Night of the Demon is a 1957 movie made in Britain and based on the M. R. James short ghost story Casting the Runes. It was directed by the legendary Jacques Tourneur who was certainly no stranger to the horror genre as he had directed three of the best of producer Val Lewton’s famous and critically acclaimed RKO low-budget alternatives to the Universal Horror cycle in the 1940s… notably the original version of Cat People plus The Leopard Man and I Walked With A Zombie.
Now this isn’t actually, when you get right down to it, exactly a faithful adaptation of the short to be honest… but like other less than faithful movie adaptations (I might mention Jaws or Blade Runner) it plays around with concepts and ideas which are thrown up by the original source material and manages to be a movie that conjures up a chilling atmosphere which is reminiscent of the spirit of the original and, quite apart from this, is certainly one of the most watchable and entertaining British horror movies of all time.
Like the original short story, the movie takes up the idea of a demon coming to destroy the possessor of a piece of paper with a runic curse on it. Once the initially unknowing owner of said piece of runic scribble is aware of this, the movie becomes an exercise in a) the characters progression from “do I really believe this” to “bugger this I’m in trouble here” and b) how do I pass the curse back to the originator without him being aware that I’ve done it before the demon comes to take me.
The original story was a small character sketch on fear with the presence of an actual demon implied but not actually verified by the writer… a kind of “make your own mind up” conclusion as to whether the death of a character in the short story was down to a demonic force or whether it was a freakish and coincidental accident caused by the act of fleeing a suspected reality, in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way.
The movie plays things a little less vaguely with a pre-credits sequence that includes a scene which shows the demon coming to kill the last victim of the runic symbols in a quite charming “Ray Harryhausen-style” stop motion animation. I understand that the director did not want to make the demon implicit himself and hated the scenes where the demon is actually shown and I guess this would in fact fit in with his modus operandi from when he was working for Lewton over at RKO in the decade before. Still, whether the director wanted it there or not, it’s there and it’s curiously effective for something which is so obviously a stop motion element to the movie. The demonic murder itself is called into question because the car of the victim is electrocuted trying to flee the monster in question.
The very real villain of the piece, however, is a black magician called Dr. Julian Karswell who may or may not have been based on the real-life Alesteir Crowley, played by Niall MacGinnis who really gives a brilliant performance in the role. An absolutely charming character who will be quite happy to provide you with some charming chit-chat over tea and cake before slipping you a runic scroll and setting a demon on you.
The main protagonist is Dr. John Holden, played by Dana Andrews who was presumably cast to ensure the film’s distribution in the US. He plays a doctor who has journeyed from America to disprove Karswell’s claim of being a witch and thus finds himself, cynically, on the receiving end of one of Mr. Karswell’s nasty runes. His romantic interest is the daughter of the previous victim of one of Karswell’s demons played by Peggy Cummins… but she doesn’t really seem to do that much but provide a female Mulder to Dana Winter’s skeptical Scully.
By the way, if any of the plotline to this movie is starting to sound just a little too familiar to fans of modern horror cinema, that’s because this is basically the same storyline (with a few modern adjustments) of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell a few years ago… I haven’t actually come across anything where the makers of Drag Me To Hell have admitted that their movie is a direct remake of Night of the Demon… or even “inspired by” M. R. James Casting The Runes… but it does seem pretty obvious to me that this movie was just a thinly and inadequately disguised remake of Night of the Demon. Still, Drag Me To Hell was a pretty good horror movie too… my review of it is here.
Asides from the opening confrontation with Karswell and the aforementioned and subsequent death of victim number one at the hands of the demon, the movie keeps a brisk but discrete pace and keeps everything else under wraps while exploring the psychological effects of the events of a man’s death foretold on th characters. It’s only towards the last half an hour or so, after Last of the Summer Wine actor Brian Wilde throws himself to his death out of a window while reliving a demonic encounter in a hypnotically induced trance that things begin to kick back into high gear with a cat wrestling scene, a pursuit by a shiny bright demonic light through a forest (including brilliant Michael Bentine’s Potty Time invisible creature footsteps) and a race along some train tracks involving the runic paper and the death by one of the characters at the hands of the stop-motion demon. The railway track setting, of course, means the injuries sustained by this character can be explained by a train having rolled over him… something that Raimi used a couple of years ago as the scene of the final denouement of Drag Me To Hell. Hmmm… wonder where he got that idea from.
Shot in a stark black and white which perfectly evokes an eerie mood, Night of the Demon is the perfect film for fans and students of the Great British Horror Movie and I would heartily recommend this movie to people who fit that description. A shorter cut-down version of the film was released in the US as Curse Of The Demon and at one time I understood that this version was made from different takes of the same scenes… although I can’t seem to verify that claim at the present and I’ve never bothered to watch that version (as yet) so I can’t honestly say it is or it isn’t.
Review by NUTS4R2
Original version of this review can be found on the NUTS4R2 blog
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