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Night of the Demon / Curse of the Demon

July 31, 2007

Pretty much the only thing most people know about Night of the Demon (AKA Curse of the Demon) is that it’s where Kate Bush sampled “It’s in the trees! It’s coming..!” from for the start of the Hounds of Love single*.

I don’t know how old I was when I first saw it, but certainly I was still at school (so easily twenty-five years ago now) because I can remember everyone talking about it the next morning. Since then, I have watched it dozens of times, or dipped in and out, sampling the many fabulous set pieces. The scuffed and battered video that holds my copy, recorded off Channel 4, is one of my prized possessions.

When David Fincher made Se7en he said that he wanted to make ‘one of those movies’; the kind that has a hook, a barb that remains with you forever, the sort of thing that you’ll be able to bring up at parties in years to come with ‘hey, do you remember that film when UPS deliver the head in a box?’ and everyone will click into what you’re saying. Night of the Demon is one of those movies, it’s simply unforgettable.

It was made in 1957 by moody French auteur Jacques ‘Jack’ Tourneur, the man responsible for, among others, two masterfully bleak noir pieces: the fantastical Cat People (not to be confused with the distinctly unfantastical Paul Schrader remake, starring Malcolm McDowell); and Build My Gallows High, a great Robert Mitchum/Kirk Douglas thriller.

Tourneur’s remit was an adaptation of the M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. This brief tale works very well within the James canon, dealing as it does with his trademark props of nervy backwards glances, indistinct glimpses of something ‘other’, inexplicable events and … little else. James is keen to leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps (under the title Yawn, one Joe Haschka on the site declares ‘Compared to the writings of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, these yarns, while reasonably inventive, are decidedly not scary’; yawn, indeed, Joe). But, good as the story is, one must wonder what it was that Tourneur saw within it to think it might make an acceptable B-movie horror project.

The secret was that Tourneur decided to update the story, adding fifty years and therefore making it more immediate for his audience, but keeping the timeless qualities, namely man’s fascination with the supernatural, high up in the mix. Unfortunately, Tourneur was hamstrung by the studio and this created a major problem with the film, but I’ll return to this later.

Scepticism is the key to Night of the Demon. Its two main protagonists, Holden and Karswell are diametrically opposed to one another on the subject of the occult. Karswell, the charismatic leader of a small coven, believes that he has stumbled across an ancient text that allows him access to the demon dimensions. He tries to gain scientific respectability for his ideas, but is roundly dismissed by the establishment. Holden, an American, and therefore a symbol of New World pragmatism, comes to London for an International Conference on the Supernatural. He immediately scoffs at Karswell’s ideas.

Karswell has already killed one of the British scientists, Professor Harrington, who has tried to uncover him as a charlatan, and now he threatens Holden. Harrington’s daughter joins Holden in trying to uncover the truth behind Karswell’s activities.

Their investigation gets steadily more unsettling as Karswell appears genuinely to wield his magical powers against them. In fact, apart from two very brief sequences right at the start and the end of the movie, nothing is properly explained away by magic and the whole film becomes an exercise in subtlety and suggestion. Where you, personally, stand on these subjects will dictate what it is you get from the film.

Some set pieces are exemplary. Holden and Karswell outwitting each other on a night train, Holden being chased through a dense wood by something, a mini-hurricane whipped up from nowhere, a very creepy moment inside the main reading room at the British Library and, wonderfully, a confrontation at a children’s tea party with Karswell (brilliantly played by Irish actor Niall MacGinnis) dressed as a clown – playing with preconceptions like there’s no tomorrow – and threatening Holden with casual ease:

Holden: I see you practice white magic as well as black.
Karswell: Oh yes, I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them.

My two favourite scenes play the hold-up-what’s-really-happening? card to perfection. A deeply unsettling séance where old Mr Meek, the medium, speaks with a faraway child’s voice while Mrs Karswell (Karswell’s aged mother) sings ‘Cherry ripe, cherry ripe…’ at the top of her voice; and then Holden’s visit to the remote farmhouse of one of Karswell’s cult members, an extended sequence which could pretty well define ‘unwelcoming’ in cinematic terms.

But all of this suffers an almost terminal dose of divulgence at the start and the end of the film, when – and with no need – they show ‘the demon’. You see, Harry Cohn, then head of Columbia Studios decided to appoint Hal E Chester as the film’s producer. A man less in tune with Tourneur’s vision it would be impossible to imagine. When Tourneur delivered his ‘horror’ film – wherein all of the horror was imagined – the studio panicked and added an effects sequence which, though short, undermines the whole point of the exercise. It’s all in the mind, but then … it’s not! If you can get through this you genuinely do have a masterpiece on your hands.

And any film that has Mr Barrowclough from Porridge as a murderous, suicidal, satanist has got to be worth watching.
*In fact, Kate’s version isn’t really a sample, but a recreation (albeit a very accurate one), as she couldn’t get the necessary quality from her copy of the film.

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