Night of the Demon (1957) reviews and overview

 
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‘Hell on Earth! Scenes of terror never before imagined!’

Night of the Demon is a 1957 British horror feature film directed by French-born Jacques Tourneur (Cat People; The Leopard Man; I Walked with a Zombie), starring Dana Andrews (The Frozen Dead), Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis and Maurice Denham. The bombastic soundtrack score was composed by Clifton Parker.

An adaptation of the M. R. James’ 1911 story Casting the Runes, the plot revolves around an American psychologist investigating a satanic cult suspected of more than one murder. The original script was written by Charles Bennett as The Bewitched and he is co-credited on the film with American executive producer Hal E. Chester (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). However, it was fellow American Cy Endfield (who had been blacklisted in Hollywood in the McCarthy trials) who co-wrote the final version as an unnamed script doctor. Director Jacques Tourneur also apparently undertook some rewrites during pr-production.

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The Sabre Film production was turbulent due to clashing ideas between aforementioned executive producer Hal E. Chester, British producer Frank Bevis and director Jacques Tourneur. But as writer Tony Earnshaw notes in his seminal book Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon (2005):

“It has become fashionable to decry Chester’s involvement in the film – that he was the shallow money man who ruined a piece of cinematic art. In truth Chester probably (and perhaps unconsciously) steered Night of the Demon to the position occupies today as a master work of the horror genre.”

“ …certain elements that have been endlessly debated in the final movie – notably the deaths of Harrington and Karswell, and the highly visible figure of the fire demon itself – were already firmly in place before a foot of film was shot. As assistant director Basil Keys observed: “It was always in the script.”

Furthermore, production designer Ken Adam had been asked to sketch designs for the demon before filming and that Tourneur was informed that a model based on Adam’s designs was being constructed at Elstree Studios.

Earnshaw contents that “What Chester and Bevis unwittingly did by including the demon at such an early stage is nail their colours to the mast of the supernatural; they may have been searching for box office bucks, but they also provided Night of the Demon with perhaps its strongest plot element: Karswell’s powers, the runes, the leopard, the thunderstorm and the demon itself are all frighteningly real.

As the power of suggestion goes out of the window on the grounds of commercialism, so the fundamental truth of light of the demon is thrust to the fore. It genuinely is a battle between good and evil, even if the bullheaded Holden doesn’t realise it until the very last moment.”

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To further complicate matters, star Dana Andrews suffered from alcoholism and was foisted onto the production by the Columbia executives who bankrolled it against Chester’s wishes. The latter claimed that he tried to make a deal with Andrews to lay off booze until after filming had been completed. However, the headstrong star apparently went on benders throughout and was nearly arrested for punching a stripper in a London nightclub until studio representatives paid her off.

Blu-ray release:

Night of the Demon received a Limited Edition Blu-ray release via Powerhouse Films Indicator imprint in the UK on October 22, 2018.

Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.co.uk

  • The British Film Institute (BFI)’s 2013 2K restoration of the 96-minute version
  • High-definition remaster of the 82-minute cut
  • Original mono audio
  • Four presentations of the film: Night of the Demon – the original full-length pre-release version (96 mins), and the original UK theatrical cut (82 minutes); Curse of the Demon – the original US theatrical cut (82 mins), and the US re-issue version (96 mins)
  • Audio commentary with film historian Tony Earnshaw, author of Beating the Devil: The Making of ‘Night of the Demon’
  • Speak of the Devil: The Making of ‘Night of the Demon’ (2007): documentary featuring interviews with actor Peggy Cummins, production designer Ken Adam and historians Tony Earnshaw and Jonathan Rigby
  • Dana Andrews on ‘Night of the Demon’: a rare audio interview with the actor conducted by Scott MacQueen
  • The Devil’s in the Detail (2018): Christopher Frayling on Night of the Demon and acclaimed production designer Ken Adam
  • Horrors Unseen (2018): a discussion of the celebrated director of Night of the Demon by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall
  • Sinister Signs (2018): an analysis by Kim Newman, author of Nightmare Movies
  • Under the Spell (2018): the celebrated British horror writer Ramsey Campbell discusses the unique combination of M R James and Jacques Tourneur
  • The Devil in Music (2018): a new appreciation of Clifton Parker’s score by David Huckvale, author of Movie Magick: The Occult in Film
  • The Devil Gets His Due (2018): film historian and preservationist Scott MacQueen on the release history of Night of the Demon
  • The Truth of Alchemy (2018) a discussion of M R James and ‘Casting the Runes’ by Roger Clarke, author of A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof
  • Cloven In Two (2018): a new video piece exploring the different versions of the film
  • Escape: ‘Casting the Runes’ (1947): a radio play adaptation of James’ original story
  • Super 8 version: original cut-down home cinema presentation
  • Isolated music & effects track on the US theatrical cut
  • Original US Curse of the Demon theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography, including rare production design sketches from the Deutsche Kinemathek’s Ken Adam Archive
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited Edition exclusive 80-page book
  • Limited Edition exclusive double-sided poster
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray
  • Limited Edition of 6,000 copies

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Reviews [click links to read more]:

