Cult Movie: Night Of the Demon a hair-raising slice of supernatural cinema

Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon (1957)
Ralph McLean

I FIRST encountered Jacques Tourneur's Night Of The Demon (1957) on an old BBC Two horror double bill in the 1980s. Slow burning, oddly malevolent and moodier than a phone box full of Goths, I fell in love with it instantly.

I had been aware of the films that the director had made with producer Val Lewton for RKO in the 40s, like Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man, and loved that shadowy world of suspense he'd created where less was always more and the scariest things were always lurking deep in your own imagination rather than looming over the screen in the form of a lurid, latex monster. Night Of The Demon was something else altogether, though.

Watching this black and white beauty once again, thanks to the new deluxe Blu-ray box set just issued by Powerhouse DVD, I'm reminded of why this is such a special slice of supernatural cinema. Quite simply there is nothing else like it in the history of horror.

Based on author MR James's story Casting The Runes and boasting a fine script by Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, it tells the tale of a sceptical American, John Holden (Dana Andrews), who comes to London to investigate a satanic cult that's run by the enigmatic Dr Julian Karswell (played by the great Irish actor Niall McGinnis).

By the time he arrives in town on his mission to expose this group as the charlatans he believes they are, the man who invited him over, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) has already been ripped apart by what appears to be a huge winged demon sent by Karswell when the prof got a little too judgmental about the group's activities.

That we see the beast in all its cheap plastic glory hardly matters as once the first killing is complete this is all about mood and the slow-building terror that takes hold of the non-believing American as he starts to realise there are powers out there that he knows nothing about.

The main plot centres around an ancient parchment that curses each person who receives it – a genre trope that would go on to provide material for films like The Ring – and Holden's increasingly desperate attempts to make sure Karswell doesn't push it into his hands.

Dana Andrews is pretty bland as the blustering American investigator – having a yank to front these kind of low-budget films was almost a prerequisite for British productions at the time – and the love interest provided by Peggy Cummings as the dead professor's niece is insipid to say the least.

None of that matters, though, because this is all about the calm and convincing performance of McGinnis as the devilish satanist who's making all the bad stuff happen. He's as frightened as anyone by the power he wields and watching him grow increasingly paranoid as Tourneur cranks up the tension is a remarkable experience.

A thoughtful, stylish and genuinely creepy masterpiece, it's in a league of its own.

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