“It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said man using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of Hell.”
He never looks eerier, this stern little man, than when he’s in clown makeup. First Karswell’s performing for the children’s party; then he’s performing for Dr. Holden, summoning a fierce gale that sends the kiddies away screaming. Beneath the ridiculous makeup, the occultist desperately wants to be taken seriously. Belief, after all, is both shield and sword in his trade. Belief is everything.
The 1957 black and white classic Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon) pits these two men against one another in a battle over belief itself. Our hero, American professor John Holden (Dana Andrews) girds himself in skepticism even as events conspire to weaken his grip on reality; against him is set Karswell (Niall McGinnis), the cult leader and practicer of black magic whom Holden is tasked with investigating. Through performance, direction, and other techniques, the film establishes a dichotomy between these two men and their respective systems for understanding the universe–science and superstition–and watches as Holden gradually discovers what game he’s really playing, and for which stakes.
Let us talk first of Karswell, one of the great horror movie villains. McGinnis plays him as a mix between an academic whose specialty has been called into question and a mad king. Always well-dressed and sporting a devilish goatee, Karswell is sometimes erudite, witty, playing the good host as he spars verbally with his nemesis; and sometimes imperious, fiercely imparting wisdom or threats. He’s clever, determined, and well aware of his own position, including the price he must pay for his black magic:
Well, believe this also. You get nothing for nothing. This house, the land, the way we live. Nothing for nothing. My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It’s part of the price.
As the plot unfolds, we come to understand that Karswell’s power comes from some demonic force that demands blood sacrifice–sacrifices he draws from among his followers. We meet some of them during Holden’s investigation, a motley gaggle of rural English folk in black dress. True believers all; even Hobart (Brian Wilde), who found a way to dodge being the demon’s next victim, and who provides Holden with a crucial clue. It seems unclear what these followers get from Karswell in exchange for their service, but then, isn’t that true of all religions?
The character Karswell is undoubtedly modeled on real historical figure Aleister Crowley, an author and religious leader who practiced a form of what I will drastically oversimplify by calling paganism during the first half of the 20th century. Claiming to perform magic, Crowley and his followers held rituals, ignored sexual mores and were infamous, often denounced as Satanists. Karswell and his cult seem loosely inspired by the more outre depictions of Crowley. There also seems to be hints of Crowley’s alternative sexuality in the film’s depiction of Karswell as a lifelong bachelor who lives with his mother (which is about as close to “homosexual” as you could get under the Hays Code). At any rate, the history provides Karswell’s cult with a set of apparently sincere beliefs and practices, and also underlies the stakes for Holden to prove them untrue.
Night of the Demon opens with Karswell’s previous enemy, Professor Harrington, taking a little too long to agree to stop investigating the occultist. He winds up afoul of the demon for his trouble. Enter Holden, in London to take over the investigation. Intelligent, level-headed, and just a little bit old Hollywood dashing, Holden’s easily the most skeptical even among his colleagues (also in town for a convention on the paranormal). Over the course of the story, even as evidence mounts for Holden that his worldview is incomplete, we grow to understand how important it is for him to be right about reality:
When I was a kid, I used to walk down the street with the other kids and when we came to a ladder they’d all walk around it. I’d walk under it, just to see if anything would happen. Nothing ever did. When they’d see a black cat they’d run the other way to keep it from crossing their path. But I didn’t. And all this ever did for me is make me wonder why, why people get so panicky about absolutely nothing at all. I’ve made a career studying it. Maybe just to prove one thing. That I’m not a superstitious sucker like ninety per cent of humanity.
That 90% just happens to include Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the professor’s niece, whose main tasks in the film are to 1) argue for having an open mind about the supernatural and 2) be a rather perfunctory romantic interest for Holden. His casual sexism–particularly one galling segment where he tells Joanna he might as well let her come along to a break-in because of the difficulty of stopping “a woman who has her mind made up” and then makes her stay in the car when we get there–is one element of the film that has aged very poorly.
Sexism and all, Holden fits squarely into the tradition of Modern, Rational Men of Science who clash with a culture they presume to be less enlightened. During the British colonial period this formula was founded on the exoticism of foreign lands and foreign tales–the djinn of India, the zombi of island cultures, dark secrets of darkest Africa–of which the most well-known example must be Jonathan Harker, the mild-mannered solicitor who finds himself traveling through the vampire-haunted villages of Transylvania. But that was 60 years ago. This is the 1950s, and in the wake of WWII, science and rationality find their home in America. Since then, England has more often than not been the island culture where belief in pagan gods still dwells in rural communities to trouble the modern man–see e.g. 1973’s The Wicker Man.
