Hidden Gem: ‘Night of the Demon’ (1957)


Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Dana Andrews and Niall MacGinnis star in “Night of the Demon”. The movie was released Nov. 9, 1957

By Syd Slobodnik, Staff Writer

French-born director Jacques Tourneur made a handful of cult films for RKO studios in the 1940s and never became an A-list director or household name. He is mostly remembered for three low-budget horror films, including “Cat People” (1942), “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943) and “The Leopard Man” (1943) before he made “Out of the Past” with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer in 1947, which remains one of the finest film noir crimes films ever made.

I recently came across a list of director Martin Scorsese’s favorite horror films and discovered that he included a little-known 1957 horror film made for Columbia Pictures by Tourneur called “Night of the Demon.” This fascinating psychological horror film starred Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins and was written by Charles Burnett and Hal E. Chester based on the story “Casting the Runes” by M. R. James.

Burnett was the famed screenwriter of several of Alfred Hitchcock’s early thrillers including, “The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Foreign Correspondent.” Tourneur’s film also had a strange history. It was originally released in the U.S. as “Curse of the Demon” and was cut by nearly 13 minutes. But its release in Great Britain was the preferred, complete 95-minute director’s cut, which has now been restored to video prints.

Dana Andrews, who began his career as an impressive leading man in the 1940s starring in the classic crime film “Laura” and World War II classic “The Best Years of Our Lives,” was suffering a minor mid-career tailspin in the 1950s. In “Night of the Demon,” he effectively rebounds playing a prominent American psychologist, John Holden, who travels to England to attend an international conference on paranormal psychology and supernatural phenomena. Once he arrives, he attempts to uncover the truth behind the mysterious recent death of a colleague, Professor Harrington.

The film begins with a dark, rather cliched and somewhat hokey melodramatic scene with Professor Harrington begging an associate to release information about their research before he is attacked by a horrible creature in the cloudy English countryside. But once the story focuses on Holden, it begins working its magic as a psychological thriller.

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At Professor Harrington’s wake, Holden meets Joanna Harrington (Cummins), the late scientist’s niece, who warns him not to continue her uncle’s strange research on the supernatural. She reads her uncle’s diary, where he describes a horrible demon-like figure that looks somewhat like the mythical Beowulf. Shortly afterward, Holden meets the mysterious Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a devote believer and devil worshiper, who offers to have Holden read an ancient book on demonology and witchcraft.

Karswell has a cult following and seems to have the power to conjure various hallucinations, even windstorms on his command.

Holden is a serious empirical scientist who doubts most of what he studies, saying, “I’m not a superstitious sucker like the rest of humanity. Demonology and witchcraft have been discredited since the Middle Ages.”

Furthermore, he adds, “Auto suggestion and mass hysteria are just the same as flying saucers.”

Yet Karwell warns Holden his doubts can be harmful. He shows him a mysterious parchment with encrypted language, declaring that he will meet a sudden death in three days at 10 p.m. Joanna fears such warnings are based on her uncle’s research. In one chilling scene, a surreal white cloud chases Holden through dark woods.

Tourneur fills his tale with lots of tension and suspense with stylized noir darkness and visuals. Cinematographer Edward Scaife fills the screen with dark shadows and eerie low-key lighting techniques, effectively complementing Ken Adam’s set designs of gothic mansions where dark seances are performed, mysterious hotel hallways, as well as a mysterious Stonehenge-like rock formation where encrypted markings offer warnings of impending evil.

The tale approaches a thrilling climax on a train, with Karwell kidnapping a hypnotizing Joanna and the ever-logical Professor Holden facing his possible doom on the night of his proposed death.

In a 1973 interview with Tourneur in Cinefantastique magazine, he said he never wanted to show the horrible demon, but the British producers added two scenes during post-production without his permission.

“Night of the Demon” is a stylish, well-made, low-budget psychological thriller. While I agree with former Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr’s praise for the film when he says, “Tourneur is attempting a rational apprehension of the irrational, examining not so much the supernatural itself, but the insecurities it springs…” I’m just not sure it shares the same company of excellence of “Psycho,” “The Exorcist” or even “A Quiet Place.”