“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
Night of the Demon was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who is best remembered for this film, his multiple collaborations with auteur producer Val Lewton, and his textbook example of film noir, Out of the Past. Over the years, Night of the Demon has gained a rabid cult following despite lacklustre theatrical releases in the UK and US: the US release was cut by 15 minutes and retitled Curse of the Demon.
The set-up isn’t far off from a noir, with Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden at the centre. Holden might be a professor, but he sure acts more like a hard-boiled detective. He arrives in Britain to attend a parapsychology conference, but Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) dies under mysterious circumstances while trying to investigate and expose Dr. Julian Karswell’s cult at the conference. Holden meets Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) at the funeral. She invites him to stay at Harrington’s estate, and he is soon investing Karswell and his cult.
The film is based on an M.R. James story, “Casting the Runes.” There’s always been a debate over whether the demon in the film should have actually appeared to moviegoers. In Tourneur’s films with Val Lewton, the evil forces are left up to the viewers’ imagination. Tourneur has claimed he was against showing it, but others have said the reality was a little more complicated. We do know there were artistic differences between the producer and Tourneur, Andrews and writer Charles Bennett. Personally, I think the demon is pretty cool-looking, but it hits the screen too soon—it would have been better to show it near the end. At one point Ray Harryhausen was supposed to be involved in creating it, but he was working on The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the time. When the film was released in the UK, it was as part of a double bill with 20 Million Miles to Earth, which Harryhausen did the special effects for.
You could certainly call Night of the Demon one of the first folk horror films, which eventually became a genre in itself, especially in Britain with films like The Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. It’s all about weird woods, standing stones, indigenous cults and witchcraft—so all the hallmarks of folk horror, but done in a noir style. Kate Bush was very influenced by the film: “Hounds of Love” starts with a sample.
Andrews was a classic noir actor, and turns in a great performance. Peggy Cummings is also interesting—I often forget she is Welsh, because the first thing you think about with her is the very American Gun Crazy, one of the best films ever made. She did return to the UK for a few films before retiring. Niall MacGinnis, who plays Karswell, sports a ridiculous satanic hairpiece, but it’s quite fun. I find it more interesting than any of the Hammer films, mainly because Tourneur is a far better filmmaker, He creates an eerie atmosphere that would have terrified audiences in 1957.
The Indicator release is rammed with special features: you get four different cuts of the film (full-length plus US and UK theatrical versions); a commentary by Tony Earnshaw, who wrote a book about Night of the Demon; a making-of documentary; an interview with Andrews; and various appreciations from Kim Newman and Ramsey Campbell, amongst others. There’s also a video piece on the different versions, a radio-play adaptation of the original short story, the original US trailer, the isolated music and effects track from the US theatrical release, an image gallery, and a massive 80-page booklet with new essays and other written pieces on the film.