But this is just a subsection of a broader swath of horror about the clash between rationality and irrationality, between the modern and the ancient, apparent facts and deeper truths. In that tradition we find films like Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, Burn, Witch, Burn, The Haunting, Candyman, and from the opposite perspective, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Many horror movies begin their story with a period in which characters do not yet believe in the supernatural, and come to realize their mistake; but some make this a chief thematic throughline of the whole work, often arriving at a final place of tragedy which is the result of a failure of rational people to confront the unknown.
Certainly Night of the Demon ends thrillingly, rather than tragically, but otherwise it suits this tradition to a ‘T’, using the mystery of Karswell’s cult to present a heightened dichotomy between science and occultism. First, by comparing and constrasting Karswell and Holden, as representatives of their respective philosophies. Although opposed, both men share a similar arrogance about the correctness of their beliefs and the size of their own intelligence. Likewise, their followers are also mirrored–Karswell’s country farmers and Holden’s fellow scientists. Dual scenes depict a demonstration from each philosophy, as first Karswell’s mother helps conduct a seance, then later Holden conducts an equally ominous scientific examination of the catatonic Hobard (through hypnosis). Even dialogue is used to connect the pair, as when Holden’s mention of ladders (quoted above) seems prompted by Karswell’s musings on a children’s game:
Ha ha, snakes and ladders. An English game, you wouldn’t know it. You see, if you land at the foot of the ladder you climb all the way to the top. But if you land on the head of the snake, you slide all the way down again. Funny thing, I always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing up the ladders.
Snakes and ladders, science and magic, good and evil; dichotomies abound in a script which is careful not to underline them. Likewise, the cinematography is subtly very handsome (in rich black and white) without drawing attention to itself. Shadows play an important role, of course, offering contrast both literal and metaphorical; but more interesting are the parallels the film draws visually between its two competing ideologies. The seance and the scientific demonstration, for instance, both take place in a central lit area surrounded by darkness. Elsewhere, the film uses wide establishing shots to demonstrate both the power of Karswell’s influence and the way the library Holden visits is in its own way a cathedral dedicated to the power of rational understanding:
In an interesting set of cases, this technique is taken further. Twice, Holden seems to loom large, only to later be dwarfed by symbols of the supernatural. Before his car arrives at Karswell’s mansion (see above), he spots it, tiny and unforeboding in the distance:
Later, Holden visits Stonehenge, England’s famous monument with possible ties to pagan rituals, where he compares the killing scroll Karswell has passed him with the runes on the stones. The landmark seems small compared to his car, foregrounded here in a shot that pans from right to left:
But in the very next shot, the stones tower over Holden, a mute proclamation of ancient, hidden power.
Here and elsewhere the film argues that man is small compared to the looming shadow of ancient, supernatural forces. Even Karswell is dwarfed by them in the end.
There’s no shortage of visual comparisons that echo one another across the film. One of my favorites is the way Holden is introduced, trying to sleep on an airplane with a newspaper picture of himself over his face. Is this paper who he is? Or will Karswell’s scrap of parchment define him? As a symbol it’s both funny (the film is, I should mention, often darkly comic) and a wonderful set-up for the battle of letters and runes to come.
To the extent that Night of the Demon still succeeds–and I believe it does, even if the demon effects seem quite hokey now–it owes that success to director Jacques Tourneur. A French director who worked with Val Lewton, he’s best known for the classic noir Out of the Past and the Lewton-produced Cat People, whose unflashy but carefully effective black and white photography was highly influential. Here Tourneur’s touch is evident in the precision of framing, editing, and lighting. No shot is wasted, no cut random, and the script, performances, and cinematography are all directed to align in purpose and subtlety. In fact, Tourneur later said that he never intended to show the demon at all, that he meant to maintain ambiguity for the audience throughout. His version of the film would have been pure intellectual horror, a story consisting solely of mood and intimation. As it is, we must content ourselves with a film that does, perhaps, play its hand too soon, but still satisfyingly draws us into a starkly defined conflict between rationality and the supernatural.
The film’s exciting climactic sequence–in which Holden, fully embracing the rules of a game he has thus far denied, tries to trick Karswell into taking the killing scroll back–ends with the most striking example of this central dichotomy. After Karswell accidentally takes the scroll, he exits a train and flees down the tracks before coming face to face with his own demon. The great creature, grinning and wreathed in smoke, issues a noise that is directly comparable to the screech of the train whistle, before crushing him and discarding him on the tracks. In Tourneur’s original vision, we never would have been sure which monster had killed Karswell–the medieval demon or its modern metal counterpart. But either way, Holden (and Joanna) know which it was. Or rather, they believe it.
Belief, after all, is everything. Night of the Demon demonstrates how belief can conjure a wind or a demon, how it can terrify a man or resolve him to his faith even at the point of death, and how its lack can blind an arrogant skeptic to the dangers he may face. I suspect that, after his ordeal and transformation, Holden will no longer walk under ladders. Now he knows about the snakes.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 5: Five’ll Get You Dead, because it seldom pays to be a poor loser. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.