Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
Review Author: Tony
Synopsis: Upon Dr. Holden’s arrival to expose a particular satanic cult in England, he becomes concerned after the death of a colleague and the constant confrontations of the cult’s leader Julian Karswell.
Part of my excitement of this week’s focus on classic horror films was to broaden my horizons and to visit the decades of filmmaking I have too often ignored. The 80s has always been my preferred era when it comes to horror due to the sheer campiness, dose of gore, and creativeness that was surely fueled by an insane amount of cocaine. Rather than just centre on the Universal classics, I’ve selected famous horror films that defined the decade they released. The 50s was very much science fiction and haunted house features, so I chose Night of the Demon for its reputation of exploring folk horror and science vs myth.
My favourite approach to horror is viewing it from a skeptics point of view, the moment where every sense of logical tangibility breaks down is where the terror truly ignites. Night of the Demon pits its protagonist, Dr. Holen, against an outdated and trivial belief in the occult and ancient myths that would appear laughable in the face of science except for the spiralling and unexplainable turn of events he finds himself tapped in. The atmosphere and encroaching sense of dread are masterful and set this film apart from many of its contemporaries of the decade.
Niall MacGinnis’ performance as Julian Karswell is the highlight of the film. Karswell steals every scene; never over-the-top or with lofty ambitions, he’s committed to defending his teachings (and by extension, source of wealth) and shattering the elitist scorn received by academics. Calm and collected, Karswell thrives of his confidence in his understanding of the occult and nonchalantly boasts his talents and expertise in the face of those looking to discredit him with logic and reason. The moments when the facade cracks, owing to Holden’s stubborn nature, you can hear the spite in Karswell, but these outbursts are brief and usually responded with dire consequences.
The titular demon plays second fiddle to Karswell throughout and is utilized more as a tool for the cult to silence enemies. The creature’s design might look hokey from screenshots, but it’s only two appearances, at the beginning and end, are incredibly effective and impactful. Director Jacques Tourneur was upset by the finished product of the film because of producer Hal E. Chester shooting the monster’s scenes behind his back. Tourneur was a masterful director who approached the horror genre with subtlety and a less-is-more approach. Usually I don’t side with the scumbag interfering producer or executive when undermining the directors’ vison, but thank god Chester did because the scenes where the demon materializes and approaches with pure menace and inevitability are memorable.
Night of the Demon was an absolute revelation to watch, the kind of film that can jump between genres, tones, and themes so effortlessly while delivering a film so endlessly endearing, spooky, intriguing and in good fun. Every scene is gripping, and the dialogue is so fantastically playful, even when our hero and villain are verbally sparring, it’s so jovial and sincere but with an underlying malice. I would consider this film one of the great British horror films, up there with The Wicker Man, 28 Days Later, and Kill List.
This review is a part of this month’s focus on horror films as part of Halloween season. You can find the full schedule, along with weekly subgenre and previous reviews here.
Rating: 5 / 5 Gin and Tonics