Monday, June 15, 2009

Night of the Demon (Sabre/Columbia, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was Night of the Demon, a 1961 British production that reunited director Jacques Tourneur and star Dana Andrews from The Fearmakers but turned out to be a much better movie — even though it was badly compromised by the producers’ insistence on showing the titular demon whereas Tourneur, having learned his less-is-more lessons from Val Lewton on the three films they made together (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man), had wanted to suggest its presence with sound alone.

Based on a short story by British writer Montague R. James called “Casting the Runes,” and written by Charles Bennett (who wrote six Alfred Hitchcock films — seven if you count Blackmail, which Bennett didn’t work on but which was based on his play — and was essentially to Hitchcock what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra) and Hal E. Chester (who also produced), Night of the Demon is a quite good horror mystery whose villain is Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a superbly oily character who has somehow extracted the world’s only extant copy of a medieval book on demons and demonology from the British Museum, figured out how to read it (more difficult than it sounds because the entire thing was written in code), used one of its formulae to conjure up a demon whenever he’s got an enemy he wants to get rid of, and also organized a Satanic cult in the English countryside. In the opening scene he receives a visit from professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), who is about to expose him at an upcoming scientific convention in London; Karswell takes care of Harrington by summoning up the demon to kill him, which the demon does by toppling a pole covering a power line on top of Harrington’s car, thus electrocuting him.

Karswell has another threat to his authority and public image in the person of American professor Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an internationally famous debunker of psychic and spiritualist claims. On the plane coming over (seemingly represented by the same stock shot of an airliner that transported Andrews’ character in The Fearmakers!) he runs into Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins, the butch psychopath from Joseph Lewis’s masterpiece Gun Crazy), the dead scientist’s niece, and the two of them join forces to investigate Karswell. There are several neat scenes, in which Karswell confronts Holden in the reading room of the British Museum (looking almost exactly as it had when Hitchcock showed it in his film of Bennett’s Blackmail 42 years earlier!) and hands him a card that contains a threat to his life that materializes only momentarily before the thing reverts to being a similarly normal business card again; and one lead into the inner workings of a Satanic cult in the person of farmer Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), a member who went homicidally crazy one day and, though apprehended before he got around actually to killing anybody, has been in a mental institution ever since.

Despite the two visible demon attacks, one at the beginning (which really defies the conventions of Horror Filmmaking 101, one of which is not to show the monster until you’ve already finished the exposition!) and one at the end — and the general tackiness of the demon’s appearance — most of Night of the Demon is done subtly, the horror suggested rather than shown and the two leads on a sort of intellectual quest for clues to the menace not unlike the structure of the recent hit The Da Vinci Code. The film has its flaws — it’s too long and slow-moving (the U.S. distributor, Columbia, recut the film, shrinking it from 95 to 83 minutes and retitling it Curse of the Demon — though the print we were watching was the British version as shown on TCM) and would probably have profited from being kept to the usual 70-to-80 minute length of one of the Lewton productions — but on the whole it’s a marvelous piece of work, with plenty of shadowy, atmospheric shots from Tourneur and cinematographer Edward Scaife and an overall plot construction that goes for literate horror instead of blood and guts. Dana Andrews is a perfectly acceptable lead — he’s not great but he’s certainly better than he was in The Fearmakers — and Peggy Cummins is a disappointment because her role is too normal, too “nice,” to play to her strengths as an actress; but Niall McGinnis is absolutely superb as the villain, unctuously nice on the surface and presenting himself in a matter-of-fact way that only makes his real activities and agenda that much scarier.