Night of the Demon is filled to overflowing with solid British character actors, who bring credibility to even the tiniest roles. The film boasts some wonderful set pieces, such as the opening sequence, with Professor Harrington tracked through the night by something; and, most notably, Karswell’s demonstration of his powers in the conjuring of a storm.” And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

“The intensely rhythmic opening sequences, intended to set the tone of impending doom, were ruined by the distributor’s insistence on the need for early shock affects, but the rest of the movie is an object lesson in atmospheric horror.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

“Classic supernatural thriller, put together with intelligence and style and containing several genuinely frightening sequences. Required viewing.” Howard Maxford, The A – Z of Horror Films

“You have been warned – watched in the right mood, Night of the Demon could be the scariest film you’ve ever seen. But whatever way you look at it, it’s a fantastic vindication of your love of old Brit horror.” British Horror Films

“Far more impressive is a sequence in which Karswell creates a cyclone in his garden; the leaves whipping at the characters as they escape into the house, and a late night flee through the woods in which Holden briefly glimpses the hellish fires from which the demon springs. Night of the Demon’s position within horror history is totally justified and it remains a towering example of how less can be more in the horror genre.” The Celluloid Highway

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“ …perhaps the classiest and most intellectual horror picture of its decade. There is much controversy over whether we should see the demon so quickly. I think we shouldn’t see it. Yet because we know it is real, we also know that our hero will get his comeuppance one way or another. It is exciting to watch his episodic investigations.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

“Alongside its unusual characterisations, Night of the Demon has so many memorable features it’s hard to innumerate them all. Athene Seyler as Karswell’s mother, absurdly trilling ‘Cherry Ripe” in a hilarious seance scene; Holden’s creepy visit to the rustic Hobart clan; the subsequent window-smashing death of one of their number (excellently played by Brian Wilde); the fluttering efforts of Karswell’s parchment to escape into the fire and, best of all, Holden’s pursuit through the woods by a sentient, whirling fireball of demonic energy.” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horrors Cinema, Reynolds and Hearn, 2004

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” …the child in me loves to see the monster and is very satisfied with this one, as it does manage to be quite scary. However, whether the movie needs to show the monster is another question, and in my opinion, it doesn’t; this movie works because the buildup of tension throughout is so well-done that the ending would have been just as satisfying without the monster, and it would have added an extra dollop of Lewton-like ambiguity to the proceedings.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“A film that survives even its most unsubtle special effects to earn its place as not only one of the great films of British vintage cinema but also a classic supernatural thriller.” Film4

“Jacques Tourneur’s direction here is on par with his best work. Night of the Demon creates a mesmerizing, disquieting world, in which every shot seems designed to constrict your breathing. You can spot a lesser horror film by the way the movie deflates in between shock moments as if the director doesn’t know what to do when there’s no big scary thing to shake in your face. Here though, Tourneur never loosens his grip.” The Girl with the White Parasol

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“Superbly atmospheric chiller, easily Tourneur’s best work since his days at RKO with Val Lewton. One of the most scary black-and-white horror films made, spoiled at the climax by the littoral realisation of the devil which kills Dr Karswell.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

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“A story of the occult which is distinctly better than average. Several scenes, such as the calling up of the store, a highly effective – the devil, however, when he becomes visible, is less so. Unseen demons are best.” Ivan Butler, Horror in the Cinema, Zwemmer, Barnes, 1970

“ …Night of the Demon abounds in prosaic situations turning implacably into nightmares. Every flourish is a touch not underlined but understated, ellipsed and just suggested. Unfortunately, the film’s producers could not see that this was enough: against Tourneur’s wishes, they inserted some atrocious shots of a demon at the very outset of the picture. It is a tribute to the director’s skill that this movie survive such a monumental blunder.” Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films, Putnam, 1967

“The film works perfectly well with the demon – its emergence out of the boiling cloud is genuinely eerie and its appearance on the front of the train is a truly unworldly image. It would certainly be a strange film without the demon, but not as ambiguously Lewtonian as the less-is-more proponents seem to champion the film as being – the argument in favour of the supernatural explanation is so heavily weighed against Dana Andrews that a purely materialistic, sceptical interpretation of the events would be a difficult one to make indeed.” Moria

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Night of the Demon, which is a highly effective black magic thriller packed with atmosphere, is now rightly regarded as a horror classic […] In the last edition of Heritage I defended the effects against the innumerable critics like Carlos Clarens who have called them atrocious. But I suggested they might seem out of place in an adaptation of an M.R. James story. I am not sure they need any defence at all. Who would really want to film without them?” David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror, I.B. Taurus, 2008

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“MacGinnis is great in his role as the sinister Karswell, certainly better than Andrews whose performance comes across as a bit dull. It was also nice to see some nice female roles here. I enjoyed Peggy Cummins part as Joanna Harrington, and I also thought Athene Seyler was great as Mrs Karswell. The plot is simple enough but I liked that there were quite a few red herrings and some effective sequences.” The Rotting Zombie

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“Very well made, and exceptionally paced, Curse of the Demon benefits from a strong, believable performance from sci fi regular Dana Andrews.” The Terror Trap

“I have always believed, and probably always will believe, that a horror movie needs to show the audience something at some point — sooner or later, you’ve got to turn the card in the hole face up. And this demon, which apparently was not supposed to have been in the movie at all, is easily one of the five coolest monsters of the entire decade…” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting

Contemporary reviews:

“At last – the monster shocker grows up. Sounds impossible, but here’s a crude-creature story tailored into an adult, glossy thriller.” Picturegoer

Choice dialogue:

Julian Karswell: “But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?”

