The horror…: “Night of the Demon”

January 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

One thing that stands out most sharply in this roundly outstanding film is how fine the performances are, all of them. Peaking with the delicately restrained flamboyance Niall MacGinnis gives as [apparent] cult leader Dr Karswell and finding its thematic and emotional grounding in Dana Andrews’ equally disciplined turn as a thinking man hanging desperately to his rationality, the acting in this 1957 British production directed by the masterly French-born American Jacques Tourneur is largely the reason for the film’s success, if not as a fright fest by contemporary standards then as a work of psychological horror by any standard. Mercifully limiting explicit depictions of the titular demon to two scenes that bookend the picture (the latter being probably more effective than the earlier), the focal point of the horror at the heart of “Night of the Demon” – or perhaps more correctly, the dread – is not on the frightening physicality of a monstrous entity but on the oppressive ethereality of uncertainty; how doubting the cohesion of one’s understanding of reality may be – probably is – the root of fear and all that comes in its wake, be it superstition or intolerance, amongst others things. In fact, the palpability and power of the creeping anxiety that elevates “Night of the Demon” above most ‘horror’ pictures is directly tied to the protagonist’s utter allegiance to reason and rationality, because when cracks and fissures begin to appear in his conviction that everything can and does have a rational explanation, the one thing that ensures the viewer’s emotional security suddenly comes frightfully undone.

Two characters meet on a UK-bound flight and not under the best circumstances: one is fitfully trying to get some shuteye while the other, who simply can’t sleep, is keeping the former awake with her reading light. The sleepy one is somewhat famed psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews), on his way to attend a conference where fellow academic Professor Harrington is expected to present a psychological expose on the aforementioned Dr Karswell and the satanic cult he ring-leads. The reader on the other hand is Joanna Harrington, herself a psychology graduate turned schoolteacher and one burdened with the responsibility of making some sense of the bizarrely sudden death of her uncle, whose name and identity need not be spelt out at this point. Ms Harrington is played, by Peggy Cummins, with a seriousness that does not at all seem caricatured or stuffy even though there is every risk of it appearing so if only on account of her very proper British manner and speech, her insistent agnosticism and her almost reproving beauty. Whereas the pigheadedness that many film characters seem to display as they go poking about in dark and dangerous places is often frustratingly, cynically plot-driven, the aforementioned scene in the airplane – one which might appear pointless, even needlessly light and droll – establishes Joanna as a firmly and unapologetically inquisitive type; the type who would disturb fellow travellers with her reading light simply because her brain cannot stop working at however many thousand feet above the Atlantic she happens to be. And for the perceptive viewer who can foresee that these two transatlantic commuters will soon join unlikely forces, it must come as a very pleasant surprise to see that they do not end up falling helplessly in love, though it would not be at all unexpected if the conclusion of the movie marks the beginning of an off screen romance between the two. Dr John Holden – ‘of course’, one might add – does not shy away from putting forward the obligatory moves any warm-blooded heterosexual Fifties alpha bachelor protagonist would be expected to when faced with a pretty ally, and Joanna Harrington is not beyond playing along every so often, showing that she too wouldn’t mind a bit of loving.  Yet, no hinted fornication, no steamy kiss, no declarations or even suggestions of love, just playful and fleeting expressions of carnal interest: this unbroken sexual tension is quite shockingly contemporary, even for today, one can’t help but feel.

Then there is Mr MacGinnis who, with his Pan-like pointy beard and temperate air of smarm, underplays – but only just, if indeed at all – Dr Karswell. Yes he is eccentric; one would have to be in order to head an occult society that warrants a widely publicised investigation, but he is not overly so. He behaves and speaks like a Bond villain who has not yet succumbed to self-parody, one who is complex enough to appreciate that his malevolence is really in service of self-preservation as opposed to plot-servicing megalomania. The sequence of scenes in which Harrington and Holden visit Karswell at his country estate – where he is entertaining local children with a magic act, dressed up as a somewhat demonic clown – is an example of how the actor offsets the garish and cartoonish with a somewhat naturalistic sense of the everyday and the benign, the result being the gentle dissemination of sinister vibes that aim to slowly work upon a viewer’s mind. The secondary effect of this theatrical realism that MacGinnis employs is that the vulnerability, fear and cowardice which are later revealed to be among Karswell’s primary driving forces make complete and utter sense. The cult leader’s underlying terror becomes retrospectively evident.

But most of all, Dana Andrews, in a performance that wouldn’t necessarily be called great, does exactly what a sharp actor should do: he appreciates the specific aspects of Holden’s worldview which would render him a perfect horror film protagonist and slowly attempts to instil in everyone around him, viewers in addition, the firm sense of security to which he prescribes. For a significant portion of “Night of the Demon” Dr Holden holds fast to his rationalist conviction in the provability of phenomena and the dangers of suggestibility. But even for a man as steadfastly non-superstitious as he, it only takes a seed of doubt to begin eroding at one’s entire sense of what is real, what is possible and what can or cannot be known let alone proven by scientific methods. By playing Holden as an almost arrogant skeptic who will suffer delusory nonsense only so much yet who has private, disquieting moments of uncertainty, Dana takes viewers by the hand, assures them that there are no such things as demons or bogeymen and leads them into a darkened forest, only to release his grip and make a run for it when the paranormal manifests itself, however momentarily. His very rigidity is what makes the moments of uncertainty so unsettling, not just for Holden as a character, but for the audience relying on him to maintain their sense of security. It’s comparable to a car that has no crumple zone or a skyscraper on the San Andreas Fault that isn’t designed to withstand earthquakes: even a minor shock will cause a wealth of damage. Then there is the moment in which Holden’s fear of death seems to completely bulldoze his wall of reason and he practically usurps a colleague’s hypnosis session with one of Karswell’s followers, a convicted murderer, hoping to learn something about an enigmatic parchment that may or may not have been used to lay a deadly curse on him. It is frankly thrilling.

It is unfair to belittle the effects employed to bring the demon to life, and it may very well have shocked little trickles of pee and poo into the pants of audiences back in 1957, but it would be hard pressed to have the same effect now. But luckily for “Night of the Demon”, its potency as a horror picture lies not in its SFX but in Holden and the spectacle of watching this presumed man of science let fear of the unknown and the unclear leak into him, one paranormal occurrence at a time.

 

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