Wednesday 15 June 2011

What Do You Mean You've Never Seen...Night of the Demon

Dana Andrews said ‘prunes’ and gave him the runes, though passing them used lots of skill...

Is this the oldest movie we’ve ever featured in our “What Do You Mean You’ve Never...” series? You know what? It probably is. I mean, I’m not actually going to bother checking or anything, but it sounds like it is, to me.

I was introduced to this movie – like most other fantasy, sci-fi and horror movies – by my Dad. He’s a collector of various B-movies, and this turned up in his collection one day. Of course, he also owns Attack of the Sabertooth and Hell Comes to Frogtown, so I wasn’t especially hopeful. Night of the Demon, though, was amazing, combining the fantasy/horror of M.R. James (upon whose short-story Casting the Runes the film is loosely based), and the non-stop action and intrigue of a Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

Night of the Demon begins in England, when Professor Harrington approaches the mysterious and satanically goatee-bearded Dr. Karswell, supposed leader of a satanic cult, promising to call off an investigation into his “cult” if Karswell would call off "what he has started".

After Harrington arrives back home, a demon materializes in the woods and approaches Harrington. Fleeing in his car, Harrington crashes into a telegraph pole which causes falling power lines to electrocute him.

The Demon looks amazing. A massive stonking, great puppet, you’d expect it to be the sort of thing that has aged laughably in the the fifty odd years since the film was initially released...but it hasn’t really. The amount of effort put into making the thing look good carries it. Sure, if you look (and not even too hard) you can see pulley and wheels and wires – but you don’t ever want to. You want to believe in it much harder than you ever want to in some modern CG sharktobadger. You’re happy to accept that this is the monster...maybe I’m getting a little too defensive. Hell, it still looks amazing.

This leads onto our main characters, Dr. John Holden, arriving in England to attend a convention. Holden is informed of Harrington's death and that the only link between it and Karswell's cult is an accused murderer, Rand Hobart, who has fallen into a catatonic stupor. Some of Harrington's friends consider the possibility of supernatural forces, but Holden rejects the idea as superstition. Because he’s a scientific man in a 1950s movie, dammit, and he won’t stand for any of your nonsense.

Following Harrington's notes, Holden visits the British Museum to examine books on witchcraft. A book Harrington requests is discovered to be missing. Doctor Karswell then arrives in a not-at-all mysterious way and offers to show Holden his own copy at his mansion.

At Professor Harrington's funeral, Holden meets the dead man's niece, Joanna, who gives him the dead man’s diary. The diary reveals Harrington's increasing fear of Karswell's power.

Holden remains skeptical, but goes with Joanna to Karswell's mansion the next day. There, Holden and Karswell have a strong disagreement on the subject of the existence of magic. When Holden continues to mock Karswell, Karswell grows angry and predicts that Holden will die in three days...

What makes Night of the Demon work so well is the clever way that, even right up until the end, you’re not a hundred per cent sure whether or not there really is a demon or monster stalking the targets of Karswell’s spells, or if it’s just superstition and terror at play.

I guess it's is pretty similar to The Wicker Man – another horror story about bizarre British rites and magic. The Wicker Man focuses on an outsider’s invasion into another region and culture, brought down by his own prejudices (if you haven’t seen The Wicker Man then what the hell is wrong with you?), a role filled in Night of the Demon by Dr Holden (though you won’t get me revealing the ending here). The focus of Night of the Demon is – like all good movies – on the characters, and their interactions. There are no really big set-pieces here (apart from the aforementioned appearances of The Demon), and much of the film is pushed along by the interactions of Holden and Karswell – and the burning question of whether or not the “magic” is real, similar to Sidney Hayers Night of the Eagle.

If you’re a fan of fantasy, horror movies, MR James or even just old movies, then you owe it to yourself to check out the masterpiece that is Night of the Demon. You won’t regret it.

Night of the Demon is available now, on DVD.

Words: Brad Harmer
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