Wednesday 16 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #13: Night of the Demon (1957)

In a conversation elsewhere, a colleague made the point that The Force Awakens is a better movie than A New Hope. I said, OK, it probably is, but Star Wars (its name in 1977) is a better 1977 movie than The Force Awakens is a 2015 movie.

Which is to say, on a par and to be judged against everything in its era. I am not a big Star Wars fan, I'll be honest, but this is actually pretty important. Sometimes you look at a film or a piece of TV – and I'm not just talking about genre stuff here – and it looks shoddy, old-fashioned, badly judged, inconsistent in tone.

The point being that while Night of the Demon (released in the USA as Curse of the Demon) might look a bit wonky, it's a decent 1957 movie, but like a lot of British genre films, including several I've looked at in the last couple months, it could have been made at pretty much any time in the preceding decade.

This will spoil surprises in the plot, of which the ending isn't one, because the monster at the end of the film is seen in full right at the start.  
Let's get this over with.
I won't lie, Night of the Demon gives all the signs of being a wonky B-movie potboiler, and after a portentous and near-nonsensical voice over introduction, we're introduced to a Professor Harrington, a worried academic who rolls up at a country house, where he asks Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis) to call something off, he'll do anything. Karswell says he can't. And then, seven minutes into the film, a big old fiery demon comes out of the trees and kills Harrington.

This, it turns out, sits really badly with the rest of the film. Night of the Demon is based, and you probably know this, because let's face it, this is a pretty niche blog, on MR James's short story "Casting the Runes". As MR James ghost stories go, "Casting the Runes" stands apart from the other 35 in that the real villain is not a supernatural entity, but a modern occultist with a grudge, and that the goodies in that story defeat the villain by turning his powers back on him.

You can read the story here. It's a really great story. You should read it. To be honest, James wrote very few duds.

Night of the Demon has roughly the same sort of plot, but expands upon it, except instead of Edward Dunning, bookish journal editor, its hero is dashing American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews, past his prime and a little out of his depth) who engages with a battle of wits with Karswell, with the aid of Joanna Harrington, the professor's neice (Peggy Cummins). Holden hits on his companion, but she isn't having any of it. 
Joanna not only has to fend off a demon, but also a sexist American.
Holden gets given a cursed parchment by Karswell, tucked into a book Karswell hands him, on which are written runes. The parchment keeps trying to get away from him, trying to blow into the fire or get lost on the wind; fortunately Holden and Harrington are smart enough to keep it.
It reads "This is why you can't have nice things."
Holden experiences hauntings and unsettling warnings – places start looking off kilter, his appointment diary loses all its pages after the promised date of his demise, writing appears and disappears on an appointment card – but he absolutely refuses to believe in the reality of the hauntings, until very late in the film.
A hotel corridor, turned into a threat with lighting and angles. It's dead clever.
Holden: I have an imagination like everyone else! It's easy to see a demon in every dark corner!
Holden spends much of the film going back and forth with Karswell. Karswell is the most interesting character in the film. Veteran character actor Niall McGinnis flips from comical, harmless, even a bit lovable, to sinister and cold and back again, and this is one of the things the film does best: it turns comedy into something frightening.

For example, fairly early on, Holden and Harrington visit Karswell to find him dressed as a clown and giving a magic show to delighted village children. And he's good at it! He conjures puppies from a hat and the children squeal and laugh, and it's absolutely convincing.
Dr. Bobo.
It's unexpected. Karswell ends the show, and he's ebullient and generous, offers condolences to Harrington about the death of her uncle and goes off for a walk with Holden. And he's entirely matter-of-fact. Yes, you're under a curse, yes, I did it, yes, you've got a couple weeks. Holden doesn't believe a word of it. And then Karswell concentrates for a second and a violent, freakish storm blows up, from nowhere.
...and now he's terrifying.
 Shot from below, his coat whipped by the wind, Karswell's clown smile becomes demonic.

Later on, our heroes visit a medium, Mr Meek. And every stupid stereotype of the medium happens. He goes into a trance as two women sing "Cherry Ripe" and then he starts talking with the voice of a Native American shaman1 and a comedy Scotsman, and it's all played for broad comedy.
And then the voice of a little girl comes out of the man's mouth.

