Night of the Demon: M.R. James Reinterpreted as a Classic ’50s Horror Film

Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon begins, like so many of the best ghost stories do, on a dark night in the English countryside. A panicked man—we soon learn he is the skeptic and debunker Professor Henry Harrington—speeds along empty roads until he arrives at a grand country house. He pounds at the door and is admitted by the great home’s owner, of whom he begs forgiveness and pleads for mercy. Dr. Julian Karswell, calm and collected, offers vague promises of help, and sends his victim home to a terrible fate. The police, when they find Harrington’s body the next morning, claim that he backed his car into a utility pole and electrocuted himself; the horrible marks on his body must have been inflicted postmortem by an animal. But we viewers know better: we’ve seen the demon.

So ends the life of one skeptic, but another dedicated debunker of superstition has just flown in from America. Tourneur’s film was adapted from the M.R. James classic story “Casting the Runes,” which, if you’re a 1950s film producer, suffers greatly from the lack of a properly virile male lead. In any case, Dana Andrews’s John Holden is a psychologist who looks as if he’d be more at home working for the police; unlike Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), the hapless academic whose bad end begins the movie, he’s hard to shake and too incredulous for his own good. Peggy Cummins plays the late Harrington’s niece Joanna; though she lacks Holden’s doctorate, she far surpasses him in common sense.

Of the three leads, however, the best is Niall MacGinnis as Karswell: generous country squire, doting son of an aged mother, ingratiating host, accomplished scholar, and remorseless killer. An early scene shows a face-painted and clown-nosed Karswell delighting the local children with a magic act, pulling puppies out of a top hat. He should be ridiculous, but his comical get-up only accentuates his air of menace. Minor characters, including Karswell’s disconcertingly charming mother and a middle-class medium, also impress, though Harrington’s professional colleagues, a stage Irishman and a mystically sensitive “Indian” in brownface, never grow beyond stereotypes.

Night of the Demon features a surprising amount of location shooting for a film of its era, with scenes shot at Stonehenge, eerily empty and without any of the guardrails and fences seen today, and at the British Museum and the British Library Reading Room; yet its sets also make an impression, and for good reason. Ken Adam, likely the most famous production designer in film history—he went on to construct the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, build the sinister headquarters of the various Connery- and Moore-era Bond villains, resurrect the eighteenth century for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and eventually received a knighthood for his efforts—was still a relative unknown when he worked on Night of the Demon. He and Tourneur had originally hoped to leave the demon off-screen; decades later Adam still seemed surprised with his creature’s persistence. While I can appreciate the director’s desire for the purity of a monster-less monster story, there’s something about the demon that compels: its slow lurch, its grasping claw, and its evident glee in tormenting its victims make for a memorable beast.

Night of the Demon and its edited and retitled American cousin, Curse of the Demon, have long been available on DVD, but following a British Film Institute restoration, both films are now available on Blu-Ray for the first time.

Indicator Films, a young label that’s fast become a cinephile favorite for its eclectic reissues of classics and curiosities, has produced an incredible release of Night of the Demon, which is available in Limited and Standard Editions. Both editions feature four cuts of the film (the restored and the edited versions of Night and Curse), with the option of selecting either a 1.75:1 or a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Bonus features include a reading of “Casting the Runes,” interviews with actors, a radio adaptation of the James story, interviews with horror authors Kim Newman and Ramsey Campbell, audio commentary, a documentary on the film, and more. Some archivist has even managed to obtain a copy of the seven-minute silent Super 8 version from the earliest days of home viewing. In addition to all of this, the Limited Edition includes a slipcase, a fold-out poster, and a booklet with essays and interviews though not, to my very slight disappointment, the full text of “Casting the Runes.”

One of the essayists featured in the Limited Edition’s booklet writes that M.R. James wouldn’t much have liked Night of the Demon. I tend to agree: I don’t know if he’d object to the monster’s physical presence—James is famous for writing ghosts that are sticky, viscous, wet, hairy, and otherwise affronting to the senses—but Demon loses the donnishness that so characterizes James’s fiction. Aside from that brief scene in the British Library Reading Room, there’s little of the scholarly dust and fussiness that James devotees love. “Casting the Runes” might almost be called “Following the Rules”—evil is defeated because the protagonist understands the immutable laws of the curse—and the film’s inclusion of Dana Andrews’s headstrong American lead rather changes the equation. And, of course, Peggy Cummins’s as Andrews’s love interest, likable as she is and as smart as she proves to be, could have no place in James’s celibate male world.

Night of the Demon, a British film with an American lead directed by a Frenchman, often seems as confused as that pocket summary would suggest, yet somehow it works. It’s not a flawless movie, and few viewers would call it Tourneur’s best, but it’s spooky, memorable, and well worthy of the deluxe packaging it’s received. And while it’s immeasurably tamer than contemporary horror, sixty years from release, a few moments can still make viewers jump.

The Region-Free Blu-Ray of Night of the Demon can be ordered direct from PowerHouse Films.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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