Pass Those Runes, Please: Night of the Demon


Happy October! I’m resurrecting horror movie articles from my old blog and revamping them. This article is reworked from a 2008 post.

British Horror doesn’t begin with Hammer Film Productions, as much as it might seem to. The same year Hammer released their Gothic breakthrough, The Curse of Frankenstein, another influential UK horror film reached screens and helped ignite the British terror flood: Night of the Demon (released in the US in an edited version as Curse of the Demon).

The 1950s were the era of science-fiction-based horror; supernatural and Gothic menaces were left behind with the Universal and Val Lewton movies of the 1930s and ‘40s. The success of Night of the Demon and Hammer’s films paved the way for the supernatural to once again crawl from the cracks between castle stones and into theaters through the next decade, leading the way for what we now think of as “modern” horror with Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist.

Night of the Demon is based on a 1911 story by M. R. James, “Casting the Runes.” James defined the English ghost story with his tales of antiquarians poking into the unknown realms of specters, creaky mansions, and rotting churches. James specialized in genteel subtlety, and Night of the Demon keeps this attitude while injecting modern psychology and the growth of parapsychology—as well as presenting one damn impressive demon.

Seated in the director’s chair is Jacques Tourneur, a steady hand with horror and dark visuals from his association with Val Lewton in the 1940s. The Lewton-Tourneur team produced such fright classics as Cat People and Leopard Man (based on Cornell Woolrich’s exceptional novel Black Alibi). Tourneur also directed one of the masterpieces of film noir, Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Tourneur’s craftsmanship with mood and subtlety make him the ideal director for Night of the Demon, and he doesn’t disappoint.

The movie’s script by Charles Bennet and producer Hal E. Chester follows James’s story closely in structure, but expands it with further characterization, changing one of the original male characters into a female love interest (Peggy Cummins), giving a more prominent role to Satanist villain Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), adding a subplot about about one of Karswell’s followers imprisoned over a mysterious murder, and altering the antiquarian British protagonist Mr. Dunning into square-jawed American skeptical psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a fellow who needs more convincing that supernatural causes lay behind his troubles.

The core of “Casting the Runes” remains intact: Karswell enacts revenge on a professional who stands in his way by passing a sheet of runes to the man that will cause a demon to track him down and kill him at a specific time. The protagonist discovers this after a combination of fearful occult premonitions and warnings from a relative of Karswell’s most recent victim. The hero must find a way to stop the inevitable attack. The only solution is to trick Karswell into taking back the runic paper. The movie includes names and places from the story, and even drops in the quotation from “Ancient Mariner” that James uses to clue in Mr. Dunning, Karswell’s target, as to what is happening to him.

In “Casting the Runes,” Julian Karswell is a lone practitioners of the blacks arts and a singularly unlikeable chap:

Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody … he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.

He’s also petty: his reason for unleashing a runic death spell against Professor Harrington and Mr. Dunning is that they rejected a claptrap screed about alchemy he sent to a professional association for peer review.

The Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon is a different fellow all together, and most of the credit goes to Niall MacGinnis for his against-the-grain performance. Karswell is the leader of a Satanic cult, although he stresses he uses white magic as well. When Dr. John Holden’s scientific exposé threatens to destroy his group, Karswell uses runic magic to target the investigators. He first kills Professor Harrington, and then secretly passes the runes to the persistent Dr. Holden. Yet Karswell seems a remarkable likable fellow at first. In the short story, Karswell delights in showing inappropriate magic lantern shows to youngsters, but in the movie Karswell enjoys putting on family-friendly magic tricks for local children while dressed in a clown outfit. He has a charming and fussy tea-and-crumpet mother (Athene Seyler) who badgers him about getting married and dropping all this silly black magic business.

Karswell is initially disarming, pleasant, and a bit goofy—until he turns to the serious business of his cult of devil-worshippers. He utters a chilling and matter-of-fact statement to Holden that he will die on the twenty-eighth of November, and makes his threats almost likes a purring cat. But Karswell is afraid as well—he’s unleashed something he can’t fully control unless he drives forward constantly. Niall gives a unique and riveting performance.