And his friends act like it's normal.

It's jarring. It's a properly creepy moment. And then the voice of Prof. Hamilton comes out of his mouth, warning Joanna that Holden won't be able to fight it. And Holden still doesn't believe.  

In another smart move, Night of the Demon puts Karswell into a folk context. It turns out that he's part of a cult of "True Believers" who are of course rural people. One of them is locked in a psychiatric hospital, accused of murder but deemed unfit to stand trial. Holden goes to the man's family who behave in the way that Creepy Country Folk are wont to, and if there's anything I've learned from this project, you never take lightly a rural witch.
"Cup of tea?" "No, I'm fine, thanks."
The man, who is in a fugue state, undergoes a hypnotic regression. After revealing what the cult get up to, and explaining to Holden how to get out of the curse (you give the paper back to Karswell, who has to accept it from you), he jumps out of a window. Again, it's a weird, silly scene that turns on you.

And then there's that part where Holden goes to a stone circle and finds the runes carved onto the stones themselves. Karswell isn't just a crank. He's part of something older and stranger.
Wait, there are Saxon runes carved onto Stonehenge?
The story goes lots of places that James' original doesn't but it winds up in a similar place. And then that demon comes back and the baddie gets taken. Now the demon is there because of studio interference. The producers insisted that if you're going to have a film called Night of the Demon you had to have a demon in it. The director, Jacques Tourneur, protested and fought, but in the end, you got a demon, a demon at the start and a demon at the end, and they did their best with it, they really did, but it makes the rest of the film a problem. There's a great bit in the third act where Holden gets chased through the woods by a ball of fire and light and if that had been the only demon, I think, like Tourneur did, it would have been a much better film. Because most of the best bits of the film are creepy and unsettling – Mr Meek, the grinning clown in the wind, the unfriendly country folk, the lowering woods and threatening corridors – and most are just on the corner of belief.

That is, if Holden's experiences in the film were all you had to go on, there'd still be a reasonable chance of an explanation. And Holden's dogged scepticism would be justified. But right at the start, literally three minutes after the credits are done, there's that bloody demon, and the voice over before the credits that says "ever since a really long time ago, bad people have summoned demons."

And that makes our hero Holden an idiot, because he's wrong, he's obviously wrong, and while you actually end up looking forward to the next bit with Karswell in because he's brilliant, for most of the film you want to shake Holden by the lapels and yell in his face, "There is a demon, a big fuck-off demon with oogly googly eyes and teeth and terrible breath and huge claws and it goes rarrr, and it is coming for you! A demon! DON'T YOU GET IT?" The simple presence of the demon means that in the battle of wits, Holden comes bringing a knife to a gunfight.

And then at the end, after it's over, Holden says, "Maybe it's better not to know." But we do know. We know. It was the big old demon with the oogly googly eyes and the sharp teeth and the terrible breath and the big claws that goes rarrr.

And it removes the tension from the film. You could improve the film by starting it eight minutes in, in fact. There isn't a single piece of exposition that doesn't get repeated later. And while the film clearly has an influence on what would be folk horror later on, and it's hugely influential, the demon almost disqualifies it.
If this had been the only demon shown, it would have been a much better film.
And that's a shame, because yes, Night of the Demon is a 1957 movie, but it's a pretty good 1957 movie. It just could have been a much better one.   

1I've known more than one Spiritualist medium and I've observed that Native American shamans who talk like they do in 50s Westerns are really popular as spirit guides. I won't pass undue content, only observe that either Sioux and Cherokees really talked like that, or someone's being fooled. In the UK, it's still generally not considered offensive by most people to call indigenous Americans "Indians" and so these spirit guides were always "Indian Medicine Men". But then, in the UK, one of the most beloved characters in kids' comics is Little Plum in The Beano.
Hunt Emerson draws Little Plum these days.
I can't help thinking that the fact his most recent adventures have been drawn by a really great cartoonist somehow make it worse, you know? (back)