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"It's in the Trees ... It's Coming!"

Sunday October 5, 2008 in 50s cinema | horror

There is a type of film particularly suited to late night viewing. Late night winter viewing, where the viewer might be alone, and where the wind may be rattling at the window. The window is comfortably locked, and the film’s imagined terrors remain harmless, at least until the viewer becomes a little too engrossed. Night of the Demon is one such film.

opening titles for Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon is a brilliantly scary movie. Some may try to convince you that it’s the scariest movie ever made. It could very well have been, although there are two things that let it down. The first is the casting of Dana Andrews in the lead role, who is awful. Demon is a British movie, and I’m all for American stars cast in the lead with a host of good supporting English actors around them, but why Dana Andrews? He sleepwalks through this film, at times no different from the characters stuck in real hypnotic trances. For a man with a curse on him who has three days to live, he’s a little too relaxed about the situation. Especially as the other people in the film who have been exposed to such curses are raving and screaming (one of them even jumps out of a window).

The other problem with Demon is the one that most reviews tend to mention. The demon itself (pictured below) is exposed very early in the film, which does tend to spoil some of the suspense surrounding what exactly the curse is all about. The early demon sighting was also against the wishes of the director Jacques Tourneur, and the film’s producer decided to tag the monster on. But after seeing the film again I decided that the demon sighting isn’t wholly the mistake that it’s reported to be. It’s still scary (I wouldn’t want him around on a dark night, even if the windows are locked) and does whip you up into a state of tension that gets you through the slow opening scenes that follow. It also sticks in the mind, even if you have seen countless films like this.

the demon in Night of the Demon

It is essential to mention that Night of the Demon is based on a short story by M.R. James called Casting the Runes. The film more or less follows the same story, which is about one man’s attempt to debunk the occult beliefs and activities of another. John Holden (Andrews) sets out to expose Julian Karswell (Niall MacGuinness) who is the leader of an apparant demonic cult. Karswell tries to warn Holden off, but he’ll have nothing of it and is eventually beset by a curse. Holden learns that he has been passed a small “parchment”, which he must return to Karswell before the time is up in order to reverse the curse. The film differs from the James story in that it leans on hypnosis as a theme. There’s an excellent scene where a man accused of murder is hypnotised to reveal what really happened to him, and another very creepy episode involving a séance.

The supporting cast are all excellent and make up for the dullness of Andrews (and the female interest Peggy Cummings, who’s also rubbish). Niall MacGuinness dominates the movie as the villain Karswell. He is simply brilliant, one of the best screen nasties of all time. With his urbane manner and his demonic goatee, he covers his true evil with a veneer of seedy politeness. The film borrows one scene from the James story although it does change it slightly. This is where Karswell is hired to perform magic tricks as a children’s entertainer. Even though he’s performing white magic he’s still darkly menacing. Maurice Denham and Brian Wilde (best known for mild mannered comedy performances in Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine) are also excellent as doomed demon victims. Reginald Beckwith is also good as the medium Mr Meek (pictured), and the cry it’s in the trees … it’s coming! was poached by Kate Bush almost thirty years later to open her song Hounds of Love.

seance scene from Night of the Demon

Made in 1957, this is a British horror that predates Hammer films (just) so it’s more of a throwback to the old Universal pictures, and kind of marks the turning point of the genre. If Hammer had got their hands on this instead I would imagine Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the two roles, with Lee most likely as Karswell. Night of the Demon is a well crafted film, with the last five minutes or so being some of the tensest in cinema. This is where Holden must return the parchment to Karswell in order to survive. Your hair will stand on end, especially if you don’t lock that window.

I’d love to find a copy of this one, although I must say that the demon looks kind of cross-eyed in the still. Perhaps cross-eyed demons are the most frightening demons of all!

chartroose    Saturday October 11, 2008   

He might look cross-eyed but he’s still a pretty nimble chap!

The Book Tower    Saturday October 11, 2008   

Yes! A superior horror movie in spite of Dana Andrews annoying inclusion in the film.
Also, the British version runs several minutes longer than the U.S. print due to an extended opening which I like better.

Lord Phosphorus    Sunday November 15, 2009   

Yes, Night of the Demon or Curse of the Demon depending on US or UK versions. Although I can’t always remember which title goes with which.

The Book Tower    Sunday November 15, 2009   

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