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.

 

The horror…: “The Seventh Victim”

November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s difficult to view and appraise – without growing resentment – a film that is considered by some prominent critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum being chief amongst them) to be the or at least one of the crowning achievements in renowned B-picture producer Val Lewton’s relatively small but influential filmography. Said difficulty presents itself not too long after director Mark Robson’s “The Seventh Victim” hits its stride, if one can call it that – more like a slow, anergic trudge – and morphs into a resounding disappointment by the time the literally clunky final shot rolls around. The film is frequently noted for having a bizarre plot, an odd assessment of a narrative that can be synopsised thusly: high-schooler Mary Gibson (played by a serviceable Kim Hunter) goes in search of her death-wishing older sister Jaqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks looking very much like her surnamesake Louise Brooks), a cultist who has gone into hiding after evoking the bloodlust of her brethren by seeing a psychiatrist and possibly exposing their secrets. So plot-wise, this is no “The Big Sleep.” The film has also been praised for its noirish poetry though there is not one shot or sequence worth recalling, unless perhaps the creepy scene during which Mary Gibson re-encounters Lou Lubin’s dead detective in a deserted subway car, or the admittedly haunting shot of Jacqueline Gibson sitting in a chair, surrounded by black-clad ex-fellow Satanists, debating whether or not to commit suicide on their terms or on hers. Betsy Connell’s eerie jungle sojourn in “I Walked with a Zombie” and Alice Moore’s high-heeled jogs through chillingly empty New York City streets or her night-time pool swim in the brilliant “Cat People” evoke a thrilling and protracted sense of dread matched by nothing in “The Seventh Victim.” The soundscapes in the former two pictures, both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (for Val Lewton), are simply rich enough, detailed enough to complement the visual sparseness and simplicity that renders those films perfect for preying upon a viewer’s jumpy imagination. Conversely, “The Seventh Victim” seems somewhat deprived, as though the film begs that the viewer pretend to be terrified by the mystery of a missing woman or by the presence of the occult in Greenwich Village, rather than enticing them to give in to the terror that should already nag at them, incited by the contents of the movie itself. Where the best of the best B-grade horror productions from the forties and fifties – and all periods for that matter – circumvent their lack of funds/resources by turning want into ascetic efficiency and poetic minimalism and ensuring that silence and stillness manifest as resounding emotional disquiet, this 1943 film simply feels demoralised by its low-budget status.

“The Seventh Victim” seems to be frequently described within the same breath as being both a horror and a noir; perhaps a noirish horror or a horror noir? But where exactly does the horror reside? Assumedly, its credentials as a chiller are founded in its occult/supernatural leanings, but this picture desperately needs an injection of “Rosemary’s Baby” or even “The Wicker Man” where Satanism is concerned. The band of cultists at the centre of Jacqueline Gibson’s disappearance may be portrayed in the way that they are – refined in a callous way, bourgeoisie more than bohemian – in order to capitalise on the notion of ‘the banality of evil’; that these people are frightening precisely because they may very well be your folks’ lawyer or your aunt’s obstetrician but that they would also gladly feast on your dripping, severed neck (though they probably wouldn’t). This is exactly the case with “Rosemary’s Baby”, the only palpable dissimilarity being that there is a chasm of difference in the energy that the two respective groups of actors bring to their portrayals of ‘evil’ with an urbane face. This is not to say that every actor must dominate their scenes like Ruth Gordon does in Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but how can one be terrified by a tired band of tarot card enthusiasts – which is how Jacqueline Gibson’s mob come across, either this or the ‘passively’ powerful illuminati – or whatever demonic force it is that they represent, especially when their ineffectuality if confirmed in a hokey scene towards the end of the film in which the Lord’s Prayer is wielded like a paper sword against a dead adversary?

Maybe the noir angle is the most interesting element of the film, the depressive rut that Jacqueline seems to be in for the film’s entirety and which culminates in a final moment that so desperately wants to be bittersweet but which seems rather blah. It must be said that the idea of a key character who maintains a room with a noose and stool in place so as to maintain her sense of self-determination is worthy of sitting up and taking notice, and it is somewhat surprising to hear ‘suicide’ and similar terms bandied about with relative candidness in a picture from this period. One can only imagine that such a morbid outlook would have made hairs stand erect on the backs of neck and arms when the film first premiered, and that the deeply coy depictions of ‘sordid’ lifestyles and realities – lesbianism, the occult, suicidality and fatalism – would have made for a potentially potent stew of fear and dread in a then contemporary audience, but once this era-dependent effect is made redundant with time, the film must maintain its powers of terror on either an intellectual or a deeply primal level, or at the very least possess undeniable artistic merits, something that a film like “Cat People” does with such elegance and assurance.

The dismay this movie inspires is sadly not allayed by the acting. Jacqueline, when she appears, not only fails to live up to her apparently heart-stopping beauty but bears none of the eeriness of the titular character from Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, though it must be said that she is at least a moderately intriguing presence, the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the picture, perhaps apart from down on his luck poet Jason Hoag or Dr Judd, the psychiatrist. There is an element of exhaustion to the performances, particularly after the film hits its midway point. Movies from this period, especially American studio ones, display a certain type of acting that seems very conscious of blocking (the way in which actors move and position themselves within the confines of set and the camera’s view of it). In the best pictures from this period, this very ‘staged’ approach is simply part of the artistic fabric. There is a certain theatre, a formality and structure to the dance of actors around each other and across the set that compliments and is complimented by all other elements in these films; it can be like beholding a tango or waltz, appreciating how grace and beauty can be supported, even enhanced, by such stricture and rigid technique. But when there is something lacking – be it actors with range or presence, a screenplay with narrative originality or linguistic flair, or bold, visionary images – this ‘blocking’ becomes transparent and rote and it becomes clear how little else there is.

How many things are more disheartening than sitting down to view an apparent masterpiece and walking away having seen what you’d swear was a dud? It’s enough to make one doubt what one even considers good cinema.

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