My favorite thing about taking these weekly trips to the Drive-In is my own selfish thirst for discovery. I need to patch up the holes of missing films on my personal movie screen; there is still so much to see, and sometimes the holes are so big that they obscure the view. Every once in a while though, a film comes along that not only mends the tears in the fabric but strengthens the whole. Such is the case with Night of the Demon (1957), Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece of shadowy menace and dread, and a new personal favorite.

Released in its native U.K. in December and then stateside in July of ’58 under the new title Curse of the Demon (where 13 minutes were trimmed from an already lean 95 minute running time), this Columbia Pictures production was fraught with anguish before it even appeared to audiences, most famously producer Hal E. Chester’s insistence on adding a lot more of the titular monster than Tourneur wanted. Regardless which side of the rails you fall on in that debate (more on that later), Night of the Demon casts a spell that is impossible to shake.

Our film opens on Stonehenge, with ominous voiceover warning us of the foibles of man, gifted with the lamentable power of conjuring demons through the use of runic symbols. We then cut to Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham – Shout at the Devil) racing in his car at night to the opulent residence of Doctor Karswell (Niall MacGinnis – The Torture Garden). It seems that time has run out for poor old Harrington, as the clock has shot to zero on the curse appointed him by Karswell, a practitioner of the dark arts. The prof’s death sets the plot in motion, as professional skeptic and psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews – The Satan Bug), on route to England for a conference on the paranormal, meets Harrington’s daughter Joanna (Peggy Cummins – Gun Crazy) as she tries to find out what happened to her father.

While Holden is initially dismissive, his increasingly combative encounters with Karswell lead him to be targeted next by the occultist; and the more Holden uncovers, the greater his belief in the supernatural becomes. Assigned three days left to live, can he stop his own personal visit from the otherworldly forces before his time runs out?

I’m skimping on plot details because Night of the Demon has its place in the canon of horror films for several good reasons; coming at a time when the genre du jour was Sci-fi, it dared to tackle the occult and its belief system in a serious yet witty way. The many discourses between Holden and Karswell, or Holden and the other professors, speak of the occult not as a fairy tale or a children’s Boogeyman, but rather as something worthy of serious consideration, and it’s this gravity that Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps) count on to set the insidious mood. Working with Hitchcock honed Bennett’s skills beyond reproach; Night moves at a relentless pace, even during the sly conversational breaks. And it’s through these talks that the menace is insinuated; no, promised actually, in a masterful setup: A parchment with runic writings is hidden on Holden’s property, which essentially tags him with the ancient monster, and his life clock starts ticking from three days to none when the uninvited guest will come knocking. Of course, this very scenario would go on to be used for the Ringu films, Drag Me to Hell, and several more. And it’s not that they’re ripping off Night; this is a suspense equation, a variation on Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” principle – the anxiety doesn’t arise from the detonation, but rather the anticipation – because we already know what is coming for Holden.

The tension is increased tenfold by Turneur’s sorcery of shadows and the unknown lurking within. Every room, every hallway, holds the unseen until it is too late. Cinematographer Edward Scaife (The Dirty Dozen) captures the growing paranoia perfectly; especially when the demon gives chase, first through a swirling funnel of fog as it nears the next unlucky sacrifice. The film oozes with claustrophobic intent; in addition to the funnel clouds, hallways, tunnels, train cars are all wrapped in darkness, ever closing in. Nothing captures doubt and uncertainty better than black and white photography; it levels the playing field against such signifiers of maliciousness like color schemes – sometimes evil can’t be marked so easily.

Night terrifies not only through sight, but mind as well; Karswell demystifies the occult to the point of plausibility, treating it as just another branch of science to be studied, but for his own gain, not mankind’s – he treats it like a business. And that’s what the victims are; they’re merely an impersonal debt on behalf of Karswell, a transaction in order to keep himself alive. MacGinnis’ jovial portrayal belies a desperate character who’ll do anything to hold on to his worldly possessions and life. It’s a fantastic performance in a film filled with good ones; Andrews is rigid and obstinate as Holden; all reason and logic even after he starts to come around to having his beliefs challenged – perhaps he could be a little more rattled when the unbelievable happens, but he and Cummins (as well as more substantial than usual supporting characters) acquit themselves with enough earnestness to sell the material.

And now the matter of that demon, seen by some as a pesky albatross hanging around the neck of a classic genre film, sullying a reputation that would otherwise remain untarnished. Tourneur only wanted four frames of the beast shown during the train station climax, leaving the audience to be unsure of their reality; was it the mind conjuring the ancient evil, or was it really happening? Certainly a subtle (and noble) approach, but producer Chester only aspired to bring in teenagers, who seemingly could only grasp the tangible. So extraneous footage was inserted without the director’s consent at the beginning and the end, leaving nothing to the imagination and in some people’s eyes, cheapening Bennett and Tourneur’s vision.

I really don’t believe this to be true. First of all the demon works on screen, other than extreme close ups where it resembles a horned piñata more than it does a 3,000 year old nether being. But with a bit of distance and perspective, it’s impressive – never more so than upon summoning, a literal tornado from hell. And I don’t think it distracts from Tourneur’s aim, but rather enhances it – it is a film designed for suspense, and I for one actually like to have the bomb go off; I need that release. The allure of the film is so strong (and I’ve purposely left out details of the strange and wonderful séance, the attack at the manor, the kids birthday party, and on and on) that even if the demon footage wasn’t seamlessly integrated it would still work. Make no mistake; if you stay open to this film’s frequency, it will vibrate unlike any other horror film of the ‘50s.

And so I continue to patch up the holes on my screen; it never ends and I hope it never will. I’m just grateful to have witnessed Night of the Demon; a piece of magical fabric that has markedly improved my view, and if you haven’t seen it, prepare your needle and thread. Now if you’ll excuse me, I see some holes up in the corner that need mending. As we all know, a horror lover’s work is never done.

Night of the Demon is available on DVD as a double feature with Curse of the Demon from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.