Iconic Demon in Unabashed Supernatural Horror Makes Good
So…this guy, Hal Chester, messed up the screenplay quite a bit. It was so good, the screenplay, that it couldn't be completely destroyed, only half destroyed. It's still considered a good movie. I think the job Jacques Tourneur did with what Hal Chester gave him was awfully good. Hal Chester, as far as I'm concerned, if he walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead.– Charles Bennett (screenplay, Night of the Demon, quoted in Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriter's of Hollywood's Golden Age)
It's funny how the same mainstream script-to-screen development journey is undertaken again and again: script gets written, then gets rewritten by Hollywood-type (sometimes plural) who sticks his or her two cents in while pinching every other penny out of production, usually creating a penny-wise but pound foolish cinematic disappointment. In the case of one film, Night of the Demon (or the shortened Curse of the Demon in America), the script actually survives "improvements" by said Hollywood-type–Hal E. Chester–and the vexing Bureau of British Film Censors, to become an effective supernatural chiller in spite of the Woolworth's bargain-basement special effects involving a beautiful-in-concept, godawful-in-execution, puppet demon, and bad-boy drinking habits of one American actor determined to climb inside an empty bottle of booze head first. Of all the remakes, reworks, and re-imagines circulating Hollywood these days, this little cult gem of supernatural horror really deserves attention.
But did Hal E. Chester or the censors really hurt the film? Or did they inadvertently help polish it into a tidy, tension-mounting story showing how psychologist and paranormal debunker John Holden steps into it, only to realize what's sticking to his shoe is real and hairy and cannot be rationally explained away by science?
That the traditionally structured Night of the Demon was produced at all is surprising. Hammer Films, at the same time, was moving away from the don't show, just hint intentional ambiguity of Jacques Tourneur's noir black and white terrors in favor of the brighter, bloodier, mush-your-face-in-it gasps of Curse of Frankenstein, which was not ambiguous at all. When Night was released in America it was even double-billed with Terrence Fischer's Revenge of Frankenstein, providing audiences with quite the Mutt and Jeff of horror opposites in visual and intellectual involvement, but keeping one similarity: neither movie was ambiguous.
Contrary to Jacques Tourneur's preference for implicative events and obfuscating shadows to force uncertainty of what's really happening and a did-I-see-what-I-just-saw? feeling, there is no doubt whatsoever a fire demon is coming to horribly mangle one, very skeptical, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) for daring to expose devil-cult leader–and part-time children's magician–Karswell (Niall MacGinnis).
Within the opening minutes we race along with Harrington, the doomed predecessor to Holden, as he frantically tries to undo the curse brought about by the passing of a slip of paper to him, written with Runic symbols, marking him for gruesome death. We are introduced to the power Karswell wields and, in no uncertain terms, the reality of the fire demon summoned by his command. To Harrington's horror, it first appears as twinkling lights, then emerges from an eerie unfolding cloud of smoke among the trees to become a poorly executed puppet that looks like it's pedaling a bicycle toward him (but is actually pulled on a dolly). Composer Clifton Parker's otherwise effective scoring is compromised here by a rapidly repeating screech, sounding much like squeaking bicycle wheels going round and round (similar to the sound the giant ants make in Them!), unintentionally reinforcing the demon-on-a-bike impression. But it's the building tension in Tourneur's deft direction that surmounts this less than stellar physical effect, while the jarring rough cut close-up of the demon's ghastly face (added when Tourneur wasn't looking, I'm sure), creates the defining monster image that lingers in the mind long afterwards.
Based on M.R. James's short story, Casting the Runes, screenwriters Charles Bennett, Cy Endfield, and Hal E. Chester (co-producer of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), expand the story using the "magic 3 + R" of scriptwriting; nasty powerful villain, naive male and smart female, add dash of unlikely romance between them. It was Chester who insisted on showing the monster much more than Tourneur intended, in hopes of attracting an American audience. While Tourneur wanted to create a psychological thriller similar to his Cat People, Chester wanted no doubt in the audience's mind. Between the two, the story becomes a supernatural version of 1949's noir D.O.A; although here it's dead-man-walking Holden's growing realization he's been marked for death propelling the story forward. By eliminating any doubt the threat is real, we know Holden is in danger: but will he realize it? Will his growing suspicion that sometimes a monster is just a monster, and not a figment of a superstitious imagination or autosuggestion, galvanize him to action? In this respect, Chester's Night is truer to James's story than Tourneur would have made it.
