On Saturday 28th June 1980 at around 10.30 pm I sat down, a wide eyed 11 year old, to watch the first of a new series of late night horror double bills on BBC2. One of those films has remained a favourite of mine, a film I regularly return to, a movie that has over the years scared, thrilled, and fascinated me in turn, a film that continues to inspire me moving forward as a filmmaker. The film?
Night of the Demon, a black and white supernatural horror film directed by Jaques Tourneur.
Night of the Demon presents a confrontation between the belief in science and the belief in the power of the supernatural.
American psychologist Dr John Holden travels to England to attend a conference on the paranormal with the intention of exposing cult leader Julian Karswell as a fraud. Upon arrival Holden is told that his colleague who was investigating Karswell has died in an unexplained accident. Karswell meets Dr Holden and tries to persuade him to drop his investigation, when he refuses Karswell secretly passes him a parchment upon which are runic symbols. Holden now has three days before he will meet his end at the hands of a fire demon summoned from the depths of hell. His only hope is to give back the runes to the one who passed them to him. Karswell. But first Holden must accept that science does not hold all of the answers.
Night of the Demon was first released, to very little fanfare, into UK cinemas in December 1957. It was the main feature on a double bill, paired up with the now mostly forgotten, 20 Million Miles To Earth. The release was not a success.
The following year a retitled, and re-edited version of the film opened in the US. Now titled, Curse of the Demon, and shorn of some 12 minutes of footage, the now 83 minute movie played as second feature to Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein. For the next 30 years this was the version shown to American audiences.
One likely reason for the films failure at the box office? Another British horror movie, that started shooting the same day as Night of the Demon. A film that would change the face of horror in the cinema for almost two decades. The Curse of Frankenstein. Hammer’s breakthrough gothic success. Visceral, unflinching, and all in glorious Technicolor. When that film was released earlier in May 1957, audiences flocked to see the hideous monster’s butchered features, the mad scientist awash with blood, undertaking realistic looking operations on the recently deceased. Despite the fact that NOTD had a contemporary setting, whilst TCOF was set in the previous century in a generic Eastern European village it is ultimately it is the choice to show all of it’s horrors ( or at least as much as the censors would allow) that rapidly became the standard within horror film of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Curse of Frankenstein reportedly took more than 70 times its modest production cost during its original theatrical run eventually taking $8 million in box office grosses.
In comparison, Night of the Demon’s black and white, mostly inferred horrors of an unseen menace, must have seemed old fashioned to audiences of the day. This supernatural tale was reminiscent of the Val Lewton produced RKO horrors of the 1940’s. Small films that had previously had the influence on the horror film that Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein was now having. This was perhaps unsurprising, as three of those horrors, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and Leopard Man shared a director with Night of the Demon. Jaques Tourneur. Cat People (1942) in particular was influential on generations of horror filmmakers to the ‘Lewton Bus’, a term still used to describe a scene that builds to a scare, but the reveal is not in of itself frightening (ie in Cat People, at the end of a very tense pursuit scene down a darkened alleyway a bus drives into frame with a roar of engine and brakes), but the effect is still to make the audience jump. Why this has gone into film lore bearing the producers name rather than the directors is a question for another time.
Jaques Tourneur subscribed to the assumption that in horror that what you can see is nowhere near as scary as what you can’t. Unfortunately, in 1957 audiences voted with their feet, they wanted to see their horrors.
For the 11 year old sitting wide eyed in front of a 28 inch black and white television set none of this mattered. What did matter, and matter a lot, was that I was about to finally come face to face with the demon that had featured so prominently in the old, battered horror film books that sat on my bookshelf. What’s more the Radio Times, the television listings magazine of choice in my house had featured a lurid painting of tonights horror delights on the front cover! The old stuffy, establishment Radio Times. With Jaques Tourneurs demon on the cover!
What I watched that night has never left me. Despite some less than stellar acting, scene after scene grabbed me, drawing me into he world of warlocks, shadows, and the demon.
The screenplay was an adaption of MR James’s ghost story, Casting The Runes. It was written by Charles Bennett who had previously written several films for Alfred Hitchcock in the 30’s and 40’s including The Man who Knew Too Much, 39 Steps, and Foreign Correspondent.
The Art Director was Sir Ken Adam who later worked with Kubrick on Strangelove, and Barry Lyndon, and on several James Bond films from Dr No to Moonraker.
Over the almost 60 years since its release, it is the inclusion of the demon that continues to divide fans and critics. Two clear camps have emerged, those that believe that producer Hal E. Chester’s decision to insist on extra scenes showing the demon at both the beginning and end of the film, effectively ruins a superb horror in the Val Lewton mould. The other, that the demon is great and works to elevate NOTD to its place as a classic.
Tourneur himself, was always clear.
“I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with this guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom-did I see it or didn’t I? But after I had finished and returned to the United States, the English producer made this horrible thing, cheapened it. It was like a different film.” In reviewing the film upon its release Variety described the end sequence featuring the demon as, “the product of a child’s nightmare rather than an adult’s imagination.” Whilst William K. Everson in Classics of the Horror Film states, “its demon is such a lulu that it lives up to the fearsome description of it”
Watching the film again now, with the eye of a filmmaker, there is, regardless of the debate over the inclusion of the titular monster, much to appreciate, and much to inspire within Night of the Demon. Sequence after sequence continues to impress with its staging, lighting, and overall tone.
For myself this remains an influential film because now I am looking to create my own cinematic horrors the fact that I find myself torn between the decision to show or not to show brings me back again and again to Night of the Demon. Perhaps because, despite the wishes of the director, the film manages to straddle the two views. By both showing the demon in the first five minutes to the slow build of a following insidious evil that we, the audience know is all to real, from the off seems to somehow reconcile the two viewpoints on what is scary in horror film.
To show, or not to show?
Night of the Demon somehow, perhaps by accident rather than by design, does both. Perhaps, by imposing the reality of the demons existence by showing the monster at the outset the producers fulfil Alfred Hitchcocks own thoughts on how to build suspense.
“four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you’ve given them that information. In five minutes time that bomb will go of. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they’re saying to you, ” Don’t be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There’s. Bomb under there.” you’ve got the audience working.”
Once we have seen Dr Holden’s colleague die horribly at the hands of the demon at the start of the film, we do find ourselves saying, “What are you doing! In three days you’re going to be ripped apart by a huge fire demon!”
Well, at least I do.
That 11 year old is still inside me and decades later whenever I view the film again I am taken back to that first thrill of that hot, muggy June. To my own, night of the Demon.