Night of the Demon-1957
Starring-Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins
Scott’s Review #1,037
Reviewed June 25, 2020
There is something very soothing about 1950’s British horror films. Whether it’s the intelligence, the accents, or the elements, they differ from American horror films of the decade. Arguably, they are just better. The horror genre, already existing in cinema for decades, creates a clever story about a curse. Night of the Demon (1957) provides great visual effects within its black and white cinematography that are effective and make the look work well. That said, the hype surrounding this film as one of the greatest horror films of all time is unwarranted.
When I think of the greatest of all horror films, selections such as Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) come to the forefront on the American front while Peeping Tom (1960) and Frenzy (1972) must be mentioned as for British films. Night of the Demon, while above average and having risen to prominence and rediscovery as a cult classic doesn’t completely deliver the goods.
To provide a bit of contextual background, the film was plagued with issues and differences of opinion that are plausible proof of messiness upon dissection. The original ninety-five-minute British feature was trimmed down to eighty-three minutes and re-titled Curse of the Demon for the United States market, playing there in 1958 as the second half of a double feature. Additionally, there was a dispute between director and producer whether to show the creature on-screen. Producer edited footage before release which results in continuity issues. Night of the Demon is the pure British version.
Dana Andrews, best known for The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, stars as Doctor John Holden, an American psychology professor who visits Britain to attend a conference led by the deceased Professor Harrington. Harrington is killed by electrocution after seeing a creature emerge from the trees. His niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) also arrives to attend her uncle’s funeral and teams with Holden to determine a connection between Harrington and satanic cultist, Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). The cultist lives with his mother in a lavish stately manner.
Let’s outline what works best in Night of the Demon. The visual aspects are superb and deserving of accolades. During a party at the Karswell home, the cultist wills a swirling windstorm to develop that is as frightening as it is realistic. Of curiosity is whether Alfred Hitchcock studied this scene to a similar one in The Birds (1963) where the female star shuffles a group of children at a party in from danger. The scene is professional and authentic.
The climax of the film, amid a dark train track, is one of the best. The ambiance is frightful and well-paced, just what a finale to a film is supposed to be. Karswell, eventually followed by a piece of parchment with runic writing on it, supposedly part of an ancient curse, is terrifying. It’s like he is being chased and pursued. Holden can pass the curse (meant for him) back to Karswell, who is inevitably ripped to ribbons by a speeding train. Why is a scene of peril amid a train always so compelling? The sense of adventure, dread, horror, and the macabre, all reconvene in this important scene. Naturally, the creature reappears.
The romance between Holden and Joanna is mediocre at best and unnecessary to the main plot of the film. It’s as if someone decided a romance was needed between the male and female principles and Holden and Joanna were it. There is little chemistry nor do the duo need to be romantically intertwined- it serves little purpose other than providing them with a reason to sleuth together. The decision seems more like a measure of cinematic tradition of that time than any real story purpose. It’s not an irritant, nor is it a positive.
The creature is not scary, and the film would have been better leaving it out. Sometimes, especially in horror, what is not seen is scarier than what is scene. The creature is preliminary and amateurish at best and provides no fright value. It appears to be made of clay or plastic.
Night of the Demon (1957) is a horror film that I would like to see again and perhaps study deeper. It contains rich special effects and wonderful black and white cinematography that enrich the visual treats. The story of an ancient curse and a riveting speeding train climax that would make Hitchcock take notice are praiseworthy. But I still do not understand the greatest of the horror greats categorization.