Things aren’t so riveting on the side of Karswell’s victim, US-American actor Dana Andrews as Dr. Holden. British genre films of the 1950s often used stateside stars to help with international sales: Brian Donlevy in The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, Dean Jagger in X the Unknown, and Forrest Tucker in The Abominable Snowman. This was before the UK started growing their own stable of international stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Night of the Demon has stalwart Dana Andrews playing stalwart psychologist John Holden. Andrews is a bit bland, especially up against the performance from MacGinnis as Karswell and the radiant Cummins as Harrington’s niece, who’s out to uncover the truth behind her uncle’s death and possibly save Holden from his stubbornness. But the stolid nature of Andrews’s performance does play into his role as a hard-headed skeptic who won’t see Karswell’s actual plans. In the real world, Holden would be correct and Karswell nothing more than crank, but that wouldn’t be much fun in a horror movie. One reporter succinctly frames Holden’s opposition to the supernatural as New World Empiricism against Old World Traditionalism: “Take it kind of easy on our ghosts. We English are sort of fond of them.”

Tourneur and cinematographer Ted Scaife craft memorable sequences with high contrast shadows and threatening camera angles. The early parts of the film have a flat documentary appearance, which makes the suspense scenes more impressive when they begin to intrude on the everyday. The first time Holden hears the “demon noise” after he’s received the cursed rune parchment from Karswell occurs in a hotel hall that looked normal a few scenes previous, but has shifted into a sinister passage of deep shadows and dagger-like slashes of light. The visual creepiness hits its heights when Holden breaks into Karswell’s mansion and moves through a chiaroscuro dreamscape and into an encounter with a cat-demon in the library (shades of a similar attack in Tourneur’s Cat People). Holden then has to escape through the woods, with the footprints of an invisible creature and a huge cloud of roiling smoke following him. Spooky stuff.

Tourneur also creates great menace out of seemingly ordinary scenes, such as Holden visiting the Hobart Clan, a family of Karswell’s followers. The eerie blocking of the glazed-eye family as they gather around the table as if sitting in a tribunal and their chilly archaic English responses to the psychologist’s questions elicit an anxious sense of impending danger. (“He has been chosen. Let no one raise a hand to defend him.”) Ridiculously, this essential scene was cut from the American release.

The climax of Night of the Demon is one of the finest in any horror film. The dramatic confrontation between Holden and Karswell inside a train compartment, both men edgy and desperate but trying to out-cool the other as if nothing is wrong, unspools with masterful tension. The climax, with the demon re-appearing at the front of a barreling locomotive and Karswell’s futile pursuit of the flying piece of parchment that seals his doom, delivers an exhilarating shock—and even a touch of tragedy. Karswell, for all his scheming, is ultimately also a victim of the Things that Live in the Shadows.

James’s story only gives the slightest hint of what sort of demonic forces Karswell uses against the people who cross him, but Night of the Demon gives a full view of its title creature. And it’s one awesome monster. Designer Ken Adam, who would later become the visual core of the James Bond series and also design Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon, based the creature on images from medieval woodcuts, giving it a cultural authenticity rarely seen in films of the time. The smaller model of the demon moves a touch stiffly, but the visual work, photography, and rattling sound effects make the demon’s appearance chilling.

This brings up a controversy. The films that Jacques Tourneur directed with Val Lewton rarely feature visible monsters, in contrast to the Universal monster-fests of the time. Cat People is the best example of this approach. But Night of the Demon has the monster right up front and during the climax. The story behind this is producer Hal E. Chester forced Tourneur into showing the demon, or else he inserted it in post-production (it doesn’t look like an insert, however). Apparently, Tourneur and Chester had a rocky relationship on the production, and considering Tourneur’s previous subtle horror approach, it makes sense he would oppose the demon’s appearance.

But—and it amazes me I fall on this side of the issue—I love having the demon on screen. Regardless of who wanted the demon put in there, it was the right choice. So much of the film has perfect understatement and tension that these two moments of full-blown infernal horror aren’t destructive but enhancing. The demon is now an iconic image and part of the first flood of breakthrough British horror. I can’t imagine the film without it.

Night of the Demon is not available on a Region A (North America) Blu-ray as of this writing. It’s still on DVD from Columbia, which advertises itself as a “Double Feature.” This is a disingenuous claim, since the “separate” films on the disc are Night of the Demon and the shorter US version, Curse of the Demon. Having both on the same disc is nice for comparison’s sake, but there’s no way to legitimately call it a double feature. Imagine if you went to the theater advertising a double feature, only to discover the second movie is the first movie over again, only fourteen minutes less of it. You wouldn’t be amused. Aside from this shifty advertising, it’s a good disc with a crisp image, and preserves the 1:1.85 aspect ratio. Amazon has a streaming print, but only of the shorter US version.