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Night of the Demon (1957)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Main image of Night of the Demon (1957)
Directed byJacques Tourneur
Production CompanySabre Film Productions
 Columbia Pictures Corporation
Produced byFrank Bevis
Screenplay byCharles Bennett
 Hal E. Chester
Based on a story byMontague R. James
CinematographyTed Scaife

Cast: Dana Andrews (Dr John Holden); Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington); Niall Macginnis (Dr Julian Karswell); Maurice Denham (Professor Henry Harrington); Athene Seyler (Mrs Karswell)

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A sceptical American psychologist visits England and investigates a fellow scientist's mysterious death. In so doing he encounters a black magician who has the power to invoke an ancient fire demon to do his bidding.

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Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957) largely continues the director's subtle, suggestive approach to horror. Despite being book-ended by appearances of a crudely animated demon (whose brief appearances were insisted upon by the producers), the film is mostly an exercise in understatement. Just as in Tourneur's Cat People (1943), it is what the audience does not see which causes a sense of unease.

This is in marked contrast to another couple of British horror movies filmed at around the same time, namely The Curse Of Frankenstein (d. Terence Fisher, 1957) and Dracula (d. Fisher, 1958). These first two outings in what was to become Hammer's 20-year domination of the genre eschew supernatural mystery, in favour of florid Gothic melodrama and (for the times) an excess of Technicolor bloodletting. Night of the Demon, on the other hand, is filmed in black & white, and owes more to M.R. James's suggestion than explicit gore.

Scenes such as the storm invoked by black magician Karswell (Niall McGinnis), dressed in clown's makeup, are genuinely unsettling. This scene of a children's garden party suddenly interrupted by demonic intervention anticipates The Omen (US/GB, d. Richard Donner, 1976). As in that film, Night of the Demon's lead character, Dr John Holden, is an American, coming to terms with what he initially sees as 'old European' mumbo-jumbo. As Holden, Dana Andrews is initially somewhat wooden, but his performance improves as the character becomes more convinced of the reality of what he is up against. This theme of the modern, rationalist American adrift in a world of superstition can be traced through several films, including An American Werewolf In London (US, 1981) and "The Ninth Gate" (US, 1999). Even in Universal's famous horror cycle of the 1930s and '40s, the settings were often in a generic 'old Europe', were often made by European directors such as James Whale and Carl Freund, and starred European actors such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Unlike the hammy histrionics of those films, Niall McGinnis's satanist is a sinister yet affable figure, ultimately aware that he is out of his depth in his occult dabblings. His fear is believable, even if the depiction of his fire-breathing nemesis is not. Although slightly marred by some creaky effects, this remains an engaging, frightening and influential film.

Ronnie Hackston

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Video Clips
1. White magic (0:59)
2. Pursued (0:59)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Adam, Ken (1921-)
Bennett, Charles (1899-1995)
Cummins, Peggy (1925-)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Tourneur, Jacques (1904-1977)