- Night of the Demon review by Count Otto Black
This almost-brilliant but flawed semi-masterpiece is very good indeed some of the time, but at other times it flags badly. Part of the problem is that its source material, "Casting The Runes" by M. R. James, is a short story (easily available online if you want to compare it with this adaptation), therefore in order to spin it out to an hour and a half, a lot of subplots have to be inserted wherever they'll fit, and some fit better than others. For instance, would a man who is going to be torn apart by an actual demon from hell in a few days really take time out from trying to escaping his ghastly fate while he awkwardly romances some girl he's just met?
The best scenes are those lifted more or less directly from the source material. The demon, though almost inescapable, cannot strike before a set time has passed, but as the deadline approaches, the hints that something is closing in on the victim become more and more blatant, and nightmarishly surreal happenings that uneasily skirt the borders between hallucination, coincidence, and downright devilry literally dog his footsteps. Jacques Tourneur, always better at portraying implied psychological horror than in-your-face nastiness, handles this material superbly, especially the scene in which the hero is chased through the woods by an entity which, its appointed time not having arrived yet, hasn't quite broken through into our reality and exists semi-abstractly as a sort of satanic UFO. And the diabolical Karswell is very well played indeed by Niall MacGinnis, effortlessly switching between harmless affability and casually matter-of-fact menace, even while wearing full clown makeup - remember that this film was made decades before scary clowns became a cliché.
Where it goes a bit off-track is in making its hero so unlikeable. He's a rational and thoroughly skeptical scientist who constantly and extremely rudely denies the reality of the paranormal, so of course he turns out to be 100% wrong and it nearly costs him his life. But does he really need to take so long to catch on that supernatural beings are out to get him when the truth is staring him in the face? Part of this is probably the result of re-editing by the studio, which resulted in Jacques Tourneur taking his name off the picture. Apparently he wanted the existence of the demon to much more ambiguous, making it plausible for the hero to refuse to believe in it. In particular, he wanted the creature itself to be shown only for one-fifth of a second, leaving the audience wondering whether they'd seen it or not. But the studio bosses reckoned that, as with some of Tourneur's other films, footage needed to be inserted explicitly giving the customers the monster they were promised by the title. And, as you can see from the picture above, Tourneur lost the debate.
However, it's still a very good film despite its faults. Its portrayal of weirdly puritanical devil-worshippers is so off-the-wall that I wanted to see far more of them and whatever it was they got up to. And it's always a joy to witness actors who later became fixtures in long-running sitcoms doing something completely different early in their careers, in this case the amiable Foggy Dewhurst from "Last Of The Summer Wine" as a clinically insane murderer who worships Satan.
By the way, "Night Of The Eagle" (1962), although based on an unrelated short story by Fritz Leiber, has such a similar title because it's almost a remake, dealing with much the same themes in an even more bizarre way, and might make an interesting double bill with this film.
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