This classic adaptation of M.R. James's short story, "Casting the Runes", opens with a forbidding iconic image of Stonehenge before it transposes into an atmospheric sequence depicting a frantic night-time car dash through some shadowy woodlands. The British horror film, "Night of the Demon" is a deft combination of director Jacques Tourneur's noir-based shadow horror (inspired by his '40s films for legendary producer, Val Lewton: "Cat People", "I Walked with a Zombie", and "The Leopard Man") and British author M.R. James's beautifully crafted ghost stories, where ancient legends are brought to life on the printed page in the form of the author's malignant supernatural entities. The film's original screenplay was written by Charles Bennett, who was also known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock in his early British period of the '30s on such films as "The 39 Steps" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much"; and Bennett and Tourneur intended the film to be a serious attempt to recapture the psychological ambiguity of the old Lewton cannon. Made in vivid black-and-white — just as Hammer Films were revolutionising British horror with their lush Technicolor versions of Frankenstein and Dracula — it abounds in Tourneur's trademark use of shadows and light, while Bennett adds some sequences to James's original source material that heighten suspense in a typical Hitchcockian manner, and are realised by Tourneur with a flair that equals the master of suspense at his finest.
But executive producer Hal E. Chester partially rewrote Bennett's script and demanded that the entity, which stalks all those affected by the evil Dr. Karswell's parchment curse, and remains ambiguous and always off-screen in the original draft (in emulation of Lewton's confounding of the psychological and the supernatural), be shown in all its model glory. George Banger Blackwell, Elstree Studio's special effects supremo, created a monster based on Medieval woodcut depictions of the Devil and although it comes over a bit rubbery and Godzilla-ish, it is made to materialise with such a well-staged sense of dreadful expectation and terror, and with such convincing materialisation special effects, that it works anyway — despite the potential for cheeziness.
Critical opinion often sides with Bennett and Tourneur, who deplored this b-movie monster approach to the story, but despite our seeing this fanged demonic creature, flailing and gnashing in the sky as it solidifies from a billowing, luminous cloud to descend on its victims, we are only ever seeing what the person under the curse is seeing — who is the only person within the narrative who is able to view the materialisation — so the possibility of hallucination or hypnotism being commandeered to account for events always remains a possibility for most of the film.
The battle between a scientific, psychological understanding of the occult and the supernatural, para-psychological one, forms the backbone of the story as well as informing its main theme and defining Tourneur's approach. American psychology professor, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in Britain to take part in a symposium on the paranormal, in which his colleague, Professor Harrington, plans to give evidence about the activities of a certain Dr Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Harrington has interviewed a former member of a satanic cult, allegedly run by Karswell (Jame's character is based on the notorious occultist, Aleister Crowley) , and the professor has written a paper on the mind control techniques that he believes Karswell must be using in order to make his followers believe that he has such a diabolical power over their lives.
However, when Holden arrives he finds Harrington is dead, and his beautiful blonde daughter (Peggy Cummins) believes Karswell's powers are real, and are responsible for her father's death! Harrington had also become convinced, in his final days, that he was under the malign influence of a curse placed on him by Karswell in order to stop him from giving his lecture and exposing his cult. The skeptical Holden will have none of this, of course; but after the flamboyant Karswell turns up at the library where Holden is reading-up on his friend's past research, the psychologist begins to experience unnerving portents of doom: hotel corridors seem to extend into shadowy infinity, and while looking around Karswell's mansion he hallucinates a snarling panther materialising out of the darkness (a scene that recalls the climax to "Cat People") which disappears as quickly as it apparently appeared from nowhere.
Holden and Joanna Harrington discover that Karswell's curse apparently summons a demon who materialises a week after a parchment (which calls-up the entity) has been handed over and accepted freely by the victim. To his bemusement, Holden discovers that Karswell had indeed slipped a piece of parchment into one of the library books he took out — a book handed to him by Karswell, thereby fulfilling the conditions needed for the curse to take effect! Holden refuses to believe that there is anything more than psychological manipulation going on, but as the date of his predicted doom draws nearer, Holden is witness to increasingly strange events: Karswell is able to summon a cyclone out of nowhere on a beautiful English summer day; the parchment seems to want to escape into the fire of its own accord (so that the curse cannot be transferred to another party); and, when Karswell's worried mother (Athene Seylor) invites both Holden and Joanna to a ridiculously quaint Victorian-style seance, Joanna's father comes through from the other side to warn Holden of the imminent danger. This séance scene is just one of a number of set-pieces that elevate the film way above the b-movie monster feature that Tourneur worried would be the result of Hal Chester's changes: it moves from wryly observed satirical comedy (the highly-strung medium's outlandish spirit controls and the awkward hymn singing that precedes the main event) to unnerving creepiness when the male medium starts speaking in a squealing child's voice.
Predictably, the film ends firmly on the side that sees all the diabolical forces as being real, and its poor beleaguered rationalist hero's sensible skepticism is comprehensively debunked by the final moments of the movie; but his antitheses, the mischievous Dr Karswell, who entertains kiddies on the grounds of his Georgian-era estate with his "Bobo the Magnificent" magic show, is not as in control of the devilish forces he unleashes as he would have us believe. As the tension builds, Tourneur stages a beautifully judged suspense scene, which takes place, in true Hitchcock spirit, on a train — when Karswell and Holden meet and they both know that Holden has to find some way of getting Karswell to accept the parchment and transfer the curse to him. The climactic night-time sequence, with Karswell stumbling along the side of the train tracks as the entity he has summoned threatens to materialise at any moment, is one of Tourneur's — and the film's — most Lewton-esque moments; and the film has since become a landmark of British horror, finishing the '50s boom instituted by Hammer's first Quatermass movies with a dark devilish flourish.
The Columbia Tristar DVD doesn't feature any extras but it does offer a very nice anamorphic print and gives us both the original, full-length British cut of the movie and the shorter American theatrical print (which goes under the name of "Curse of the Demon").