This fanged fiend is the title antagonist in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), in itself a tenebrous, sinister tale of terror. In it, greying film noir favorite Dana Andrews plays John Holden, an American psychologist in England to investigate the mysterious death of his rival, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham). Given that the film’s opening scene watches enthusiastically as Harrington is terrorized and eventually slaughtered by the aforementioned monster, suspicions that Holden might be putting himself in a great deal of danger thanks to his sleuthing are high.
Some time into his stay does it become evident that Harrington, who was probing the case of an accused murderer, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), might have crossed paths with a satanic cult to whom the latter might have had a connection. So when Holden meets the alleged leader of the group, the stubbly-chinned Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), and things start taking a turn for the alarming — like when Karswell casually announces that Holden’s going to die in just a few days — we’re sort of inclined to believe him.
In the investigation does Holden team up with Harrington’s luscious niece (Peggy Cummins), with he continuously grumbling that there’s an earthly explanation for all this and with she emphatically warning him that all the goings-on of the perusal coincidentally resemble the events leading up to her uncle’s death.
The plot’s even more complicated that, with a couple “twists” haphazardly thrown in to add bravado that end up only bewildering us more. A lot of Night of the Demon’s horror hokum (as soon as the efficiently papier-mâchéd demon makes an appearance, we’re inconsistent in deciding whether we're scared or vaguely irritated that they’re showing the beastie at all), its screenplay fit with plenty potential to be distinctly horrific even if that said horrificness is partially schlocky. Structurally, Night of the Demon’s a subpar horror show.
But visually, it’s a feasting of the macabre, howling winds, forested shadows, and occultist imagery expanding like an ink blot over the lily white silk that is Holden’s initially naive disbelief. Shadows consume the film akin to the way the eponymous demon rips up the bodies of its victims. No setting is safe, and not a moment passes in which we aren’t eagerly awaiting either the reappearance of the titular creature or the sinking feeling that follows a particular disquieting slice of horror imagery.
The optical perfection is expected from Tourneur: he directed Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), both of which are the most visually exciting horror movies of their decade. Night of the Demon, photographed by Ted Scaife, proudly wears a visual luster that proves that a genre picture can, in fact, underwhelm in its story and still thrill our senses when there’s enough creativity behind the camera.
Though we sense it could have been a better film had artistic differences not gotten in the way. Tourneur, along with the film’s head writer, Charles Bennett, championed the ambiguous and wanted the demon to only be a figment of the imagination, thus allowing us to better understand the confusing fear felt by Holden. But the producer, Hal E. Chester, ultimately had more power and forced the insertion of the physical monster in a last-minute attempt at cash grabbing. Still, Night of the Demon holds up especially as an artistic Everest in early horror. One wishes, though, that it didn’t feel ever so slightly tampered with. B+
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Night of the Demon
t appears in the middle of the night in a puff of smoke and fire, eyes mad and mouth dripping. It looks an awful lot like the scariest beings of folklore, say a more bloodthirsty rendition of Bigfoot or a more ferocious Chupacabra. It can only be summoned by black magic, and it only appears when the Devil sees fit. It is not rabid for rabidity’s sake, not animalistic for the sake of the security of the food chain. It is so carefully feral because it is a demon, meant to destroy or otherwise encourage the most grandiose of one’s nightmares.