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Published on June 2nd, 2010 | by Stan


Curse of the Night of the Demon

It’s in the trees! It’s coming!

I knew this line from Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love long before I saw the film from which she borrowed it: Night of the Demon (1957), called Curse of the Demon in its shorter American cut. Jacques Tourneur’s eerie suspense film has become something of a cult and critical favourite, but it was out of print for many years and took a while to find its audience; the same director’s early-1940s Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie probably still have a higher profile.

Night of the Demon is based loosely on Casting the Runes, a sinister short story by M. R. James. The film script adapts its outline, and at a lively pace plays up the fashionable tensions between scepticism and credulity, rationalism and paranormal possibility. Niall MacGinnis steals the acting show as Karswell, a charismatic and sympathetic villain apparently modelled on Aleister Crowley, but even he is upstaged by the demon itself, a dramatic, faintly silly but unforgettable incarnation based on ancient woodcuts of the Great Beast.

screenshot from Night of the Demon

Revealing the demon in the film was a point of major dispute between producer Hal E. Chester, who sought early and prolonged exposure of it, and Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett, who wanted to reveal it in just a few frames near the end. Chester resolved the impasse by hiring a blacklisted director to shoot footage which he then inserted into the film, against the director’s and writer’s wishes. Bennett later said of Chester, “If he walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.” There was enough drama and contention behind the scenes for a book to be written about it (though I haven’t read it).

Despite bitter artistic differences, the producer’s decision to give the audience more monster than mystique may be to the film’s advantage, and Night of the Demon worked out exceptionally well. Stephen King, John Carpenter and Martin Scorsese all love it, while Sam Raimi seems to have drawn heavily on it for Drag Me To Hell, his recent foray into the realm of hexes and demons. Much as I like Raimi’s films, at least sometimes, his blood-soaked cartoon mallet approach to horror is a world apart from Tourneur’s understated style that relies more on atmosphere, wit, suggestion, and psychological disturbance. Night of the Demon has more in common with Night of the Eagle than with Night of the Living Dead, and it stands out as one of the best supernatural dramas from the mid-twentieth century.

Like one who, on a lonely road / Doth walk in fear and dread, / And having once turned round walks on, / And turns no more his head; / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, some of which is quoted in Casting the Runes.

Trailer for Night of the Demon:

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About the Author

Stan is a freelance writer and editor. He blogs about the English language at Sentence first and can also be found on Twitter.

6 Responses to Curse of the Night of the Demon

  1. Darren Byrne says:

    Wow – I saw this so so many years ago. It stayed with me. It was one of the movies that inspired my love of horror originally.

    “If this world is ruled by demons and monsters, we may as well give up right now.”

  2. Emlyn says:

    I LOVE this movie. One of the best British horror movies ever made, and full of atmosphere. Yes, the demon inserts are a bit hokey, but never detract from the overall movie. A classic (shame they don’t really make them like this anymore). I can definatly see how this influenced ‘Drag Me To Hell’, but yes, that film relys more on gore and cartoon horror than simple creepy atmosphere. There is also an ITV adaptation of ‘Casting The Runes’ from 1980ish. Relys on a creepy atmosphere too, but suffers from hokey production values.

    I would recommend M.R.James to any lover of ghost story/horror fiction. You can usually find his collected works in Penguin paperback. My favourite ghost story writer. Some of the old BBC adaptations are fantastic if you can ever see them (especially ‘A Warning To The Curious’ and ‘Whistle, and I’ll Come To You’). All atmosphere.

    And i believe Kate Bush’s brother actually spoke those lines from ‘Hounds of Love’ becuse they couldn’t clear the copyright…either way, sounds the same in a classic song 😉

  3. Stan says:

    Darren: Glad to hear you’re a fan! I’d love to have seen it when I was young. Even coming to it late and with fairly high expectations, it made a very good impression on me.

    Emlyn: Yes, the demon is a bit hokey, but it’s hard to imagine it any other way once you’ve seen it. Showing it early on makes some scenes still more tense, because we know the awful truth behind the mysterious white light in the forest.
    Never saw the ITV adaptation, but I’ll happily second your recommendation of M. R. James — a must for lovers of traditional ghost stories.

  4. Emlyn says:

    @ Stan – Agreed. If they showed the demon late in the film, then it may have unintentionally ruined any build-up (almost a reverse of ‘Jaws’). And yep, it makes the forest scene that more frightening. The scenes of the demon appearing in distance smoke is also pretty spooky stuff.

  5. Peter Balfe says:

    Nice review of one of my favourite films. Haven’t seen it in ages now though.

    And bonus points for quoting one of my favourite poems by Coleridge!

  6. Stan says:

    Emlyn: Spooky is the word. It’s not going to give a seasoned horror fan any nightmares, but it has that quality of vintage matinee creepiness that pervades M. R. James’s stories.

    Peter: Thanks. It’s a few years since I saw it myself, and it’s definitely one I’ll revisit.

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