Halloween Advent: Night Of The Demon
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Consider again a study in terror undiminished by the years, as the hour of shadows draws near...
The 'unseen' terror is widely thought to be the sharpest and deepest chill in a horror movie, but it's not always there because the producers are showing restraint. Ridley Scott and and all subsequent Alien franchise directors kept exposure to the xenomorph brief in order to hide the fact that the alien was 'a man in a suit' (and additionally in the case of Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, to hide the contemporary limitations of puppeteering and CGI, respectively).
Thus Jacque Tourneur's acclaimed adaptation of M.R. James' chilling short story Casting The Runes has always been associated with notions that the prosthetic demon featured in the movie was a late add-on by nervous producers. Tourneur himself said, in 1966:
"The film was interesting apart from the appearance of a monster who was added after the event, after my departure from [film production] in London"
Yet a read of the sources available through Tony Earnshaw's Beating The Devil: The Making Of Night Of The Demon indicate that the Cat People director's resistance to the 'demon' design ultimately brought to life by VFX wiz Wally Veevers was rejected well before principal photography began, and that Tourneur was kept informed that the inclusion of the beast was pending.
Some say Night Of The Demon would have been better with no visible demon to terrorise visiting American psychologist Dana Andrews, yet the demon makes only two appearances, topping and tailing the film, and the movie's terror relies on mystery, suspense and sleight-of-hand throught most of its ninety-minute run-time.
"This 'curse' is almost unique in horror movies of the period, though slightly less-so in horror fiction, in that it brings evil - and death - also to good people who have done nothing to deserve or invite it. No need to smoke weed or try and get laid"
Those interested to see alternate and demon-free versions can check out this list of productions based on Casting The Runes and other M.R. James ghost stories, and most particularly the 1979 BBC adaptation starring Jan Francis, which benefits from an elliptical approach to psychological terror but is weakened by dated feminist themes and an utterly absurd re-write of the ending.
Casting The Runes itself tells a figuratively skeletal story of a devil-worshipping cult leader in England who eliminates his critics by slipping them parchments of runic symbols which mark them out for death within a short period of time, and who is ultimately hoist by his own petard, suffering death at the hands of the supernatural assassin that he had sent after his various nemeses.
This 'curse' is almost unique in horror movies of the period, though slightly less-so in horror fiction, in that it brings evil - and death - also to good people who have done nothing to deserve or invite it. No need to smoke weed or try and get laid. This kind of 'morally blind' malevolence is only ambiguously treated in the likes of The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, but not explicitly approached until the advent of Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge (Ju-On), which depicted a force of supernatural destruction as unconcerned about the moral nature of its victims as a virus.
Night Of The Demon began as a European production called The Bewitched, a significant expansion of the M.R. James short story scripted by Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and one that was scuppered as a commercial prospect by the British Censor's conclusion that the submitted script could not be adequately trimmed to escape the dreaded 'X' certificate that would make it so hard to recoup investment. Not, at least, without utterly gutting the film. British censor Arthur Watkins wrote as much to the appropriately-named London-based producer Marcel Hellman in early 1955, after a more favourable report from the MPAA had encouraged Hellman to re-submit the script for consideration:
"The story is essentially a powerful study in the uncanny and macabre, the terror that walks by night...It is not therefore possible for us to suggest cuts which would have the effect of bringing the completed film to within the 'A' category."
Even though the (now-transatlantic) producers finally agreed that the film was best made and marketed as an 'X' or 18+ product, much of its imagery and allusion to devil worship needed trimming, rethinking or excising. Nonetheless, they made the film.
And Halloween or not, whatever you may think of the rubber demon, they made one of the all-time classic horror movies.
The English stately settings were commercial, but the lack of North-American characters was a predictable problem solved by the central casting of Dana Andrews as the sceptical and acclaimed psychologist who visits England to join those debunking the growing 'devil-cult' of Julian Karswell (an adroit performance by Niall McGinnis that must have gone on to inspire many of the actors playing the best Bond villains).
"There are so many things to enjoy in Night Of The Demon that the film truly stands out from the crowd of horror movies both of its own and subsequent eras"
Andrews is quickly joined by (ultimately unconsumated) love-interest Peggy Cummins, the niece of the last now-mangled corpse that received the unwelcome parchment after publicly-criticising Karswell's cult and growing legions of followers.
In a classic scene - one of many - at the reading rooms of the British Library, Andrews is cornered by Karswell, and unknowingly takes the runes from the evil leader, who 'accidentally' knocks Andrews' folder to the floor and returns it to him with one unwelcome extra document inserted.
Soon the hard-boiled Andrews is beginning to see things and to have the margins of his incredulity frayed. During a visit to Karswell's manner, where the Lord is holding an innocent Halloween party for local children, Karswell summons up a typhoon to demonstrate his mastery of the Black Arts, but even this proves inadequately persuasive for his American guest.
Andrews reasons that his best line of enquiry may be in investigating the sole survivor of the Karswell curse, a now-psychotic and simple farmer who managed to pass on his own cursed set of runic symbols to his own brother. When Andrews goes to seek permission of the man's family to transfer him briefly to a medical institute for questioning, they retreat at once when they spot the evil parchment in Andrews' wallet. And once again, everything goes hazy...
Andrews' 'time allowed' since the inception of the curse is drawing to a close, and his only chance to escape being torn apart by a minion of hell is to somehow slip the runic symbols back to Karswell and pass the curse to him...
There are so many things to enjoy in Night Of The Demon that the film truly stands out from the crowd of horror movies both of its own and subsequent eras. The scene where Cummins takes Andrews to a medium for advice segues startlingly from high comedy to cold chills (and here fans of Kate Bush will find the snippet that the singer took for the title track of 1985's The Hounds Of Love album); Andrews' run-in with a feline demon guarding the evil and obscure grimoire that Karswell is in the process of translating; and Andrews' flight through the dark woods from Karswell's mansion after an aborted break-in, pursued by an evil cloud of vapour, is taut, scary and original.
But finally Night Of The Demon presents us with one of cinema's best games of psychological chess, as our hero corners the evil Karswell in the last ten minutes before the demon is due to arrive, seeking to pass the runes back to his tormentor. Andrews' attempts are foiled by McGinnis only with difficulty, as the latter must restrain the reflex-instinct to accept a cigarette, a match, or anything at all from his prey, for fear that the runes have been packaged within.
An additional clever touch in Night Of The Demon is that the demon's grisly torments, in typical X-Files style, are all strangely attributable to normal events that were happening at the time, such as the falling of a power-line or the passing of a fast train. Here we're dealing with the devil himself - there'll be no showdown atop the empire state building.
So in the final judgement - well, mine, anyway - the Veevers demon neither hurts nor helps this tale of psychological paranoia, and showing it at the start and finish of Night Of The Demon at least demonstrates from the outset that Karswell is a genuine threat. And this is good - embroiling the viewers in our hero's ambiguity on this point would have added nothing to the movie, and detracted from much of the horror and suspense.
So this praise for a 1950s horror classic goes out on Halloween night, and it goes out highly recommended. Hell, it even features a halloween party...
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