Director: Jacques Tourneur
Stars: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
With Halloween fast approaching I, like many others, have upped the horror quota in my viewing habits, revisiting prominent titles as well as exploring far-flung classics. It’s taken too long for me to reach back to Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon (aka Curse Of The Demon). Already a firm fan of Tourneur’s earlier Val Lewton produced Cat People, crossing this title off my spooky bucket list has been an achievement made all the easier thanks to Powerhouse Films’ superb deluxe re-release under their Indicator imprint.
The film is a sure-footed five-star classic. In the main it finds professional debunker John Holden (Dana Andrews) investigating the death of his colleague Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham); electrocuted under bizarre circumstances on the very day his demise was predicted. To Holden the truth is a mystery but we, the audience, are given the information he seeks from the off. The film opens with Professor Harrington’s demise. It is one of the most impactful beginnings to any horror film I can recall seeing, despite what would seem like considerable limitations.
Harrington is pursued by a gigantic demon, summoned by Niall MacGinnis’ deliciously Machiavellian cult leader Doctor Karswell. After a portentous narrated opening over images of a henge – prefiguring the occult leanings of what follows – we leap straight into action. Propelled by Clifton Parker’s fanciful, even histrionic score, we join Harrington as he drives through the woods at night.
These short, fast-paced scenes of night driving are supremely atmospheric. With the urgency of Parker’s music crashing on the soundtrack, the trees flash by the camera like gigantic bones, stark white obstacles dodged against the terrible black of night. The monochrome photography is supremely effective, hurtling us back in time to an older horror sensibility, but imbued with the same danger as the stronger sections of, say, The Blair Witch Project. Tourneur plays on one of our simplest, most primal fears; the dark.
Having pleaded urgently with Karswell to no avail, Harrington returns to driving in the dreaded night. Returning home, he turns to see a plume of smoke developing in the night sky. It grows larger. Nearer. The demon is manifesting. Crashing his car into a telephone pole, he is killed by the cables.
By today’s standards the beast conjured (pictured above) is somewhat crude, even (under other circumstances) laughable. Very clearly a puppet (and a silly one at that) whose presence is achieved with superimposition and stop motion effects. Our cerebral reasoning should dismiss it.
And yet the economic build up that precedes its manifestation – those frantic scenes of night driving in particular – allows for a strange magic. There’s an alchemy at work here, similar to that being worked by the nefarious Karswell. If you give yourself over to the world of terror Tourneur has been quickly setting up for you, if you immerse yourself in it and suspend disbelief, then the demon becomes one of horror cinema’s most beguiling contradictions; an effect you recognise and rationalise that still comes at you with the power to shock.
That is, in itself, the magic of old horror, where effects have dated and yet their use still carries weight. It is our ability and willingness to indulge in the make belief, to channel our childhood imaginations, that enables horror masters to get our flesh crawling. We are absolutely complicit in the frights we feel. We signed on and bought the ticket, after all. We said, “yes” when someone offered to scare us. Our imaginations are part of the trick.
Tourneur knows this (remember the bus scene in Cat People?). How else does he manage to get away with this film’s silliest sequence; the one in which Holden is menaced by a housecat-turned-leopard. Dana Andrews thrashes about the set with, quite clearly, a cuddly toy. The result is less effective than the appearance of the demon, though the principal behind the execution of the scene is the same.
A large part of Night Of The Demon is procedural. The demon doesn’t make another grand appearance until the film’s conclusion at a train station (though again the effect is pronounced). These crazy brackets contain a film of many, many small marvels. I love the in-flight scene that sets up a kind of meet-cute between Holden and Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), while a picnic sequence in which Karswell – dressed as a clown no less – conjures a storm will linger long in the mind. So, too, will the menacing hand of a figure following Holden down a gothic staircase before all that daft leopard business.
But when the film comes into conversation or otherwise manages to surface itself in the mind, it is that opening with the improbable demon that will leap first.
How silly, how startling, how scary.