It’s always a pleasure when you find a classic horror film that contains elements that feel incredibly modern – well, they don’t come more modern feeling than Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 masterpiece, Night Of The Demon (sometimes known as Curse Of The Demon in the US) a movie that’s so ahead of it’s time in various ways, it’s truly exhilarating to watch.
Taking aspects of satanic panic and rural horror before they even were a thing, Tourneur followed up other incredibly stylish frighteners like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie with possibly his greatest film as he cast an admirably mature eye over adapting the 1911 short story “Casting The Runes” and never once talks down to his audience despite all the creepy shenanigans at play.
A panicked Professor Harrington rushes to the home of his professional rival, Dr. Julian Karswell to beg for his forgiveness. It seems that Harrington was intending to expose the fact that Karswell is head of a Satanic cult, which is the secret behind his success and wealth and so in a return, the not-so-good doctor placed a curse on the Professor that he will die in a couple of days at the clawed hands of a fire demon. Despite promising that he’ll call off the demon the same way Harrington swore to kill the expose, Karswell knows full well that time is up and in his way home, his rival is torn apart by a gargantuan beast after crashing into some power lines with his car.
A short while later, professional sceptic Dr. John Holden arrives in Britain to attend the convention that was going to expose Karswell only to find out that things are not quite what they seem. While still determined to prove that Kaswell is a fraud, Karswell himself decides to meet with Holden and politely agrees to offer any help that is needed to aid him in his investigations, therefore disarming his latest enemy. More pieces of the puzzle are filled in by meeting Joanna, Harrington’s niece, who shows Holden proof that her uncle was terrified by the power displayed by this overly friendly and unassuming target of theirs.
Of course, Karswell’s hospitality hides a smugly malevolent streak and before you can say “Oh fuck, I’ve been cursed!”, he reveals that he’s laid a hex on Holden too, giving him three short days to figure out what’s going on. However, a major disadvantage for our hero is that Holden simply refuses to believe the existence of demons and curses at all and even some instances of supernatural visions do nothing to change his outlook. So how exactly does a man discover how a deathly curse works and figure out how to reverse it in time before he gets torn to bits if he doesn’t even believe he’s in danger in the first place?
If this all sounds faintly familiar, that’s because it’s essentially a far less gonzo version of Sam Raimi’s cartoonish shocker, Drag Me To Hell, but where that movie took great pains to make its ticking clock scenario as insane as possible, Night Of The Demon takes itself impressively seriously and attacks its world of runes and monstrous visions with the sort of respect you don’t usually get from horror flicks from the 50’s.
Almost every character in the movie is an expert in their field and even though we have the same sort of exposition we’d get in a 50’s sci-fi film, it far more fascinating (and far less patronising) when it’s about the occult instead of science stuff. It’s also one of the few exposition heavy movies that doesn’t make you glaze over as it continually lectures you and it trusts its audience with having a decent IQ. In fact, it delves quite deep into its subject matter and its fascination of the macabre is catching, with a full-blown seance scene mid-way through exploring the various methods of witchcraft and sorcery.
The plot is razor sharp, the time-running-out nature of the story made all the more tense by the fact that the sceptical Holden simply isn’t going to have a chance to save himself unless he starts to believe (imagine how far Keanu Reeves’ character in Speed would have gotten if he didn’t believed bombs existed) and the movie plays it to the hilt.
However, the two things that make Night Of The Demon stand out is how beautifully its shot (not a huge surprise considering Tourneur also made the stunning Cat People) and how well its characters are written.
While Dana Andrews’ Dr. Holden is mostly cut from the same cloth as stodgy experts in other, similar genre fare, his disbelieving nature is nicely explained away when he delivers his outlook on life to Peggy Cummins’ Joanne, who is refreshingly tenacious when trying to help bring the villain of the piece down while not resorting to screams and fainting. This brings us to the movie’s fantastically smug antagonist and Niall MacGinns’ overwhelmingly friendly Karswell proves to be a fascinating creation. Chatty, helpful and devastatingly honest (he has no qualms letting his victims know exactly what they’re in for), he’s overwhelmingly sinister by not being sinister at all. In fact, his reasons for selling his soul are so banal, they’re genius and horribly relatable and the movie (and the actor) has great fun tipping their hat every now and then at the internal darkness that drives him such as the menorable clown makeup he wears when entertaining the local children at his annual Halloween party. Not bad for a dude who lives with his mother…
Laden with memorable moments such as Karswell and Holden desperately trying to out manuever each other by trying to plant the cursed parchment on their enemy without them noticing and the desperate loser chasing the demonic paper as it flits away down a train track, if anything lets the team down, its arguably the dated effects used to realise the titular demon that stalks its prey so memorably at the beginning and the end of the movie, but even though it has the offhand appearance of a rabid, demonic teddy bear (both director and star fought to keep the demon invisible), I personally think it’s pretty badass for the time and the fact they chose to make the smokey bastard a freakin’ giant makes its appearance quite startling despite its jerky movements.
A genuine classic that’s not afraid to be cerebral when concerning ghouls and devils, Night Of The Demon counts such devotees (or should that be acolytes) as Kate Bush among their number – no really, the infamous “It’s in the trees!” line kicks off Hounds Of Love – and no doubt it’ll get you too and in far less time than three days…