Karswell is not all that nasty, either. In James's story, Karswell is evil through and through, but in Night, Karswell has his softer side (he gives a children's magic show each Halloween). He is also secretly fearful. In a revealing speech, unwisely cut from the American version, he chastises his kindly mother for not realizing the predicament he's in:
You get nothing for nothing. Listen, mother. You believe in the supernatural. I've shown you some of its power and some of its danger.
Well, believe this also. You get nothing for nothing. This house, the land, the way we live. Nothing for nothing. My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It's part of the price.
But if it makes you unhappy. Stop it. Give it back.
How can you give back life? I can't stop it. I can't give it back. I can't let anyone destroy this thing. I must protect myself. Because if it's not someone else's life, it'll be mine. Do you understand, mother?
It'll be mine.
This mum-and-son chat reveals how much he's stepped in it, too, but willingly. Under that calm and commanding veneer lies a man trapped into doing what he must to keep from being stepped on by something far nastier and even more powerful. And that something is coming closer and closer toward Holden every day. After Karswell surreptitiously passes along the Runic spell, Holden starts feeling cold all the time, keeps hearing an odd and mournful tune playing in his head, and smokes and drinks like a fish (albeit a different kind of curse here) while Harrington's niece, Joanna (the stiff Peggy Cummins), berates him for being such a non-believing, and smug, chowder-head. She knows how and why her uncle died from reading his journal, and now she's trying to save Holden from the same fate before it's too late. Even Mrs. Karswell, against her son's will, wants to help.
In what some critics consider a weakening sidestep from the mounting tension, she has Joanna bring Holden to a seance she's arranged. The incredulous psychologist reluctantly joins the proceedings as the medium, Mr. Meek (Reginald Beckwith), humorously channels his spirit guides until he is taken over by Joanna's uncle. Harrington's voice frantically warns of the coming danger, ending in a shriek of fear as he relives the night of the demon attack "It's in the trees! It's coming!" Holden, not impressed by the proceedings, ignores the warning; but uneasiness is beginning to chink his scientific armor more and more.
Tourneur turns down the light and lengthens the shadows for the revelation of the little slip of paper in Holden's possession, exactly as Harrington describes it in his journal. Is it the wind from an open window that whips the paper from Holden's hands and sends it flying toward the fire on the hearth, only to be stopped from bursting into flame by the ember screen? Or does it have a life of its own and desperately tries to reach the fire, even after he closes the window? Joanna insists it's alive and is trying to seal his fate by burning, but Holden tells her it's the draft going up the chimney keeping it tight against the screen; but as he says that it suddenly drops motionless to the floor, draft or not. "What made it stop?" asks Joanna. "I don't know," says Holden, deep in thought, for once without a rational explanation. He carefully tucks the paper into his wallet for safekeeping.
More strange events unsettle Holden, forcing him to question his senses enough to burgle Karswell's house to find answers. A terrifying encounter with Grimalkin, the witch's familiar and watch-cat, reinforces Holden's growing concern that he's dealing with things outside the scope of his understanding. Ignoring Karswell's suggestion to avoid the woods, Holden becomes more unraveled when the fire demon puts in a brief appearance. Through the use of diffused light, shadows, and increasingly unexplainable events, Holden is pushed more and more toward a realization he's still not fully willing to accept.
The turning point comes when Holden interviews a former cult member who, having survived Karswell's witchcraft by passing the runic-covered paper to his brother, is left in catatonic shock. While the scientific plausibility of the hypnotic session to awaken him is questionable, Tourneur's direction sums Holden's disquieting supernatural encounters into one riveting moment of desperate action. He learns enough to know he must return the paper to Karswell, but can he do it in time?
The final confrontation between Holden and Karswell, two men frightened and desperate–one anxious to return the paper, the other anxious to keep it from being returned–moves the film to it's smoke-filled, "demon demon, who's going to get the demon?" denouement at a brisk pace. Night of the Demon, while it has its faults (mostly due to budget), rises above them through its story of a rational, scientific man pitted against the inexplicable, and Tourneur's noir direction that transitions Holden's uncertainty to certainty in incremental encounters with an unknown that's gunning for him.