Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Charles Bennett, Hal E Chester and Cy Endfield (uncredited), based on the story ‘Casting the Runes’ by M R James
Starring Dana Andrews, Niall MacGinnis, Peggy Cummins, Maurice Denham, Liam Redmond, Peter Elliott, Brian Wilde and Athene Seyler
American academic Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews) flies to Britain to meet Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), with the intention of speaking at a conference to expose Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis, who steals every scene he’s in), the leader of a devil-worshipping cult, as a fraud. When he arrives, Holden discovers that Harrington has died in a freak accident and following unsettling encounters with Karswell, it becomes a race against time to discover the truth behind his apparent command of dark magic. Holden is helped in his quest by Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the niece of his deceased colleague.
This low-budget 1957 British horror film was directed by the French film director Jacques Tourneur, who is probably most famous as the director of two classic 1940’s b-movie horrors, ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked With A Zombie’. Tourneur directs here with typical panache and understanding that atmosphere and suggestion is often the most effective form of horror.
Tourneur and the English playwright Charles Bennett (who wrote the adapted screenplay) found themselves in dispute with their American producer Hal E Chester during a fraught production. Both wanted the demon of the title to remain in the imagination of the audience, but Chester did not agree. Tourneur and Bennett were clearly right, but Chester’s insistence that the demon be shown still does not take away from what has been, for at least the last thirty years or so, one of my all-time favourite films.
One of the most effective scenes takes place early on when Holden goes to the country estate of Karswell, where a children’s party is taking place. As a display of his power for Holden’s benefit, Karswell creates a wind storm, sending the children running in panic. It is a genuinely unsettling moment and a superb example of Tourneur’s brilliance in this genre. He was a master of creating an atmosphere of menace and unease. The film is hokum, but it’s brilliantly done hokum.
‘Night Of The Demon’ followed a trend in the 1950s that included ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ and ‘X the Unknown’; low budget British horror films made with American money and starring American leading actors who were perhaps entering the twilight of their careers. Dana Andrews was a dependable actor who is undoubtedly best remembered for his roles in two classic 1940s films, ‘Laura’ and ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’. An alcoholic who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease later in life, he continued to act through the 1960s and 1970s and sporadically in the 1980s. He died in 1992 at the age of 83.
It is claimed that when Andrews, who was President of the Screen Actors Guild between 1963 and 1965, starred in the 1945 musical ‘State Fair’ his singing voice was daubed, even though he was a trained opera singer. The story goes that the studio was ignorant of his singing abilities and he did not mention it because he knew the unnamed singer they hired needed the money the job brought him.
‘Night Of The Demon’ is based on a story called ‘Casting the Runes’, which was published in 1911 as part of the second collection of ghost stories by one of my favourite writers, M R James, the provost of King’s College, Cambridge. The rights to the story were owned by Charles Bennett, who wrote a film script based on it that he then sold to Hal E Chester. Bennett is best known as the screenwriter of several Alfred Hitchcock films, including the original version of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Foreign Correspondent’.
The film was cut by 13 minutes for its American theatrical release and re-titled ‘Curse Of The Demon’.
“It’s in the trees, it’s coming,” a line of dialogue from the film, was used by Kate Bush in her famous 1985 song ‘Hounds Of Love’.