As the film begins we see Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) approaching Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGuinnis) of Lufford Hall, telling him that he will call off an investigation exposing his cult in exchange for him stopping something that he has started. Dr Karswell says that he will see what he can do, as a piece of parchment is seen floating away from the hall. Harrington leaves for home but is killed by a demonic beast on his drive home; a killing made to look like an electrocution.
An American, Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews) is en route to a convention in London where Prof Harrington is to expose the Karswell Cult and he disturbs what turns out to be Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), Prof Harrington’s niece. After both discovering the Professor’s death they try to find out what her uncle was going to expose.
This is (to date) the only screen adaptation of one of M R James many ghost stories, based on Casting The Runes (1911). During the 1970s, the BBC adapted many of MR James stories in its Ghost Story For Christmas slot. Those that saw them have very fond memories of them and the BFI finally released them all in a special box set in October 2012.
I personally think the two leads, Dana Andrews (superb in Laura, The Best Years Of Our Lives, The Ox-Bow Incident and many 40s films) and Peggy Cummins (again superb in Gun Crazy) are completely miscast here. It is the supporting cast that makes it; Niall MacGinnis as the mysterious Kaswell and Athene Seyler as his mother, in every scene they are in are superb. Think of the children’s party, the reading room at the British museum, the séance and the build up to the incredible climax where the demon has been summoned once again.
The producer (Hal E Chester) insisted on a monster over objections from the writer (Charles Bennett), director (Jacques Tourneur) and star (Dana Andrews). Ray Harryhausen was requested by Columbia (the film was made by the small Sabre productions, but distributed by Columbia) to create a demon, but was already committed to The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. Argument still rages to this day as to whether or not the demon should have been included; I personally think it should. It adds to the suspense and is one of the best looking monsters in movie history. It makes a great poster, but I know Roof-Dirk thinks it looks like a monster you would get out of a machine a Blackpool.
Jacques Tourneur was born in France in 1904, son to the film director Maurice Tourneur. They moved to the United States in 1914 and Jacques went to work at MGM in the early 30s. In 1934, whilst he was second unit director on A Tale Of Two Cities he met producer Val Lewton.
He made his directorial debut in 1939 with They All Came Out, but was soon dropped by MGM and went to see Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton had this idea of making a series of B Movies (B because they were low budget) beginning with Cat People, a film in which the monster is never shown, just the wonderful use of light and dark. Lewton continued to make a success of these films and Tourneur directed another two (I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man) before moving on to A-list pictures. He made Days Of Glory (which made the acting debut of Gregory Peck), Berlin Express and one of the high watermarks of Film Noir, Out Of The Past (AKA Build My Gallows High), which is another contender for this list.
His final two movies both starred Vincent Price, The Comedy Of Terrors (1963) and War-Gods Of The Deep (1965).
Around this time he explored the medium of television, directing episodes of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Twilight Zone and Bonanza. His final credit was for the TV show “T.H.E. Cat” in 1966 before he returned to France and died in 1977.
For me, although I think of him for Out Of The Past and for Val Lewton, it will always be for Night Of The Demon that I will remember him.
However, when first released in the UK it went out at 95 minutes with the American film 20 Million Miles To Earth and hung about for 6 months in America before being cut to 83 minutes, being renamed Curse Of The Demon (not to confuse it with the recently released Night Of The Iguana) and went out on the bottom of the bill with Hammer’s second Frankenstein film The Revenge Of Frankenstein.
Thanks to horror magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland, it became a cult favourite and so I eagerly awaited to see it. During the late 70s and early 80s when BBC-2 ran its legendary horror double bills, Night Of The Demon even appeared on the cover of the Radio Times. I waited until the Christmas period 1990 when it went out on New Years Day, however I had a dilemma; Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps was on BBC-1 at the same time as this was on BBC-2. I had seen neither and desperately wanted to see both, but knew The 39 Steps was available quite cheaply on VHS, so recorded Night Of The Demon instead; I wasn’t disappointed.
Since then, it does make regular appearances on TV, but its appearance on any other format has been rather mysterious. It was released on VHS very briefly in the mid 1990s, then there was the story of when it was due to be released on DVD, however the distribution company mysteriously went bust the day it was due out. Thankfully it is now available on DVD, but was only released in October 2010. I did see it on the big screen at the Cornerhouse about ten years ago and I am now told there are no complete prints of it in the UK.
For further reading check out Tony Earnshaw’s book Beating The Devil – The Making Of The Night Of The Demon, which is sadly now out of print.
One final word on the brilliant location work; Brocket Hall in Herfordshire doubled as Lufford Hall, the train station is Bricket Wood, still in existence and Stonehenge looks much the same (mores the pity, I think it is one of the biggest disappointments ever, but that is another story).
- 31 Days of Horror – Why Curse of the Demon Still Scares Us (biffbampop.com)
- FashionIndie Film Institute: Cat People (fashionindie.com)
- Val Lewton’s, CAT PEOPLE (onceuponascreen.wordpress.com)
- Pencil This In: Classic Film Screenings of Cat People, Zombies, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello (laist.com)
IT’S IN THE TREES, IT’S COMING!