“Well, the sense of being watched whenever one was alone was the most distressing thing to him. After a time I took to sleeping in his room, and he was the better for that: still, he talked a great deal in his sleep. What about? Is it wise to dwell on that, at least before things are straightened out?”
– “Casting the Runes,” M.R. James
“There are sacraments of evil as well as good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.”
– “The Red Hand,” Arthur Machen
Dr. John Holden: I see you practice white magic as well as black.
Dr. Julian Karswell: Oh yes, I don't think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them.
-- Night of the Demon (1957)
The films of Jacques Tourneur are often typified by intricate plots set against shifting, illusionary atmospheres in which much of what seems obvious at first to both the protagonist and his audience is proven to be less straightforward than it first appeared and in which an apparent belief is often proven – often with terrible consequences – to be false. In the realm of the film noir, Tourneur demonstrated this sensibility with powerful effect in Out of the Past, creating the deadly Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) as the archetypal femme fatale who lures the half-willing protagonist (Robert Mitchum) to his death by allowing him to fall in love with what he imagines her character to be and disillusioning him with her true nature only when he is already under her spell. It is little surprise, then, that Tourneur made his name not so much as a director of noirs but as the talented helmsman of a number of subtly directed and imaginatively plotted horror films, many of them produced under the auspices of Val Lewton. Yet though Tourneur’s well-deserved fame lies in such classics as I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People, it is in the more obscure 1957 supernatural horror film Night of the Demon that the auteur not only equals his previous fame in the genre, but in many ways surpasses his own ability to invert established conventions and to surprise out of both his protagonist and his audience a sense of unease both fundamental to the horror experience and, in many ways, particular to the subgenre of supernatural terror.
Based on a tale by English ghost story author M.R. James (1862-1936), Night of the Demon centers around the death of an eminent professor who, before his untimely death, was in the process of exposing a Satanic cult headed by a Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Fellow psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), determined to uncover a non-supernatural explanation for his colleague’s seemingly supernatural death, travels to England, interviewing several other colleagues as well as the murdered man’s niece Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins) in order to learn more about the details surrounding Harrington’s last days. Rather than uncovering evidence pointing to a “natural” murder, however, he begins to find clues that seem to point to black magic as the only solution. Naturally, he spends a good deal of the film as a stalwart skeptic, attempting to disregard this theory as implausible; it is only when he himself falls under a similar curse that he at last realizes that, if he wishes to survive, he must acknowledge the terrifying existence of the shadowy supernatural world that he had spent all of his life attempting to explain away in scientific terms. The film ends with the successful defeat of the sorcerer Karswell (he is, like every good Faustus, dismembered by the demon that he has been ritually summoning throughout the entire film) and with Holden’s realization that his formerly materialistic perspective is, of course, forever untenable in light of all that he has experienced.
The plot’s murder-mystery construction causes one to inevitably draw a comparison between the film’s premise and the school of “rational” supernatural horror emergent in the late eighteenth-century and officiated by the mistress of the Gothic, Anne Radcliffe (authoress of the infamous Mysteries of Udolpho). This comparison, however, would prove misleading. Members of the Radcliffean school crafted lengthy and elaborate plots hinging upon seemingly supernatural events – all of which would be explained away at the novel’s often vaguely bewildering and interminable conclusion as the charlatanry of duplicitous murderers and schemers. A product of Enlightenment thought, the Radcliffean “rationalist” supernatural authors stood in direct opposition to true supernatural horror authors who wrote Gothic novels at the same time: authors such as Matthew Lewis (The Monk), Charles Robert Maturin (Melmoth the Wanderer, Fatal Revenge), and John Polidori (“The Vampyre”). Indeed, this unacknowledged war continued into the age of the Victorians – Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Stoker’s Dracula being the towering, representative legionaries from these two respective literary camps during the late nineteenth-century.
It would be a logical assumption to believe that with the rise of Darwinism and accelerated scientific discovery in the early twentieth-century, that the true supernatural horror tale would fall somewhat out of favor. Curiously enough, the opposite proved to be true; with the rise of materialism, Nietzschean thought, and Freudianism, there also rose some of Western culture's most infamous occultists such as Montague Summers, Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – all of them standing in direct opposition to the growing tide of skeptical thought that suffused much of Western philosophical thought at the time. Many members of occult orders such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood were more famously known as supernatural horror authors and, though he was not himself an occultist, Professor M.R. James himself was a member of this self-same literary (and, in light of the rise of materialism, revolutionary) movement, crafting many fine ghostly tales besides “Casting the Runes,” all of them of the truest non-rational order.
Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett faithfully follow the mood of James’ subtle masterpiece, deftly blending the gentle, Old World atmosphere of the English countryside with the ever omnipresent, hovering fear of a supernatural underworld existing beneath the surface and threatening to erupt upon the moors, into the mansions, or – and perhaps even more disquieting – into the conference rooms of materialist scientists at any moment. But more importantly, the film successfully maintains the original tale’s ploy of constructing a deceptively Radcliffean, murder-mystery-esque plot only to turn this plot on its head and show that the gruesome, masked figures are – terrifyingly – wearing no masks at all. To a practiced auteur such as Tourneur, such a horrific inversion of convention came all too naturally.