Professor Kumar: “Haven’t you gentlemen heard that alcohol is the Devil’s brew and interested as I am in the Devil, I never indulge.”

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Censorship [info via Tony Earnshaw’s excellent book Beating the Devil]:

An early version of the script, when it was still called The Bewitched, was submitted to the British Board of Film Censors on January 10th 1955 by producer Marcel Hellman in the hope of gaining an ‘A’ certificate. Two unnamed examiners considered the script, with one noting:

“…I find the elaborately contrived, supposedly supernatural hokum, most repulsive. In some way I cannot define, it savours to me of blasphemy that normal adults should go about in fear of their lives over ‘runic’ spells in the 20th century. Perhaps I am unduly prejudicial.”

Undeterred, Hellman resubmitted the script to British censors on March 4th but they were still adamant that the resulting film would be classified with an ‘X’ certificate (for sixteen-year-olds and over only). Furthermore, they noted that a painting to be featured in the film was entirely unsuitable:

“ … it is a weird and credible impression of a Black Mass; hooded demons dressed in masks indulging in an orgy, ‘with lissom, unclothed young women whose lovely faces are infinitely evil’. This must not be included (it is not in the book).”

Once producer Hal E. Chester took over the project, Bennett’s original script was rewritten to remove any humorous elements with the intention that it would be an ‘X’-rated  film. The script was resubmitted to the censors on September 5th 1956. An examiner duly noted:

“Mercifully, on this occasion the makers are plainly aiming at an ‘X’. The would-be funny bits and the golf playing have disappeared and the real black magic is unquestionably at the bottom of all the odd goings-on. The horror is laid on a stick as possible in all “horrific” sequences and there should be the usual ‘X’ certificate caution about the sky not being the limit, even for ‘X’, to scenes of terror, screams of fear, and the portrayal of disgusting and horrifying objects.”

A script with further amendments, retitled The Haunting, was submitted on October 23rd 1956. In his final letter to the filmmakers, head censor Arthur Watkins warned again that references to “devil worship” be omitted and that the Black Mass painting was still unacceptable.

When the film itself was submitted in June 1957, the censors required two lines spoken by Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde) to be cut:

“We blaspheme and desecrate.”

“In the joy of sin will mankind that is lost find itself again.”

Main cast and characters:

  • Dana Andrews … Doctor John Holden
  • Peggy Cummins … Joanna Harrington
  • Niall MacGinnis … Doctor Julian Karswell
  • Athene Seyler … Mrs Karswell
  • Liam Redmond … Professor Mark O’Brien
  • Peter Elliott … Professor Kumar
  • Maurice Denham … Professor Harrington
  • Reginald Beckwith … Mr Meek
  • Brian Wilde … Rand Hobart
  • Charles Lloyd Pack … Chemist [as Charles Lloyd-Pack]
  • Ewan Roberts … Lloyd Williamson

Filming locations:

  • Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire
  • Savoy Hotel, The Strand, London
  • Reading Room and North Library, British Museum, London
  • Brocket Hall, near Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire – also in The Final Conflict, 1981
  • Bricket Wood railway station, between St. Albans and Watford, Hertfordshire (closed during the Beeching cuts of the 1960s)
  • Heathrow Airport, Terminal 1
  • Watford Junction railway station, Hertfordshire

Release:

The film was released in the United Kingdom for its theatrical run in December 1957 as a double feature with the American movie 20 Million Miles to Earth.

In the USA, it was released as Curse of the Demon. According to Charles Bennett, the title was changed because the studio didn’t want it confused with the similarly titled The Night of the Iguana. Columbia cut the film down to 82 minutes for the June 1958 US release. The scenes removed included a visit to the Hobart family farm, a trip to Stonehenge, and snippets of the séance scenes and conversations between Karswell and his mother. Curse of the Demon toured drive-ins and theatres as a double feature with The True Story of Lynn Stuart and Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).

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Working title:

The Haunted

Offline reading:

Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon by Tony Earnshaw – National Museum of Photography, Film and Television & Tomahawk Media, UK, 2005

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Night Of The Demon (1957) - Italian DVD Poster

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One Comment on “Night of the Demon (1957) reviews and overview”

  1. I’m surprised M.R. James ghost stories haven’t been pillaged for horror cinema more often, though I understand a few were done for UK TV (still haven’t seen Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad). Backyard-zombie filmmakers would no doubt really let go with a loose filming of A School Story….On second thought, forget I said this; Mr. James would never get over the humiliation. Bad enough all the other dead authors who must be laughing at poor Poe in the afterlife because of movies he inspired.

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