Jacques Tourneur is perhaps more famous these days for creating the atmosphere behind many of Val Lewton’s best psychological horrors but his work outside the stewardship of the creator of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie is something of a rare treasure waiting to be uncovered. His 1957 occult masterpiece Night of the Demon should by all accounts be far more famous though perhaps it’s its almost underground and ironically, cult fan base that has cast it into IMDB’s top 50 horror films.
Looking at its dark and magikal ingredients it’s not hard to see why it’s a creative success. Starting from its basis, there really is no better place to come from than the mind of M.R James. Like all the best adaptations of horror literature though, it takes the basic premise and builds new layers of flesh to the bone, rightly changing its shape to fit the mold of the filmic medium. This also allows us as fans to have both Casting the Runes and Night of the Demon to enjoy while not obliging us to have allegiance to one or the other.
The story itself follows Doctor John Holden who has travelled from America to discredit a sinister occultist Julian Karswell. However, with the mysterious death of his colleague and consistently odd occurrences plaguing the good Doctor, Holden is gradually forced to start taking Karswell’s threats seriously, especially when it becomes clear that he’s marked him for death with a slip of paper covered in ancient symbolic runes.
What sets it apart so much from its peers is its obsession with Freudian pyschoanalytics. Film itself was still in the grip of the possibilities opened up by Freud and Jung and Night of the Demon’s narrative plays on this wonderfully. In fact the whole film could be easily one of Derren Brown’s more macabre stunts and like so many films after it, the glorious demon could have all sorts of potential metaphorical properties, perhaps even just be a piece of hypnotism gone astray. The gripping finale however leaves the ambiguity aside, making it very clear that there is a fire breathing demon on the lose.
Niall MacGinnis excels as the infinitely creepy Karswell, who balances his love of the occult with being a part time children’s entertainer. This is as unnerving as it sounds and his monologue culminating in being a bad loser at Snakes and Ladders still chills to the bone. Never argue with a man in a clown suit.
Overall, Night of the Demon can perhaps be seen to reopen the door to the occult side of horror film. Its success starts a clear line of powerful and enjoyable occult films ranging from Night of the Eagle, The Devil Rides Out and The Omen even a further adaptation of Casting The Runes in 1979. However, though the quality of these films is extremely high, they’re just not quite on the level of this original beast and like its main villain, it still has the power to terrify and amuse