Thursday, 1 October 2015

October Nightmares #1: Night of the Demon (1957)

October is unequivocally my favourite month. An inarguably spooky time of the year. The melancholia slowly begins to set in as summer slips from our grasp. A ghoulish chill creeps out from the bowels of the earth. All underpinned by the knowledge of encroaching death, as the trees begin to wither and farms reap their spoils. Therefore, I have decided to do what many of my fellow horror appreciating reviewers do at this time of the year: a daily list of my favourite horror films. Starting with Night of the Demon (1957).

I remember the first time I saw Jacques Tourneur's seminal classic. I was with a girl who wasn't really into horror, and throughout she constantly made remarks about the lack of action. But this was one of the things that enthralled me about Night of the Demon. It simply couldn't be made today. Modern audiences regard slow-burning horror the same way one regards the 'Free the Paedos' political party. Night of the Demon is at heart a taut murder mystery; playing out like film noir with an ever-present dash of the supernatural. Film noir is a genre I've always felt knowingly played around elements of horror, attempting to take the best bits without aggravating the industry snobs.

Film noir taps into man's primal nature - murder, lust, betrayal - and couples it with a fear of the night. Crimes occur in the shadows; allies betray allies, and heroes chased into the metaphysical unknown. Dutch angles and off-kilter shots heighten the sense of madness and cause us to question reality. I saw these elements masterfully reflected in Night of the Demon, and weeped with glee. Past Relationship Regression Girl cried: "What was the point in the protagonist going to the mansion?" or "Why did the neo-nazi rape Edward Norton in the shower?" And I said nothing because I was able to appreciate the director's bold move of peeling back the safe veneer of society.

Night of the Demon concerns Dr John Holden's (Dana Andrews) investigation into a cult responsible for the death of his peer. His investigation leads him to Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a shady purveyor of the occult. Who we know is obviously guilty from the way he manically strokes his cat. Along the way, Holden accidentally becomes cursed and destined to die after three days. What I enjoyed most about Night of the Demon, is the unwillingness of Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett to initially commit either way to the idea of the supernatural.

The strange opening regarding stone henge and it's power is immediately discarded; only again becoming relevant near the end. John Holden is a sceptic, and the audience is encouraged to share this stance. Not exactly a groundbreaking approach as almost every horror film has dabbled in the real/not real ambiguity. Christ, even E.T. is initially ambiguous as to the nature of its titular creature - and he was basically a glorified condom. The difference is that Night of the Demon plays out like a typical murder mystery until the horrifying revelation that there is actually a demon. By that point, we are invested in this slow-burning mystery, and feel the noose tightening for the protagonist when the pace does begin to pick up.

The decision to include an actual demon can be attributed to the other writer Hal E. Chester. It certainly makes for a full-blown horror movie climax (with surprisingly good special effects for the era). But I can't help but feel that the movie didn't really need it. Night of the Demon isn't really about a demon. No, it's about the inevitability of death, and one man's determination to avoid his untimely entropy. This speaks to the audience on an innate level. We understand Holden's fear, and feel sympathy for him as he spends the final moments trapped on the train trying to force Karswell to take his place. So really, the demon is only there for visceral shock value.

The spectral hand appearing behind the protagonist plays to Night of the Demon's brand of horror more effectively. The at-times scatter-logical score by Clifton Parker helps to build a feel of ill-omen. Not full blown horror, but to unsettle the viewer. And that's what subtle horror is all about: throwing the mind off balance. It's all sinister characters and deep dark secrets. Threats sneaking out from the shadows. Afflicting psychological torment. Night of the Demon does all of this but then goes the next level. As was advised to the committee introducing a Ron Jeremy float to the Thanksgiving parade: sometimes it's possible to go too big.