Saturday 20 January 2007

Night of the Demon (1957) Jacques Tourneur

Back in the days before the eighties slasher boom, horror movies were based on work from the classics, not just the really obvious ones by Edgar Allan Poe but other great works seemingly known only to those connossieurs of the genre, like in this case, Casting the Runes by classic ghost story writer M R James. When not just based on great material but made by great filmmakers like Jacques Tourneur, who has a few classics on his resume: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, all for producer Val Lewton; The Comedy of Terrors for Roger Corman; and even non-genre greats like the film noir Out of the Past, which now has a firm spot on the Top 250.

Professor Harrington finds his way at a rapid pace to Lufford Hall to talk Dr Karswell out of doing something dangerous with the supernatural. Karswell doesn't oblige and Harrington heads home only to find himself confronted by a hideous demon and a quick death. Flying in from America to investigate all of this sort of thing is Dr John Holden, played with crusading skepticism by Dana Andrews. He finds himself battling Karswell, who has predicted his death on an exact date, the same prediction he had given to Harrington.

This film works on plenty of levels. It's an intelligent treatment of the source material made by a superb cast led by Andrews and Niall MacGinnis, as Karswell, but continuing all the way down to the supporting actors like Reginald Beckwith, Liam Redmond and Peter Elliott; a thrilling and tense journey into the supernatural, complete with a wicked and memorable demon; and battles between light and dark, skepticism and belief and two individual people. Films like this are rare, because genre filmmakers generally don't have the talent for art and composition, and especially the power of shadow, that Tourneur has, and they're either too afraid or too stupid to value the intelligence of their viewers by showing something of quality.

When writing my IMDb Project review for The Great Escape, I realised just how much has changed in the last few decades, by noticing how many cool things were just there on the screen. They didn't do anything dynamic, other than just be there where they ought to be, to look realistic and make the scene right. Nowadays everything on screen has to be a prop and props have to be used. It means that we can write many modern film scripts in our head a couple of minutes ahead of the real ones, while watching, and be spot on more often than not. This, thankfully, comes from the days where that wasn't the case.

Incidentally, I saw this film, usually titled Night of the Demon, under the American title of Curse of the Demon, which was originally cut by twelve minutes, presumably to dumb it down, but later restored to its full length. I'm thankful for that too, because like most people that modern filmmakers ignore, I'm not afraid to see films that contain talk and intelligence as well as action. This is all the more tense for its background and it's mastery at work.

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