Much of the film’s subtly subversive supernaturalism is derived from the atypical characterizations of the hero Dr. Holden and his sinister opponent Karswell. In many horror films of the period, the psychologist was portrayed as a sort of materialist equivalent of the priestly Van Helsing: a character who understands the minds of men better than they themselves do and who can even use this knowledge for certain maleficent ends himself. Whether good or evil, it was characteristic of all psychologists to be portrayed in serious cinema as learned, wise, and usually the guiding influence or omnipresent antagonist of the hero. Likewise, Dana Andrews, famed for his portrayal of hard-boiled protagonists in films such as Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), was typically cast in the role of a reliable, intelligent hero whom the audience could trust to make the correct decisions in spite of his wily, witty villains. With these conventions in mind, nothing prepares us for the platitudinous, unimaginative Dr. Holden in Night of the Demon. Most protagonists in horror films must maintain a certain skepticism in order to remain believable; but in Dr. John Holden, skepticism is heightened to a nearly pathological pitch until the audience, rather than experiencing sympathy for his plight, is coerced into feeling a certain impatience instead. Conventionally handsome, well-educated, and American, his character’s presence in a film set in England with a British-heavy cast stands as the mascot of straightforward, scientific, rationalist, modern America – and the portrayal is hardly flattering.
Dr. John Holden: Joanna, let me tell you something about myself. When I was a kid, I used to walk down the street with the other kids and when we came to a ladder they'd all walk around it. I'd walk under it, just to see if anything would happen. Nothing ever did. When they'd see a black cat they'd run the other way to keep it from crossing their path. But I didn't. And all this ever did for me is make me wonder why – why people get so panicky about absolutely nothing at all. I've made a career studying it. Maybe just to prove one thing. That I'm not a superstitious sucker like ninety per cent of humanity.
Conversely, Karswell is portrayed as the exact antithesis of Holden in almost every way imaginable. Older, British, and (unsurprisingly) more supernaturally inclined, Karswell confesses at one point that he worked at one point as a stage-show magician: a most inauspicious beginning in comparison to Holden’s professorship. He is the living symbol of Old World, old-fashioned, “backward”-thinking. Yet, perversely, the film’s cinematography and screenplay – as well as the plot itself – force the audience to acknowledge Karswell as the wiser of the two: whilst Holden’s face in a number of shots is filmed in shadow, giving a visual emphasis to his doubts and uncertainties regarding his environment, Karswell is nearly always filmed in either broad daylight or in the clear, unbroken light of a parlor or drawing room. Likewise, while Holden merely parrots his tired arguments, Karswell’s dialogue is appropriately ambiguous and yet redolent of a certain secret knowledge:
Dr. Julian Karswell: Do I believe in witchcraft? What kind of witchcraft? The legendary witch that rides on the imaginary broom? The hex that tortures the thoughts of the victim? The pin stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body?
Dr. John Holden: Also imaginary.
Dr. Julian Karswell: But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?
The casting of Niall MacGinnis as the sinister conjuror was yet another stroke of calculated genius. Four years after playing Martin Luther in the eponymous film, MacGinnis maintains many of the mannerisms of the wise, knowledgeable visionary whilst subtly imbuing them with an added quality of underlying ruthlessness. Karswell is a man who at one moment may be innocuously hosting a Halloween party for the village children and the next moment setting a demon against one of his enemies. One has only to watch the scenes in which he calmly and pleasantly reminds Holden of Holden’s forthcoming curse-induced death, in order to witness Bennett’s fine screenwriting capabilities and the sadly underrated talents of one of England’s finest thespians.
The one scene in which science attempts to take some degree of control occurs towards the end of the film when Holden and his colleagues hypnotize one of Karswell’s cultists with the purpose of gaining some knowledge of the inner-workings of the cult. Ironically, this scientific triumph concludes in a further proof of the existence of the supernatural. When Professor O’Brien asks the man what the true “believer” in Karswell’s teachings must adhere to, the cultist replies that it is those “who blaspheme and desecrate. In the joy of sin will mankind that is lost, find itself again.” To Holden, who has been constantly avowing his disbelief in any sort of supernatural source for evil, this testimony is ridiculous. However, in the context of Tourneur’s cinematic nightmare, it is a terrifying and logical fact.
Indeed, the film’s conclusion magnificently encapsulates the collision of ancient, supernatural evil with modern materialism. As the demon descends to destroy Karswell, a train rushes past in the opposite direction so that the train and the monster seem to head towards each other at opposite ends of the horizon. The effect creates a visual parallel and visual contrast between the smoking train and the fiery demon – one an inhabitant of the so-called primitive shadowland of myth and the other the result of human technology. Unsettlingly, this parallel both asks and answers the question of which one of the two is the more powerful.
Though films such as The Exorcist are given well-deserved credit for portraying the encroachment of the supernatural into the world of ordinary, modern society, it may be argued after this general overview that Tourneur’s Night of the Demon is something of an earlier, drawing-room version of the same concept – a concept that has been propounded and explored by supernatural horror authors since the advent of the Gothic novel. Tourneur, with his brilliant casting decisions and faithfulness to M.R. James’ original concept, created a work of art out of this familiar idea that is certainly worth watching and studying for both its qualities as an excellent film and its achievements as a genuinely unsettling horror movie.