Night of the Demon (1957)

The demon
I love this demon!

Also known as CURSE OF THE DEMON in America, this British horror movie is an adaptation of the 1911 M.R. James story ‘Casting the Runes’. Its plot focuses on Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) travelling from the USA to England to meet with colleagues and investigate a black magic cult that is linked to the death of Professor Harrington (who is shown being killed by a demon at the very beginning of the film).

The UK poster
UK poster

As the story unfolds Holden is approached by suspected cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in the library at the British Museum, where the well-mannered cultist offers to show Holden a rare book kept at his mansion. Holden does go to Karswell’s home, accompanied by Joanna (Peggy Cummins), Professor Harrington’s niece, where they see Karswell entertaining the local children dressed as a clown. After a strong storm ruins the party, Karswell says that he had actually created the wind himself with a spell. Holden remains sceptical, even when Karswell tells him that he will die in a few days time.

Karswell plays the clown
Karswell plays the clown

Some people (including the director) think that the demon should not have been shown at the start of the movie (or anywhere else) because this gives the game away that there actually is a demonic monster doing the killings. I don’t agree: because we viewers have SEEN the creature in the first reel murdering Harrington, we know that Dana Andrews’ self-assured, I-know-best, skeptical hero IS in trouble!

US poster
US poster

As events become harder to explain away in a scientific manner, Holden must finally admit that supernatural forces are at work, and he realises that he must find a way to return a rune-covered parchment to Karswell before the giant demon comes calling…

Dan Andrews is chased through the woods
The chase is on…

I really, really like this movie. It is well written by Charles Bennett and directed wonderfully by Jacques (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) Tourneur, who creates a movie permeated with a moody, spooky atmosphere. He handles the escalation of events intelligently, carefully ramping up the chills, building the sense of approaching doom slowly and effectively.

A major asset of this movie is Niall MacGinnis, who is especially memorable as the occultist Karswell. He adds immeasurably to the quality of the film with his multifaceted turn: he is sometimes playful, sometimes courteous, sometimes threatening and finally he is just fear-filled after he realises the runes have been returned to him.

Niall MacGinnis is amazing as Karswell

Despite the artistic differences (between the film’s producer and the director & writer) concerning whether or not to actually show the demon onscreen, I think this supernatural creature is the icing on the cake for this perfect horror picture. There’s a medieval feel to the massive demon’s horned, pointy-eared design, and its appearances are made that bit more haunting thanks to the use of swirling, glowing smoke and creepy music & sound effects as the hell-creature takes form in our world. I love the look of its scowling face!

The demon reaches out
The demon reaches out…

NIGHT OF THE DEMON is a perfectly formed tale of the occult, effectively highlighting the conflict between ancient superstition and modern day scientific rationality in a brisk, articulate manner.

This is one of my favourite movies: I can re-watch it and know I will enjoy it just as much this time as I have done previously… and, of course, it boasts a huge, winged, grimacing, furry demon!

The demon amongst the trees
It’s in the trees! It’s coming!

Okay, there have always been conflicting claims about different running times of the UK and US versions of this film.
These, I believe, are the facts (based on information/versions contained in Indicator’s 2-disc Blu-ray edition): there was a 96 minute UK pre-release version and the US re-issue, which was the same length but went out under the American title CURSE OF THE DEMON. There were then the original UK and US theatrical cuts, both of which had running times of 82 minutes.

Is it an oncoming train... or oncoming demon?
Is it an oncoming train… or oncoming demon?
Karswell gets his comeuppance...
Karswell gets his comeuppance…

2 thoughts on “Night of the Demon (1957)”

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