10/30/11

The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It #2 -Night of the Demon (1957)

Getting down to the last two selections on The Halloween Top 13 means at this point the films I've left off my list are going to become more and more apparent. One such example is Night of the Demon (1988), a middling demonic entry that plays out like a goofy slasher, but given the choice I decided I was better off dropping the 'S'. (This is despite Netflix twice sending me the Linnea Quigley shocker instead of what I needed.) With the loss of one single letter, the title goes from referring to standard '80's schlock to one of the all time classics of horror cinema. Coming in at #2 on The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It, it's Jacques Tourneur's 1957 classic, Night of the Demon. Tapped to direct by producer Hal E. Chester, Tourneur brought the moody atmospherics of his Val Lewton films, The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, and summoned into the world the cinematic demon on which so many after would be modeled.

The film opens with Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) promising Satanist Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) that he will call off his investigation into the doctor's activities providing the devil worshiper calls off "what he started". Karswell agrees, but ushers the professor quickly out of his house at the stroke of nine. When the professor arrives home, the winds begin to blow uncontrollably, and through the woods a ten foot tall demon, shrouded in smoke, begins to advance. Trying to escape, the professor's car knocks down a telephone pole and the escaping parapsychology expert is electrocuted on the power lines. The next day psychologist and professional skeptic John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London intending to speak at a conference with Dr. Harrington examining the psychology of witches' covens and satanist sects, but instead he discovers his host has died. John soon is also threatened by Karswell, but Holden merely scoffed at the devil worshiper when asked to drop the investigation. John, aided by Harrington's niece (Peggy Cummings), continues looking into the Satanists and Dr. Harrington's mysterious death. The investigation eventually leads John to mystic cursed runes, a Satanic farmer named Hobart, and even Stonehenge. Along the way, he has to face t unseen assailants and even a cat that turns into a cheetah, but the biggest enemy might be himself. John makes the disturbing realization that the supernatural isn't a flight of fancy as he's always believed and that a demon from Hell is now on his trail.

Night of the Demon, released in America as Curse of the Demon (supposedly to avoid confusion with Night of the Iguana), is a high point of horror cinema of the 1950's. Jacques Tourneur, as far back as his 1942 feature debut Cat People, was able to command an exceptional use of mood and atmosphere on film. Night of the Demon does not lack for either. In particular, the scenes where Dana Andrews is pursued by an unseen force through the Satanist's house stand out as particular stunners.Using only light and shadow, the director makes the translucent threat contain a very real, opaque menace to Andrews' skeptical shrink's life. So effectively built is the tension built that when Andrews wrestles a cat turned cheetah, well, it doesn't seem like Andrews is only fighting a stuffed cheetah.

The same can be said of the demon. While the titular monster's design clearly influenced later movie demons, some dismiss its appearance and wonder what miniature maven Ray Harryhausen, who was offered the job but had to pass, would have done. Depending on the source of the story, Tourneur either added the manifestation of the demon at the beginning and end at behest of the studio or it was done without him. Its appearance is so stylishly handled I find it hard to believe the Maestro of Mood wasn't involved. While parts of the film may seem silly or dated to some viewers, Tourneur's stylistic influence of can be felt in the horror films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, director Martin Scorsese places it among his favorite horror films, and it is impossible not to see the film's influence on Sam Raimi.

Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, and passing them used lots of skills. Okay, so he didn't, but if you listen to the lyrics of "Science Fiction Double Feature" from Richard O'Brian's Rocky Horror Picture Show, you may think he did. Andrews did use lots of skills though, but they were more of the acting variety than the scatological. While I love Andrews in Laura and, one of my favorite movie titles ever, I Was a Communist for the FBI, there's something about his portrayal of the skeptic whose foundations are shattered that I adore. Sadly, the same can't be said of his co-star Peggy Cummins. The actress was pleasant, but never added much to her character. In 2006, at the age of eighty one years old, Cummins attended a screening of Night of the Demon in Hertfordshire, UK where she saw her best known film for the first time.

Niall MacGinnis, who plays the Satanist Karswell, is full of gleeful goateed menace, and he nearly steals the whole film from Andrews. His most effective scene comes when Andrews' character comes to his house only to find the devil worshiper dressed as a clown attending to the village children. The dichotomy of his appearance and presence are stunning. (I also wonder if his appearance was at all an inspiration for the creepy clown at Damien's birthday party in The Omen as the makeup was quite similar.) There's one last actor I must mention. I knew I recognized wild eyed Brian Wilde in his role as hypnotized Satanist Hobart, but I could not figure out from where. All I needed to do was add 20 years to his face, and there he was, Foggy from the long running British comedy The Last of the Summer Wine. 

While Night of the Demon is not the goriest, most explicit, or newest film on this list, it is still as effective and chilling now as it was in 1957. While shoddy effects might take away slightly, the mood Tourneur imbued will never ebb. I do want to warn folks that the film suffered several cuts over the years, and the careful viewer is advised to look out for a complete 96 minute running time instead of the cut version which runs only 83. (I believe the popular version that is out on DVD now actually contains them both.)This ensures you don't miss a frame of Tourneur's masterpiece. That brings us to the end of the penultimate review on The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It, and with only one more film left to go, I'm sure there are plenty of guesses as to what it might be. I'm also sure that quite a few of you are correct, but if you guessed Little Nicky then you could not be more wrong. I suppose you're just going to have to join me back here tomorrow, on Halloween, to find out what film made the top of the list! Until then don't forget to keep scrolling down to check out the devilish picks of my hellaciously good friend Fran Goria!


Bugg Rating 

I've been friends with Fran Goria for a number of years, and she's long been my main horror loving cohort. She's also been a vital part of The Lair over the years contributing to the now defunct series "Ladies Night" as well as her ongoing posts "For the Love of Price" so she should be no stranger to my readers. For the fourth year in a row, she's also contributing to The Halloween Top 13, and I could not be more thrilled!

Reader List- Fran Goria

The devil made me write a top 5 list of possession films, so here it is (Editor's note: I made her do this, but I'm not the devil.....or am I?)

1. The Masque of Red Death (1964) Vincent Price, need I say more?

2. Evil Dead  (1981) Okay, technically not devil possession, but possession none the less.

3. Night of the Demons (1988) I thoroughly enjoyed this film, especially the space-filling impromptu Bauhaus video.

4 The Exorcist (1973) Linda Blair gets possessed by the devil, and crazy shit ensues.

5 Reposessed (1990) Linda Blair gets possessed by the devil (again), and crazy shit ensues...plus Leslie
Nealson.

And, an honorable mention for Mad Love  (1935). Aside from the mad doctor, the pianists' hands were possessed by an executed seriel killer.


HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM FRAN GORIA!

3 comments:

  1. So, my #1 choice is your #3, and my #2 choice is also your #2 choice! Nice synergy.

    I don't think we'll ever know the true answer to: "Did Tourneur want the demon in it or not?" All I know is that the film sure works great with it, whomever was responsible.

    The M. R. James short story "Casting the Runes" is well worth reading; Carswell is a very different bloke in that one.

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  2. Ryan, what can I say, we have great taste!

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  3. I love Night of the Demon - so atmospheric and moody, and like you mentioned - a wonderful tribute to Val Lewton whose best work was with Tourneur. Also, I had no idea Ray Harryhausen was invited to provide the effects for this! THAT could have been really something. Many people don't like the demon featured in the film - I have quite a soft spot for it. The way it emerges from the forest at the beginning, all swirling mist and strange sparks - is just magical.

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