Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
In honor of our monthlong celebration of Stephen King, we’ll be diving into one of the King of horror’s favorite classic horror films. The underrated British chiller, Night of the Demon (1957). The film was among a list of personal favorite films King compiled for the British Film Institute in 2017. He had this to say of it “Although it’s old school, I love Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, a pretty wonderful adaptation of M.R. James’s story, ‘Casting the Runes’. Tourneur was a disciple of Val Lewton, which means the horror here is pretty understated, until the very end.”
A Legacy of Ghosts
Night of the Demon is a perfect storm of terror. It’s a combination of the source material, a specific creative team, cast, and execution that worked to unexpectedly create one of the most genuinely frightening horror films of the classic era. It’s no wonder it’s among Stephen King’s personal favorites.
Night of the Demon is a 1957 British horror film based on the M.R. James short story “Casting the Runes.” M. R. James was the turn of the century master of the British ghost story. He also happens to be counted by Stephen King as one of his literary influences. And it’s no wonder. James’ work is disarmingly frightening. Most of his protagonists were historians or scholars like himself. James was a Medievalist who wrote ghost stories on the side for fun. His ghosts were always uncanny nightmares that would put the apparitions of The Shining on edge, and he most wanted to bring horror into the “modern” era and make readers believe the events of his stories could happen to them. These are all familiar elements to fans of King, who set stories in environments he knew, featuring protagonists who were often writers like himself. It was the basis in his own experience that gave his uncanny horrors the power to terrify all the better.
“Casting the Runes” is a rare James story without a ghost. Instead, it’s a story about a skeptic vs. an occultist and the growing power of a curse. In structure, it bears a striking resemblance to Ringu, the Japanese horror novel and film that kicked off the J-horror craze in the early 2000s. While there is no traceable source that the Japanese story took any inspiration from James or the ‘57 film, one can’t deny that the overall structure does predict aspects of that modern classic and it’s successful American remake.
Night of the Demon tells the story of Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American anthropologist and confirmed skeptic who makes it his life’s work to understand why humans believe in superstitions. He’s traveled to England for a conference of fellow skeptics during which Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) plans to reveal his exposé of the British occultist Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). But upon his arrival, he learns that Harrington has just been killed in a freak car accident.
While looking into Harrington’s research, Holden meets Karswell and eventually Harrington’s niece, Joana. She’s convinced her uncle’s death was no accident. And despite his stubborn skepticism, Holden begins to experience strange phenomena and a sense of impending doom that begins to test his staunch denial of the supernatural realm.
Conjuring a Demon
Independent producer Hal E. Chester bought the screenplay for the film from Charles Bennett, who had the rights to the original story. He brought on Jacques Tourneur to direct, and it’s his touch that makes the film so effective. Tourneur was famous for his collaborations with Val Lewton. Together they made Cat People (1942) I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943). These were Lewton’s first three RKO horror films, and it was his collaboration with Tourneur that defined the noirish, suggested terror that revolutionized the genre.
After his collaboration with Lewton, Tourneur went on to direct one of the most acclaimed of all film noirs, Out of the Past (1947) and moved into freelance directing in the 1950s. He was recommended to direct Night of the Demon by Ted Richmond, who produced Tourneur’s 1957 noir Nightfall.
Tourneur was a perfect fit to direct an M.R. James story. His signature noir influenced cinematography shines in Demon, with brilliant uses of shadow characteristic of his work with Lewton. But several factors combined with Tourneur’s talent to make Night of the Demon more viscerally frightening than Lewton’s films. And that’s saying something since Lewton’s horror films are often quite scary!
The thing that sets Night of the Demon apart is that it makes use of Tourneur’s mastery of building tension, but adds in some choice jump scares and direct horror. Even though Lewton and Tourneur invented the iconic jump scare technique “the bus” in Cat People, Lewton’s films usually relied on tension over jumps. But while Night of the Demon doesn’t come close to the amount of jump scares that pepper modern horror, it features more than was common for the 1950s, and each one is masterfully paired with Tourneur’s atmosphere to elicit a real jump from even seasoned horror fans.
Niall MacGinnis’s performance as Karswell is phenomenal. His cool, refined and uncannily pleasant manner leaves the viewer on edge. He dresses as a clown and hosts an annual Halloween party for the village children at his manor, where he performs magic tricks. He cares for his friendly and helpful old mother, who loves seances. But he is simultaneously a cult leader with practices so dark, they’ve left a local follower catatonic in a hospital. MacGinnis was an Irish actor with a massive amount of character roles under his belt since the 1930s. But his work in Night of the Demon is so good, it makes one wish he was more often a villain in British horror or thrillers.
A Regretable Sighting?
The major sticking point in the legacy of Night of the Demon is the decision to show the titular demon on screen. In his work with Val Lewton, Tourneur was famous for revolutionizing suggestive horror, where the monster or threat remains unseen and therefore more menacing. It’s a move that influenced much of modern horror and is key to why Lewton’s films maintain their power to frighten. Night of the Demon features brilliant sequences of disorienting, suggested terror. But it also shows its monster directly to the audience, once near the beginning, and again at the end.
It’s a choice that has generated massive controversy. Those who defend the monster’s appearance say it’s an uncanny special effect that raises the stakes from the start, letting the audience know that despite our hero’s skepticism, the magic at play here is very real. Detractors say it takes the audience out of the film and dampens the horror. Tourneur himself claimed he never wanted to show the demon, save for a few blink-and-you-miss-them frames at the end. He said that Chester inserted the shots against his will to increase the commercial appeal of the film. After all, this was the 1950s, when effects-laden drive-in double features were a better bet than understated horror. But production notes and the seamless integration of the shots into the film counter Tourneur’s claims, suggesting that the effect was planned from the start, though possibly against Tourneur’s wishes.
My opinion falls somewhere in between. I’m intrigued by how the film would work without the demon, and I imagine it would be powerful. But the film maintains its impact with the visual effect. I find the distance shots of the entity very frightening, especially with the corresponding sound effects. The gratuitous close-ups are a little much, though they do show off the meticulous, medieval woodcut inspired design of the beast. The fact is, despite the director’s possible intent, there is no version of the film that exists without the demon. And Night of the Demon still maintains its power to frighten. It achieved cult classic status and acclaim without any hindrance from the controversial shots. They certainly didn’t seem to bother Stephen King, who noted that the film very effectively ramped up the horror at the very end.
Night of the Demon was a film of a different time. Released in the era of the 50s B movie, it was placed in a double bill in 1957 with SciFi monster movie 20 Million Miles to Earth. In America, Columbia cut twenty minutes from the film and renamed it Curse of the Demon. The shorter version is still great, but the loss of those few scenes and bits of dialogue diminishes some of the plot and character development. Unfortunately, the US recut is the most widely available version today. But I would encourage horror fans to seek out the 2002 DVD release, which includes both cuts of the film.
Since it’s release, Night of the Demon has grown in reputation as a classic British horror film, predicting the golden age of British folk horror that truly kicked off in the 1970s. With its runes, witchcraft, countryside setting, and visit to Stonehenge, you can see the DNA of folk horror all over the screen.
In the decades since 1957, the film has been referenced in Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” and the seance scene was sampled as the opening to Kate Bush’s 1985 song”Hounds of Love.”Today it’s regarded as an underrated horror classic, making it on Martin Scorsese’s list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time, along with being counted among the personal favorites of Stephen King.
If you’re in the mood for some moody, unnerving, and often terrifying classic horror, be sure to check out Night of the Demon. If it’s good enough to scare the King himself, that should be all the endorsement you need.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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