heard the demon...but I do like seeing it in this case.

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  11. Becky, I have to say I agree with you....I prefer the movies where you just see glimpses, shadows, silhouettes, because my mind creates MUCH scarier monsters than the actual creature when it's revealed!

    I recall not being able to watch the movie Alien for long the first time I tried to watch it because they did not show the actual (big) alien monster for a while....yes, the one they finally DO show is pretty darn scary, but I was too freaked out to even watch the movie to the point of the "revelation", LOL!

    Thanks for a good post and a GREAT discussion!!

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  12. Veryinformative post. Great flick, a thinking person's horror film. I watch it once a year.

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  13. Excellent post! The Halloween party is quite chilling. For many days after the first viewing my family would tease each other about slipping something into someone's pocket, wallet, or purse. Eeee! Happy Halloween!

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    1. Agree wholeheartedly, Toto...on all counts!

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  14. My first sight of the Demon was on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS. ....made me track down the film,not easy in the pre video age....read TV Guide scouring for this and other lesser known gems...

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