Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.
You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.
Starring: Dana Andrews, Niall MacGinnis, Peggy Cummins
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Save the two infamous exceptions that bookend Night Of The Demon, there’s not a lot to see here. There’s no overt violence, no full-on horror set-pieces and no iconic monster or villain at its centre, making it all the more remarkable that it’s, without a shadow of doubt, one of the most chilling and atmospheric films Britain has ever produced.
French director Jacques Tourneur had already proved he knew how to disturb and unsettle in the most subtle of ways with his 1942 classic Cat People, before bringing his natural affinity for a dark storyline into the mainstream with the genius noir that was 1947’s Out Of The Past. Night Of The Demon though, was almost like a combination of both, bringing a disheveled, cynical investigator type into a world of shadows and the unknown.
Doctor John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a psychologist who specializes in debunking the occult and superstitions. He has arrived in London from America to attend a conference, while giving special attention to the Crowley-esque cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis).
Before he arrives though, his colleague Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), has a run-in with Karswell that results in his death at the hands of what appears to be a demon.
It’s recorded as an accident by the authorities however and Holden is not convinced that Karswell is anything other than a charlatan, even when the sorcerer plants a hex on him, declaring that he will be dead in exactly three days…
After exploring voodoo culture with I Walked With A Zombie and Eastern European mysticism with Cat People, Tourneur turned his considerable talents to Britain and the results are spellbinding.
The black magic we see in Night Of The Demon couldn’t be more British if it tried, full of post-war stiff upper lips, polite society and excellent manners, even when declaring magical war and impending death.
Dana Andrews is perfectly cast here as the non-believing Everyman, slowly coming to the realisation that the world may not be as cut and dried as he previously imagined. He’s not just a cynic, he sees fraud everywhere and revels in deflating what he sees as con men, so in the larger than life Karswell, he sees a challenge he can’t refuse. This is a charlatan that he simply has to expose, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he might actually be telling the truth.
Everything from the script to the performances are brilliantly on point, but what really makes Night Of The Demon the classic it is is just how menacing Tourneur makes, well…absolutely everything.
Almost every scene, from Karswell’s Halloween party for the local children, to the strange farmhouse full of local adults, to relatively innocuous locations like hallways abc living rooms are given a threatening edge, like nowhere is safe and evil lurks in every corner.
There’s no more effective example of this as when Holden breaks into Karswell’s mansion and Tourneur’s camera follows him at a distance, peering over his shoulder as he descends a staircase into a checkerboard floor. It’s a dizzying, overwhelming display of angles and designs that just feel wrong somehow, given extra impact by several uses of the sudden jump scares he used to such great effect in Cat People.
The final piece of the puzzle is Clifton Parker’s gloriously bombastic score. An almost constant presence in the film, it’s often abrasive, often nerve-shredding and impossible to ignore, howling away in the foreground, making those supposedly innocuous scenes throb with energy and potential danger, while casually fading away as quickly as it rose up.
Tourneur had made a perfect film here, but those bookending scenes showing the demon were stuck into his masterpiece against his wishes. Are they necessary? Not at all. Do they work? Well, yes. Very much so. The design is wonderful for a start and the somewhat clunky animation used gives it an otherworldly, surreal edge. Saying that, the appearance at the start does remove any ambiguity of who is right and wrong to the existence of the supernatural (and it’s not our hero), but it in no way ruins what was a perfect film before the additions and somehow, remains a perfect film after them. Flawless. Just flawless.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy