The production of Night of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur, and starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins, was so tumultuous, that there is an entire novel detailing the fiasco. I suppose the fact that the movie got completed at all is, in itself, a grand accomplishment; but it is made all the more spectacular when you consider that the movie was picked by Martin Scorsese as one of the eleven scariest movies he has ever seen. And he is not alone. While many critics do not have it on their lists of “scariest movies of all time” (lists that are dominated by overrated dreck like The Shining, which is a good movie, but not a legendary one, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I found to be laughably atrocious), the internet is littered with blogs and messages, from everyday Internet users, who discuss how this film messed them up as a kid. And I will take that over a glaring Owen Gleiberman review any day of the week.
But apparently, I am missing something, because I found Night of the Demon to be little more than the average ’50s horror film; a hit-or-miss blend of sometimes good, sometimes bad special effects, and some hit-or-miss psychological horror, which missed more often than it connected. Here I was expecting at least some solid moments of intensity and, while there are certainly some clever moments that at least brought a smile to my face, there is very little in the way of shocks or terror.
In fact, the movie makes a misstep right from the beginning, as we see a demon materialize from nothing more than a smoky ball to cause the death of one Henry Harrington. The far off sequences of the monster are pretty solid, but then the film has to ruin the facade by showing it close-up, in plain detail. Sure, the demon actually looks pretty good, even from close range, but it nevertheless ruins the facade for the rest of the picture; we already know what it looks like, so what does that leave to the imagination? (This was one of the main points of argument between director Jacques Tourneur and the writing team, and producer Hal E. Chester; Tourneur and the writers only wanted to show the monster from far away, in a few frames toward the end of the film. Chester, on the other hand, felt that the demon should be seen as many times as possible. Chester won. The film did not).
Anyway, the film goes on: We learn that Dr. Julian Karswell (another of the film’s plusses; a great performance by Niall MacGinnis) was responsible for Harrington’s death through the use of black magic. Dr. Karswell, you see, is the leader of a demonic cult and, as such, has powers befitting the devil. Well since we have someone involved in witchcraft, then that must mean there is a character that is the “skeptic”. Sure enough, he comes in the form of John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychiatrist who arrives in London to prove that Karswell is a phony. Despite repeated offers from Karswell himself to stop the investigation, Holden presses on, refusing to believe that an average man can wield such abnormal powers.
Then, suddenly, strange things begin happening to Holden. His vision goes blurry at odd moments, and his body temperature always seems to be off. Furthermore, he finds a mysterious parchment paper in his briefcase. Could this be the result of a curse…or is there a more logical argument that could explain what is happening to him? Together with Joanne Harrington (Harrington’s niece, played by Peggy Cummins) and the diary of her late uncle, they dig deep to find the truth of…the curse of the demon!
I will admit that I am always off-put by films that seem to thrive on the role of the “skeptic”. “The X-Files”, that television show that was met with great acclaim and is now regarded as some kind of a classic, was a constant turn-off for me, in particular. How many times could one person be met with bizarre, unexplainable occurrences, and still maintain her skepticism? (Answer: Apparently for nine seasons.) Night of the Demon suffers from that same kind of “logic”, that same kind of forced adherence to skepticism that the film pushes on Dr. Holden. Take for example, the scene in which Dr. Karswell tells Holden that he will prove his power to him. Suddenly, what was once a pitch-perfect day becomes a brutal cyclone, leaving everyone scrambling for the safety of shelter. Now, I am not saying that Holden necessarily had to drop everything and become a believer right there, but shouldn’t that have at least shaken his steadfast beliefs? Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is one thing; creating a windstorm out of nowhere is entirely a horse of a different color. But no, the script does not state that he should be alarmed, and so he is not, and the movie presses onward in such a fashion that it seems like he will never learn (but of course he does, at the last second).
I also felt the film suffered from a general lack of intense scenes, given its strong reputation as a genuinely scary picture. Yes, I know there is a focus on atmosphere and a slow build-up to the finale (though I was not at all impressed with the atmosphere), but aside from one scene involving corridors, and another one featuring a hand on a banister, there is really nothing that stands out in the scare department. As a matter of fact, Night of the Demon‘s best scares seem to come out of the dialogue. Who can’t appreciate such lines as:
(following the windstorm scene)
HOLDEN: I didn’t know you had cyclones in England.
KARSWELL: We don’t.
Or how about the film’s most famous quote, which was later used in the Kate Bush track “Hounds of Love”, which finds Harrington communicating through a medium during a seance: “It’s in the trees…it’s coming!”
Atmosphere, when properly attained, is from a mix of visuals, pacing, and soundtrack, working together in harmony. Dialogue can add to it, but it cannot be the sole force behind it. It is in this area that Night of the Demon is dealt what could be considered its death blow: The visuals are average, but nothing to write home about; the pacing is incredibly slow, with several minutes in between attempted (and usually overhyped) scares, and the soundtrack is also a classic example of a typical ’50s score, which means that it does nothing to add to the overall ambience that the film is trying to create.
Though not without its small victories, Night of the Demon suffers from greater failures. If you are a huge fan of old sci-fi/horror movies, you will no doubt find plenty more to like than I did. But as it stands, I found it to be a rather predictable, and only minorly effective horror film that fails to live up to its promise.
Rating: * * (out of 4)