Dir. Jacques Tourneur
Written by Charles Bennett, Hal Chester
Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
Wow, this is a pretty great one. A meticulously constructed, classily filmed black-and-white mesmerizer about a scientist who shows up in England to debunk a cult leader, only to find that the guy is using increasingly inexplicable methods to keep him from doing so. That’s all you really need, or ought, to know. But who am I kidding, you’re out of work right now and need to kill some time, so let’s dig into this one a bit.
As an atheist, I often find myself annoyed by a persistent horror plot which pits skeptic against believer, and inevitably derides the skeptic as narrow-minded and incapable of dealing with the powerful, invisible world which REALLY controls the destiny of the universe. These are religious films, in all but name, and they are specifically written with a narrative which is dismissive of science and reason. Now, I understand that it’s easy to write horror scripts this way; a big part of horror is taking a protagonist who would normally be in control of his or her world and then stripping that control away, forcing the character to adapt and find new ways of protecting himself or herself. That’s fair, and arguably even an honorable exploration of what may be the most horrifying concept of all: the sudden realization that you truly do not understand the forces which are menacing you, and hence have no control over them. We’re afraid of the dark, because we cannot see or understand the things that hide from our senses. But in the 20th century, science has pushed back that darkness into the dim horizon, giving us tools to approach, understand, and tackle almost any problem we can imagine. What could possibly make us more vulnerable than to yank the rug of scientific explanation out from under us, and tell us that all our comfortable assumptions about the way the world works are useless and meaningless in the face of powerful alien forces which mean us harm?
|I like a mystery which requires a trip to Stonehenge to solve (he's really there, by the way, that's not an effects shot)|
Like I said, the concept works, but such stories are usually written so lazily that it gets annoying and dishonest very quickly. Fact is, science has served us unbelievably fucking well over the last few centuries; it genuinely does offer good methods to solve almost any problem you can come up with. So in order to discredit science and scientists like our protagonist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews, who, holy shit, was Fred Derry in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES), films usually have to force shitty logic and bad science into their mouths to misrepresent the discipline and put it on weaker ground. To its eternal credit, NIGHT OF THE DEMON doesn’t do that at all. In fact, everything Dr. Holden says (except the sexist 1950s stuff, yay science!) actually makes perfect sense. His lady friend Peggy Cummins gets increasingly pissed at him that he’s blowing off a curse which is said to kill him in three days, but Holden seems understandably confident that there are no such things as curses and that he’s got the data to prove it. He’s a skeptical scientist who has actually studied enough to have extremely good reason to doubt all this bullshit, and nothing that happens to him is inexplicable enough to make him question his evidence-based judgement of the facts. Well, at least not initially.
|Much of the film has a notably film noir quality.|
Unfortunately, we already saw a fire demon come out of the sky in the opening scene, so the tension between Holden’s obvious logic and the appeal of the supernatural doesn’t work quite as perfectly as it might have if director Tourneur and writer Bennett had been allowed to do it their way and were allowed to leave some ambiguity about the explanation for all this. Alas, producer Hal Chester demanded an on-screen monster. Without that element, it would be a movie which perfectly walks the line between honest skepticism and the allure of a compelling mystery. As it is, the evidence is already biased towards a supernatural explanation before Holden even has time to make his case. Perhaps Chester thought that this would increase the tension as Cummins tries to prevail upon him to take his curse seriously, but the filmmaking is obviously strong enough that the tension would have been there anyway, and the added question about who was actually right would have almost certainly made things even more gripping. It’s a small complaint, though; even though we see the demon in the final version, it’s just barely within the realm of the possible that the apparition is the subjective interpretation of a frightened person who is seeing what they expect to see. So in spite of Chester, you can force a little ambiguity in there to make it interesting.
Fortuitously, even beyond the philosophical implications of the spiritual world vs science (aka, the real world which actually exists), NIGHT OF THE DEMON also has a nice dusting of interesting human elements. Both Andrews and Cummins are charming and likeable, but the movie’s best trick is casting Niall MacGinnis as the cult leader, Dr. Karswell. You’ve seen Christopher Lee or Charles Gray play this kind of role a million times, in roles that range from Dennis Wheatley’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT to Dennis Wheatley’s TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. But brilliantly, MacGinnis takes an entirely different approach to the character. There’s nothing at all overtly intimidating about the guy; he’s sort of doughy and awkward and sports a silly beard and a generally schlubby demeanor. We never see him interact with his cult or be treated as an object of respect. Mostly, we see him hang around his enormous but seemingly mostly unoccupied mansion with his mother and a cadre of local children who he entertains with a schticky magic clown routine. About halfway through, I decided I wanted to cast John C. Reilly in the remake. But MacGinnis has an amazing ability to seem both subtly menacing and vulnerable in the role. He comes across not so much like an authoritative British gentleman as a scared child, who has discovered something far too big for him to deal with responsibly but far too precious to give up. A final sequence with the three leads on a train brilliantly capitalizes on MacGinnis’s character work to a truly sublime climax.
|Those daffy, laffy clowns.|
In fact, the whole thing is pretty sublime. It’s got an unflashy Val Lewton-style classic horror atmosphere to it (which would make sense, since director Tourneur also did CAT PEOPLE and others for Lewton and RKO in the '40s), slowly ratcheting up the tension without ever relying on big showpieces. There aren’t many, if any, big scare moments, but rather a gradual sense of unease with quietly builds to intolerable levels. Each scene works as a tiny part of the slowly closing noose around Dr. Holden, steadily upping the ante so we understand just how serious this all is. As such, it’s an obvious template for what may be the most brilliantly sadistic horror movie of the last couple decades, DRAG ME TO HELL. NIGHT OF THE DEMON isn’t as cheerfully brutal, but the basic skeleton --a normal person gradually coming to understand that their life is ticking down to zero due to nebulous hostile forces which operate by a set of rules which are completely obscure and impervious to our usual tools of influence-- is already firmly in place here. It’s just a little less interested in goopy effects. Done well, this is one of the best setups a horror movie could ask for. Worked in 1957, worked in 2009. Now that, my friend, is some convincing evidence indeed.