"Night of the Demon" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
"Night of the Demon" (1957) is a British horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur. And oh what a missed opportunity. Why couldn't he and Val Lewton have made this picture together!
Over the years, for Halloween, I have reviewed the wonderful, classic Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s. The first three pictures Lewton produced were directed by Mr. Tourneur. I've often wondered how much control did Lewton have over these films. Sometimes the directors changed but the films mostly looked the same. The films Lewton and Tourneur did together are "The Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) and "The Leopard Man" (1943). I have reviewed all three of them. And each one of them is worth watching. They rank among the best films Lewton ever produced.
However watching "Night of the Demon" one can distinguish a difference in the way Tourneur directed this film and the way he worked with Lewton. The films with Lewton placed a heavy emphasis on lighting. We are constantly in the shadows. The effective touch of these movies was the violence always happened off-screen. We never saw the evil creatures which lurked around in those movies. What we don't see was thought to be scarier than what we do see. Our imagination could scare us more than anything which could have been shown to us. Sadly Tourneur forgot this principle.
Tourneur makes two mistakes in "Night of the Demon". He shows us the Demon twice. At the beginning of the movie and at the end. The Demon simply looks ridiculous. It does not look realistic at all. It looks like something left over from one of the "Sinbad" movies (or a Godzilla clone). But even the creatures in those movies were done with more artistry than what we have here. I don't know if they simply didn't have the technology back then or if Tourneur just didn't have the budget. But the Demon doesn't do what it is suppose to do; strike fear in our hearts.
Throughout the film we see drawings of what the Demon looks like. Tourneur should have left it at that. That would have been chilling. To look at those drawings and think that is what is attacking people is frightening. To actually see the beast, the way it looks here, causes us to pause for a moment and lessens our suspense. It wouldn't be fair though if I didn't point out there are rumors that Tourneur did not want to show the Demon but instead the studio (Columbia Pictures) put pressure on him to do so for commercial appeal. If true, yet another example of why producers should leave the movie making to the creative people, the directors.
Dana Andrews stars as Dr. John Holden. He has come to England after hearing about the death of Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham). Prof. Harrington has studied the supernatural. He and Dr. Holden are both skeptics and put they faith in science and logic. Harrington was going to expose a cult headed by Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) as fraud. Dr. Karswell and his followers are devil worshippers.
Dr. Holden soon meets Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins) the niece of the professor. She believes her uncle died under suspicious circumstances. The official report is Prof. Harrington died in a freak car accident when a telephone pole fell and the wires electrocuted him. But the professors body was found ripped to shreds. Also, from the professors diary, Joanna has learned that her uncle believed a curse had been put on him by Dr. Karswell.
None of this though is going to convince Dr. Holden. There is no such thing as Demons, witches and curses. Everything in life has a rational explanation. Dr. Holden decides it is time to meet Dr. Karswell. And Karswell is aware of why Dr. Holden has arrived, to continue Prof. Harrington's work. In order to convince Holden to stop his actions and to make him believe in his powers Dr. Karswell puts a curse on Dr. Holden. In three days, at precisely 10pm, he will die.
Back in the 1940s Val Lewton made a film about devil worshippers, "The Seventh Victim" (1943, I have reviewed it). I thought that movie didn't really take full advantage of all the possibilities involving such a cult. "Night of the Demon" doesn't either, but I prefer this film. It is much more suspenseful.
The only problem with "Night of the Demon", besides showing us the Demon, is the movie doesn't do enough to create an eerie mood. More scenes should have taken place at night. There should have been more done with the lighting and casting characters in shadows. Unexplainable occurrences should be happening to Dr. Holden. Nothing major, just small subtle events. A weird noise here and there. A missing object. A feeling of being followed.
Younger movie fans may find this material similar to a more recent horror film by Sam Raimi, "Drag Me To Hell" (2009). This is why I always try to tell younger viewers it is good to see these older titles. Movies existed before they were born. Hollywood today is constantly turning to the films of the past for creative ideas. The more films you see from the past, the better you can judge the movies of today.
Still, for all the little things I feel the movie does wrong, it does many things right. Forgetting the beginning and ending, the rest of the film has us playing guess work. Will Dr. Holden die? How can he stop it from happening? The film does build some suspense but, again, I have to go back to the mistake of showing us the Demon. Imagine how much more effective it would have been if even the existence of the Demon was in question. But, I suppose we can't harp on that. What's done is done.
"Night of the Demon" is an effective well made horror film. It doesn't have some of the big scares viewers may find in films like "Halloween" (1978) or "The Exorcist" (1973) but the film worked for me nonetheless. After watching this film please watch the films Tourneur did with Lewton.