The Night of the Demon

The Night of the Demon

I recently came across the DVD of the movie “Night of the Demon” (1957) at work and decided to check it out since I have never seen it in its original form. Having watched the trimmed down US version (dubbed “Curse of the Demon” to avoid confusion with the film “Night of the Iguana”, which was current at the time of its Stateside debut) as a boy, my memories of it were vague so I didn’t know what to expect.

Cover for the Pan 1955 edition of "More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary", by M.R. James, which features the tale "Casting the Runes".

The film, based on the tale “Casting the Runes” by famed British ghost story writer M.R. James, is considered one of the classics of the Horror film genre but not without reservation. The director, Jacques Tourneur, was known for the subtle Horror films he directed at RKO with producer Val Lewton and had worked with the “Night of the Demon” screenplay writer, Charles Bennett, on creating a suspenseful supernatural thriller, but apparently, there was a big controversy over producer Hal E. Chester’s insertion of a rubbery looking “demon” in post production, which neither the director nor the screenplay writer had wanted. The debate over the wisdom of its inclusion persists nearly sixty years on.

Poster for "Curse of the Demon", U.S. title for "The Night of the Demon" (1957).

The plot as summarized by garykmcd, a contributor to the Internet Movie Database, is thus: “Psychologist Dr. John Holden travels to London to attend a conference on the paranormal. He’s actually going there to debunk these activities but finds on arrival that his collaborator, Professor Henry Harrington, has died in a strange accident. Harrington’s niece Joanna isn’t so quick to dismiss paranormal activity and believes that the subject of their investigation, Dr. Julian Karswell, had placed a Runic curse on her uncle. Unable to get certain book from the British Museum, Holden accepts Karswell’s offer to visit him and borrow his own copy. There he learns that Karswell was once a magician, which fits in well with his view that paranormal activity is just so much hocus pocus. Soon after he and Joanna return to London, he finds that Karswell has place (sic) a similar curse among his own papers. Slowly, Holden comes to realize that the dangers are very real and he must find a way to rid himself of the death sentence that has been placed on him.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050766/plotsummary)

As I is my custom, I hunted down the original story online and read it to compare with the film and found it to be in essence faithful with some minor changes to flesh out the tale and give it some mass appeal. The addition of a female character gave it some romance and the villain of the story, Karswell, is fleshed out and made into a charming devil with a pointy beard and a sharp wit. The relationship between Harrington and Holden, as portrayed in the film, is similar to the one between Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, from X-Files, with the roles reversed as the female lead here is the believer and her partner is the unbelieving skeptic.

My only real complaint about the movie is the handling of the climactic scene on the train, which in the story is very suspenseful but in the movie is rendered ineffective by the  awkward inclusion of the kidnapping of the female lead, which never happens in the story. In “Casting the Runes”, the main characters, Messrs Dunning (the story’s counterpart to Holden) & Harrington contrive to trick Karswell into willfully taking a cursed slip of paper and acknowledging it as his own. Since Karswell has never seen the men before in person, they have that advantage, but Karswell is wary and watches the two suspicious strangers like a hawk, making their task it all the more difficult. This brilliantly written scene however is forsaken in the film for a confrontation between Karswell and Holden over the female Harrington.

Granted, the original ending of the story is a little less thrilling than the movie’s payoff with the appearance of the demon, which shows up to dispatch the “chosen” victim. So, in the end, maybe Mr. Chester was right.

Relevant Links

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_demon

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Casting_the_Runes

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050766/

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