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.
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: