Night of the Demon / Curse of the Demon (1957)

“I’m not a superstitious sucker, like 90% of humanity.”

Night Demon Poster

Synopsis:
An American scientist (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to debunk a devil-worshiping cult led by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), but is slowly convinced — in part by Karswell’s niece (Peggy Cummins) — that Karswell may possess truly dangerous supernatural powers after all.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this atmospheric film by director Jacques Tourneur as “the best horror movie of the science-fiction-dominated fifties, the most intriguing picture ever made about witchcraft, and the most intelligent, visually impressive entry to the genre” since Val Lewton’s films of the 1940s. While these superlatives may or may not be warranted, it’s certainly true that Night of the Demon remains stellar adult entertainment, and deserves its status as an enduring cult film (see recent IMDb message board posts for a taste of the interest it continues to generate, more than 50 years after its release).

Charles Bennett’s script was notoriously rewritten by producer Hal Chester — a fate which Peary discusses at length in his Cult Movies 2 — but it manages to retain “the grace and literate quality as well as the sinister feel and elements of mystery and suspense (as opposed to shock) that distinguished Bennett’s scripts for Alfred Hitchcock”. In addition, as Peary notes, the material was perfect for Tourneur, who “returned to his forties roots” by “frighten[ing] viewers through such fundamental fears as darkness, sudden sounds, and wild animals”, and who created a “shadowy world” where “the battle between light and darkness, good and evil, science and magic, fate and free will is continuous, and where characters are controlled less by reason than by subconscious.”

To that end, Dana Andrews is perfectly cast as Dr. Holden, an outsider (an American in England) who — much like his hardboiled detective in Laura (1944) — finds himself sucked into and “seduced” by a world he’s entirely unfamiliar with. We understand his initial reluctance to believe in witchcraft, and it’s to Tourneur’s credit that we are gradually convinced — right alongside Holden — about the veracity of Dr. Karswell’s supernatural powers. Several key scenes of terror build upon one another, eventually resulting in a truly ominous sense of doom: Karswell conjures up a powerful storm out of thin air during a party he’s hosting for a group of orphans; a “bizarre seance” is hosted by Karswell’s “daffy mother” (Athene Seyler); Holden is attacked by a housecat “disguised” as an enormous feline; Holden is chased by a smoke ball while walking through the woods, surrounded by giant footprints.

The film’s biggest controversy continues to center around producer Hal Chester’s inclusion (not part of Bennett’s original script) of an enormous demon, which appears in the very first scene and leaves no doubt in viewers’ minds about the existence of underworld forces at play. Peary is of the opinion that if “Lewton had had such a spectacular monster” at his disposal, he would “have shown it”, given that it’s “more terrifying than anything we could imagine” — and I tend to agree. Equal props must go towards Niall MacGinnis in a “superb” performance as Dr. Karswell; he projects arrogance and creepiness (note his clown costume during the orphan party) in just the right proportions.

P.S. Note that one widely circulated American version of the film leaves out about thirteen minutes of the story (discussed at length in DVD Savant’s review).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Karswell
    Night Demon MacGinnis
  • Tourneur’s suspenseful sense of direction
    Night Demon Direction
  • The truly frightening demon
    Night Demon Demon
  • Edward Scaife’s atmospheric cinematography
  • Several effectively spooky scenes

Must See?
Yes, as a certifiable cult favorite. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2 (1983).

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One Response to “Night of the Demon / Curse of the Demon (1957)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in horror cinema history.

    Revisited this just now. It seems to me that, somewhere along the line, I managed to see both the short and long versions of this – this rewatch was of the long one.

    The long one may, in fact, be a tad too long (for the story it’s telling) but that may depend – someone seeing the film for the first time (as lengthened) may not be bothered by the occasional stretch within, and it may only add to the overall suspense.

    One element that makes the film seem long is Andrews’ character – particularly the way he talks. For the majority of the film, he is ‘Doubting Thomas Incarnate’ and he makes that quite clear – so clear that it can seem a bit much. The broad extent of his skepticism – esp. in the face of some noticeably bizarre happenings – can be comical when it comes to his reactions (“It’s just the wind.”, etc.)

    MacGinnis does, indeed, run away with the film. His self-containment put me in mind of Sidney Blackmer in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. But Cummins is also interesting to watch – esp. when you remember her twisted role in ‘Gun Crazy’ and note how almost-angelic she is this time around.

    Perhaps my favorite scene comes near the end. A crucial structure element of the story is introduced earlier on but its importance is somewhat downplayed until just before the climax, when it brings on an especially welcome sequence of extended suspense.

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