I'd been wanting to see this for a long time. It's a well-regarded 1950s British horror movie from just before the Hammer boom took off, but completely different to them in style. It's Lewton-esque. I hesitated before writing that, but I think that's true. Val Lewton was a literate, subtle movie-maker with a rare skill at understatement and nuance, which seems like a fair description of Night of the Demon.
Then of course you've got the fact that it's by Jacques Tourneur, who's probably the director most closely associated with Lewton thanks to their collaborations on Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943). Robert Wise ended up having a bigger career, but that's partly because in 1950 Tourneur made the mistake of agreeing to direct Stars in My Crown for scale because he thought the script was brilliant. He was right, but it killed his career anyway. The studios stopped taking him seriously because he'd accepted such a low salary. In the 1940s he'd been making films like Berlin Express and Out of the Past, but afterwards he was reduced to doing B-movies and in the end television. The latter included a The Twilight Zone episode, by the way.
Night of the Demon is based on an M.R. James short story, The Casting of the Runes, which means it's classy already. The scriptwriter Charles Bennett could have sold it to RKO and directed it himself, but unfortunately for him he'd already sold it to independent producer and former child actor Hal E. Chester. To be fair to Chester, he did bring in Tourneur. However again being fair to Chester, he sounds like a shlockmeister who was just trying to churn out another 1950s B-movie and wasn't interested in letting Tourneur do his job. At one point the lead actor threatened to quit the film because of the producer's interference. (1) Chester insisted on having an actual demon on-screen, despite the opposition of both Tourneur and Bennett. (2) There's a scene where the villain conjures up a storm and to generate this wind Tourneur wanted two airplane engines, but Chester wanted two electric fans. (3) Chester cut thirteen minutes from the film for its American release and you can still find that version on DVD today, called Curse of the Demon.
To quote Charles Bennett, "If [Chester] walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead." Personally though, I'd say that for the most part Tourneur got his way. This is a subtle, deceptively low-key film and 99% of it feels downright classy. Unfortunately there's also the demon. Now it should be said immediately that this looks far better than you'd expect and in many ways is even impressive, helped considerably by eerie touches like the "genie in a bottle" smoke and a most peculiar sound effect. It's like a man riding a rusty bicycle. It's effective because it's so incongruous. I also liked the shot of demon violence, which for some reason I hadn't expected. Nevertheless there's no getting away from the fact that the demon looks a bit silly and that leaving everything to our imaginations would have made the film even creepier than it already is.
The story involves an American professor, played by Dana Andrews, who's investigating devil worshippers in England. This has always seemed to me an inherently silly genre, but the film makes it seem realistic, down-to-earth and even reasonable. There's a scene where a nutter tells us that "evil is good and good evil", but it's only a quick flash of cliche and in any case he's a nutter. What's interesting is that the villains come across as far more reasonable and likeable than the good guys. You see, our hero is a professional sceptic. Andrews still manages to be sympathetic despite this stumbling block, but the character's still capable of being abrasively militant about his beliefs and anyone who's ever seen a film before will be looking forward happily to his comeuppance. Ironically he's got the most clamped-shut mind of anyone in the film, despite being the one who's supposedly championing the scientific method.
Apparently Dana Andrews was a successful leading man in the forties and fifties, not to mention being president of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1963 to 1965. He's playing opposite Peggy Cummins, who's very pretty but playing a serious-minded girl who doesn't always see eye to eye with Andrews. They're good, but leading from the head rather than the heart.
The villains on the other hand are lovable. Niall MacGinnis is a plump, urbane Dr. Julian Karswell with a stupid-looking beard, who dresses up as a clown for children's parties and does conjuring tricks. He lives in a country house with his fluffy old mother, who makes ice cream for people and is played by the adorable Athene Seyler. She reminded me of Margaret Rutherford and her CV seems to contain a lot of Dickens and characters with names like Lady Millicent Bridges and Aunt Phoebe Tonks. She made her stage debut in 1909 and she was awarded a CBE in 1959. Anyway, they're a charming pair. You'd invite either of them over to dinner any time. MacGinnis would be a fascinating chap to hold a discussion with, but he's still capable of being sinister. There was a point where I was afraid for his mother.
The tone is urbane and thoughtful. The horror is being allowed to ferment unseen in the background, only occasionally showing itself in scenes like Maurice Denham's fate or Dana Andrews sneaking into the villain's house. The latter's rather startling, actually. Briefly this gentlemanly and well-mannered film turns into old-school horror, with Tourneur pulling out all the stops with spooky cinematography that would have done Val Lewton proud. Then during the hypnosis scene, I wasn't sure whether I was meant to be seeing a demonic face in the darkness. It's just a faint circle and two points of light, but I'm sure it was deliberate. On the downside there are a couple of scenes where the editing has a few unnatural cuts, but I don't know if that's Chester playing silly buggers or Tourneur trying to unsettle us subliminally. Oh, and there's a bit where the film suddenly cuts to footage of a speeding ambulance, but this doesn't have the desired effect these days since it took me a minute to work out that this was indeed what ambulances looked like fifty years ago. One of the things I like best though is the intelligence of both the film and its characters, with for instance MacGinnis and Andrews having some interesting discussions of the difference between psychology and the paranormal.
This is one of those films that's so complete and perfect in itself that I find myself not having much to say. It's excellent at what it does. As far as I know there's also nothing else quite like it either in British or in 1950s horror. It's not a big, splashy film, but instead a delicate, controlled piece that nonetheless got cited by Martin Scorcese as one of his eleven scariest films of all time. I wouldn't personally go that far, but knowing its ancestry I'd been going in with high expectations. I don't think I was disappointed either.