Tuesday, April 12, 2011

30 Day Horror Challenge Day 12 - Your favorite horror film involving the occult

Night of the Demon represents the clashing of two schools horror, the “less is more” philosophy, and the “more is more” ideology. The resulting “compromise” is one of the best horror films of the 50's, and one of my favorite occult flicks ever. It works beautifully as an understated thriller of demonic forces stalking a non-believer, but when the demon shows up, he’s more effective than 90 percent of the “giant monsters” of the era. Plus, it features one of my favorite villains of all time.

Professor Harrington is planning to publish an expose on the satanic cult led by Dr. Karswell. Before this can happen, Harrington meets his end at the hands of a demon brought about by a cursed parchment given to him by Karswell. Dr. John Holden, played by Dana Andrews (who, by the way, said that prunes gave him the runes) shows up to debunk all of this demon nonsense. He openly doubts and mocks Karswell’s black magic. Karswell slips him a parchment too, telling him that he will die in three days. As strange supernatural occurrences befall our hero and Harrington’s daughter, his obligatory love interest (and one of the most annoying sidekicks in the history of sidekicks), he slowly begins to accept his hexed reality. His only chance is to give the parchment back to Karswell. Can he do it before the infernal beastie rips him apart?

The story is well known about the dispute between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Hal E. Chester. Tourneur was a proponent of the subtle, “less is more” school of filmmaking. His films tended to be more about suspense than visceral thrills., He was one to amp up the atmosphere and dread, and keep the horror just out f sight. He had collaborated with producer Val Lewton, the undisputed master of this type of horror, in the 40’s, picking up much of Lewtons style along the way. The combination of Lewton and Tourneur produced three of the best psychological horror flicks of the era; Cat People, The Leopard Man, and the incredible I Walked with a Zombie. He thought this was the direction to take for Night of the Demon. He was right. He made a movie that expertly uses suspense without showing much of anything. The quiet menace of the interplay between Karswell and Holden, the barely glimpsed shadows, the wind, a cloud of smoke; these are the source of the scares. It was a Lewton-esque success. The climactic scene on a train with our hero trying everything he can to outsmart the evil sorcerer and hand him the parchment while our villain thwarts every attempt is so tense and well written it could be out of a Hitchcock movie. That could be because Charles Bennett, who adapted the screenplay, is best known for writing for Hitch.

When Chester, the producer, saw what Tourneur had made, he was not happy. He wanted the more garish horror style that was emerging. At the same time Demon was being made, Hammer was revolutionizing the genre with groundbreaking full color gore in Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. Giant monster movies were all the rage at the drive in. He argued that the climate of the horror market was changing, and his movie was going to have a giant monster dammit! He took it upon himself to force the inclusion of an on screen demon. He was also right. While the understated creepiness of the film was extremely effective, the big payoff with the big as a house, still smoking from the fires of hell demon gave the film the last ingredient it needed to be great. The monster itself, a huge, horned, furry, cross eyed...ok I give. What the hell is it? Whatever that thing is, it’s one of the best giant monsters I’ve seen and a hell of a lot better than the rubber suited majority. Although I will say, the one shot where he throws down a body (I won’t say whose) is rather Godzillaish in a floppy arm kinda way. He’s not likely to scare anyone today, but he has a 50’s charm that cannot be denied.

While Dana Andrews (who also said that passing them used lots of skills) as Holden may be top billed, and the monster may have gotten all the press, the movie belongs to Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Julian Karswell. He is anything but the stereotypical Hollywood Satanist. He is affable, jovial, proper, and polite. The pointy beard is really the only give away. He has used his occult knowledge to amass quite a fortune. He lives with his mother, and we even see him performing as a clown at a Halloween party he’s thrown at his estate for the town’s children. Doesn’t seem like a bad guy, huh? Well, he has got this nasty habit of summoning the fury of hell upon those who cross him. MacGinnis plays him as a smooth talking gentleman who discusses matters of business in the same tone as matters of necromancy. My favorite scene in the movie is when he and Holden are walking, and Karswell, still in clown makeup, calmly and matter of factly discusses conjuring demons from hell as if he’s just making small talk. His is a quiet evil, which is incredibly chilling.

A lot of horror movies seem to be called “classics” just because they’re old. Night of the Demon is not one of them. It’s a prime slice of 50’s style horror that still packs a punch today. Avoid the American cut, called Curse of the Demon, as it cuts out some vital pieces of atmospheric exposition. Alas don’t confuse it with Night of the Demons or a 1988 Bigfoot movie also called Night of the Demon. Oh, and one more thing. The cursed object that must be passed back to the one who gave it to you, the three day limit before hell has its way with you, the climactic train station scene; does any of this sound familiar from a more recent film? Drag Me to Hell stole this films plot so completely that I consider it a remake. Anyway, when people say “they just don’t make ‘em like that any more,” Night of the Demon is precisely the kind of film they’re talking about. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.

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