aka Curse of the Demon

And so the Australian Film Institute decided to kick off their tribute to Columbia Pictures with Night Of The Demon. God bless ‘em, every one…. This was an opportunity to die for: a screening of this surprisingly rare film, much talked and written about, but very little seen, in a beautiful new print and beautiful, beautiful black and white. While Night Of The Demon is almost universally praised, a great deal of controversy surrounds the inclusion of scenes featuring unequivocal shots of the eponymous demon, and about how much of this was forced upon director Jacques Tourneur. Having now seen the film, my feeling is that the problem is not so much the actual inclusion of the demon, but that we see far too much of it. The close-ups are fine, but in long shot it looks exactly like what it is: a rather tacky puppet. However, while I would have preferred no clear manifestation (perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I always prefer ambiguity to explicitness), I have to say that the appearances of the demon here do not damage the film the same way that the shot of a panther hurts Cat People. After all, other than in the mind of the film’s protagonist, John Holden (Dana Andrews), there isn’t too much doubt that something supernatural is going on here. It was inevitable that the term "Lewtonesque" should be applied to Night Of The Demon. In addition to the presence of Tourneur, the rich atmospherics of the film and its overall preference for suggestion rather than explanation, another link between this film and its progenitors is the presence of a fairly unlikable "hero" pitted against a sympathetic, not to say charming, "villain". Niall McGinnis gives a marvellous performance as Karswell, who is in turns funny, frightening, engaging and pathetic. The underlying irony of the film is the ongoing investigation into Karswell’s activities, first by Professor Harrington (the film’s first victim) and then by Holden himself, both of them so intent upon proving their adversary a fake that they force him to demonstrate that he isn’t – thus unleashing powers they cannot begin to comprehend until it is too late. In this respect, John Holden is perhaps the least attractive specimen in a long line of horror movie unbelievers. It’s not just that he’s a pig-headed sceptic that’s off-putting, but his conviction that his scepticism gives him the right to jeer at and belittle everyone else’s beliefs, whatever form they might take. (He doesn’t openly ridicule the members of the religious order he encounters, admittedly, but probably only because they outnumber him about eight to one.) Holden is a rationalist in the worst sense of the word. If he can’t see it, touch it, put a name to it, it doesn’t exist. Even when he has his clothes ripped to shreds by a house-cat that suddenly metamorphoses into a leopard, he somehow remains convinced that it’s "all in the mind". (Perhaps his nearest rival in this respect is Peter Wyngarde’s Norman Taylor in Night Of The Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn, whose contempt for his wife’s beliefs nearly proves the death of both of them.) Holden’s refusal to accept what’s under his nose grows increasingly exasperating, until some viewers (this one included) might find themselves willing upon him the ultimate proof of the supernatural. In contrast, Joanna Harrington – well played by Peggy Cummins, who never had the career she deserved – is a welcome relief. Intelligent and level-headed, she accepts Karswell’s powers and his role in her uncle’s death simply because all the evidence points that way. Joanna is an attractive character, so much so that the script’s insistence that she is beginning to fall for Holden becomes frankly distasteful. (What she could possibly see in this rude, arrogant, vaguely lecherous individual remains a mystery; I would infinitely have preferred it if her interest in him had remained merely a justifiable concern for his welfare.) As Holden and Joanna pursue their investigation of Karswell from their contrasting perspectives, Night Of The Demon begins to generate considerable suspense, climaxing in the decisive confrontation between Holden and the now terrified Karswell in a railway carriage. The final scenes are scary and cathartic, and when the film ends with John Holden intoning the inevitable, "There are some things it’s better not to know!", amazingly, it doesn’t feel like a cliché! Night Of The Demon is a film of many virtues, among them the intelligent screenplay by Charles Bennett and producer Hal E. Chester (based upon M.R. James’ "Casting The Runes"); the absolutely exquisite cinematography by Ted Scaife; and the strength of the supporting cast. This last is one area where Night Of The Demon really outdoes the Lewton films, which often suffered from the weak performances of their lesser players. In contrast, Night Of The Demon is filled to overflowing with solid British character actors, who bring credibility to even the tiniest roles. The film boasts some wonderful set pieces, such as the opening sequence, with Professor Harrington tracked through the night by something; and, most notably, Karswell’s demonstration of his powers in the conjuring of a storm. There are also a number of simple but clever shock moments: a child in a mask, for instance; or a hand on a banister that frightened me more than the entire content of End Of Days….

And You Call Yourself a Scientist