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.