Cult films to see before you die: Night of the Demon

James Oliver

Revert back to this 1957 cult classic for your Halloween watching this year, you'll be on the edge of your seat with fear...

People like to pretend that the United Kingdom is a safe place but this is mere delusion, a comforting lie to help them sleep at night. There may be less violence than elsewhere and a stronger rule of law, but such things cannot keep you safe from everything...

The British Isles have more ghosts per square inch than anywhere else in the world, not to mention innumerable imps, hobgoblins and things that live in the dark. This is attested to by the profusion of ghost stories and horror films that are among this country's most important, if under-acknowledged, contribution to global culture—and nowhere more so than in the 1955 film, Night of the Demon.

Despite its American leading man and Franco-American director, this is the quintessence of British horror. It's actually set here for one thing, not in the make-believe version of Europe where the contemporaneous Hammer horrors took place. Moreover, it boasts an illustrious pedigree, taken as it is from one of the great grandmasters of the ghost story.

M R James was a Cambridge theologian who delighted in dreaming up tales that made readers afraid to put out the light. Night of the Demon derives from one of his most famous stories, Casting the Runes, which explored his favourite theme, the collision of a modern, rational 19th-century worldview and some antique, unexplained evil.

The screenplay was by Charles Bennett, himself a scribe of some repute: earlier in his career, he'd helped a young chap called Alfred Hitchcock devise the style with which he became synonymous. Bennett's adaption—relocated to the mid-20th century—was a comprehensive one; beyond replacing gaslight with electricity, he expanded the plot and stirred in tension that turned a creepy short story into an authentic masterpiece of the screen.

Our hero is John Holden, an American professor played by Dana Andrews (who is visibly drunk in some scenes, God bless him). He's come over to these haunted isles for a conference and maybe to cause some trouble on the side: just recently he's taken pot-shots at a self-described practitioner of the black arts, a fellow called Julian Karswell who he reckons to be a great big humbug, and he'd like to go further still. 

Karswell, though, is not taking this slight to his reputation lightly. He would like the allegations retracted, and claims it is in Holden's interest to oblige: those who cross him, after all, have a tendency to end up dead. Holden is too much the man of science to believe such nonsense but he starts to see things from the corner of his eye and his faith in reason starts to wane. The witching hour is drawing close; could there really be a hell hound on his trail?

"It would have been easy enough for Tourneur to stick his tongue in his cheek but he refuses to make things so easy for us"

All this was directed by Jacques Tourneur. In Hollywood, he had worked with producer Val Lewton to conjure up a new kind of horror movie—working with budgets too low to allow them to show the monster, movies like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, they instead concocted a more psychological and decidedly ambiguous approach to the genre, something the director continued (arguably with even greater effect) on Night of the Demon.

It would have been easy enough for Tourneur to stick his tongue in his cheek but he refuses to make things so easy for us. More even than Hitchcock when he worked with Bennett's scripts, Tourneur finds the perfect balance between English eccentricity and outright menace; Karswell, for instance, is one of the great movie villains. As played, quite brilliantly, by Niall MacGinnis he seems almost amiable at first, which makes the moments where he shows his real nature all the more frightening; you'd better believe he's capable of siccing a demon on someone.

Ah yes, that demon. It scarcely counts as a spoiler to note that Karswell actually does have the powers Holden so robustly denies—we see the titular terror within the first five minutes of the movie, much to the displeasure of both director and writer. They hadn't wanted to show the demon at all, but were overruled by their sensation-seeking producer.

"The climax in the railway carriage remains as suspenseful on the 50th viewing as on the first"

And, in this one instance, we must be grateful that they were, for the demon is one of the biggest, nastiest beasties there is. Designed by Ken Adam and based on ye olde woodcuts, it's one of the few classic movie monsters that don't get laughed off-screen by cynical modern audiences. You really wouldn't want it coming after you on the proverbial dark night. Or at any other time either.

Highbrow types have never really gone big on monsters, though, and that's probably why the film doesn't enjoy the status of Tourneur's other films or Bennett's work with Hitchcock, which is a disgrace. Quite apart from anything, it is a brilliant thriller—without giving away any surprises, the climax in the railway carriage remains as suspenseful on the 50th viewing as on the first.

Later on, Kate Bush would draw a sample from the film (that bit at the start of “Hounds of Love”? “It's in the trees! It's coming!”? That's from Night of the Demon, that is). But it stands on its own merits as one of the very best horror films ever made, not mention a most accurate portrait of British psychogeography. If you are looking for Halloween viewing, you can do no better. Just try not to have nightmares.