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Night of the Demon (Rendez-vous avec la peur)

by Glenn Erickson May 20, 2017

DVD SAVANT

This French disc release of the Jacques Tourneur classic gets everything right — including both versions in picture perfect transfers. Devil debunker Dana Andrews locks horns with Niall MacGinnis, a necromancer “who has decoded the Old Book” and can summon a fire & brimstone monster from Hell, no election fraud necessary. Even fans that hate ghost stories love this one — it’s a truly creepy, intelligent highlight of the horror genre.

Night of the Demon
Region A + B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
Wild Side (Fr)
1957 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 95 & 82 min. / Street Date November 27, 2013 / Curse of the Demon, Rendez-vous avec la peur / Available from Amazon UK or Foreign Exchange Blu-ray
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Maurice Denham,
Athene Seyler
Cinematography: Ted Scaife
Production Designer: Ken Adam
Special Effects: George Blackwell, S.D. Onions, Wally Veevers
Film Editor Michael Gordon
Original Music: Clifton Parker
Written by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester
from the story Casting the Runes by M. R. James
Produced by Frank Bevis, Hal E. Chester
Directed by
Jacques Tourneur

There Savant goes again, reviewing something four years old. Actually, I only caught up with this terrific disc last year. Since then I’ve bought copy for a friend. Another friend obtained a copy last week, and another contact who twenty years ago was instrumental in saving the film, just last week decided to write up the story for publication here. So here’s a review of “Rendez-vous avec la peur,” which is both one of the best horror films ever made, and to my mind also one of the best horror disc releases to date.

Jacques Tourneur’s superlative Night of the Demon is simply better than most horror films — it’s an intelligent chiller with some very good scares. It occupies a stylistic space that sums up what’s best in ghost stories and can hold its own with any supernatural film ever made. Oh, it’s also a great entertainment that never fails to put audiences at the edge of their seats.

 

We finally saw some good interview film with director Tourneur last year, on the Criterion Blu-ray of his 1942 breakthrough picture Cat People. He seems like a really nice guy, an estimate that Bill Warren attested to as well: at a party at the Ackermansion, Bill said that the French director just said, “I’m Jack Turner.” Tourneur’s American career wasn’t as well recognized as his fellow directors who started working during WW2. His films and characters were usually more delicate, thoughtful, an introspective than the action-oriented work of men like Joseph H. Lewis and Phil Karlson. But almost all of Tourneur’s movies are uniquely memorable. His westerns are like nobody else’s — they seem paced for a different time and temperament.

Night of the Demon is less intimate a horror picture than Cat People, yet it also walks a delicate line of mood and tone. The story is from “Casting the Runes,” a gem from the master storyteller M. R. James. In Tourneur’s version, superstition and rationalism are opposed in a life & death struggle. The movie flatters our desire to discount irrational beliefs by making the hero a classic skeptic. And when the powers of darkness prove to be real, Tourneur’s taste and discretion win over the cynics in the audience. After all, there’s a BFD (Big Fat Demon) on the freakin’ poster. We didn’t come to this show to hear somebody tell us, “never mind.”

Scientist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a professional debunker of superstitious charlatans, arrives in England to help Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) take down the phony cult surrounding Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis). But Harrington has mysteriously died and Holden becomes involved with his niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), who thinks Karswell had something to do with it. Holden discovers that Karswell lives like a baron on a huge estate. His ‘tricks’ confuse the skeptical Holden, who finds it increasingly difficult to hold onto the conviction that he’s ” … not a sucker, like ninety percent of the human race.” Karswell warns Holden to back off or face the consquences, and our hero begins to worry as the evidence mounts that Harrington was indeed killed by a demon summoned from Hell. Holden is the next intended victim!

Horror films can resemble fairy tale fantasies, but the supernatural is no longer a requisite after the emergence of psychological horror. The world holds so many sordid and sick horrors that there’s an entire subgenre devoted to tortures, in which we’re presumably invited to identify with the spirit of a pitiless mass killer. Back in the ’50s the horror picture was more or less dead in its tracks, with Universal’s thrillers become quaint chillers for children. As pointed out in the Hardy Encyclopedia, Night of the Demon would seem a crossroads for a genre soon to explode into an undying worldwide phenomenon. Tourneur channels the Val Lewton psychological approach — soon to proliferate with the arrival of Psycho. But he also gives exceptional emphasis to the visual aspect that the Italians would pick up and develop further: horror contrasted with visual beauty. Add to that a twist-filled logical battle of wits between a stalwart hero and a diabolical villain, and Tourneur’s film performs marvels on several levels.

 

Horror films that wish to say something serious about the conflict of rational reality and supernatural belief have a tough time of it. The tug o’ war between rationality and faith in our culture has become so clogged with insane belief systems that it’s considered impolite to dismiss people who believe in flying saucers or the powers of crystals or little glass pyramids. Dana Andrews’ John Holden must defend his dogged skepticism against fellow researchers urging him to have an open mind. One of his key lines is an impatient retort that sums up a good general attitude toward mysticism and spiritualism:


“If the world is a dark place ruled by Devils and Demons, we all might as well give up right now.”

Night of the Demon balances itself between skepticism and belief with polite English manners, letting us have our fun as it lays its trap. We watch Andrews roll his eyes and scoff at the feeble séance hucksters and the dire warnings of a foolish-looking necromancer. Meanwhile, a whole dark world of horror sneaks up on him. The film’s intelligence is such that we’re not offended by its advocacy of dark forces or even its literal, in-your-face demon.

The remarkable Curse of the Demon was made in England for Columbia but is gloriously unaffected by that company’s dismal ’50s track record for horror films. Producer Hal E. Chester would seem an odd choice to make a horror classic after producing Joe Palooka films and acting as a criminal punk in East Side Kids movies. An obvious strong card is writer Charles Bennett, the brains behind several classic English Hitchcock pictures, who would later ‘retire’ into generating hack scripts for producer Irwin Allen. The master stylist Jacques Tourneur put Val Lewton on the map, and scored big with the supremely romantic-fatalist film noir Out of the Past. By the late ‘fifties Tourneur was on what critic Andrew Sarris called ‘a commercial downgrade.’ The critic lumped Curse of the Demon in with low budget American turkeys like The Fearmakers and Timbuktu.

Put Tourneur next to an intelligent script, a decent cameraman and more than a minimal budget and great things could happen. Although not a lavish production Curse of the Demon stands apart from the usual genre pitfalls. It’s extremely well cast; the performances are flawless. The film’s production values are more than adequate. Columbia released it (at least in America) as if it were a genre quickie, double-billed with dreck like The Night the World Exploded and The Giant Claw. They cut it by thirteen minutes, changed its title (to ape The Curse of Frankenstein?) and released a poster featuring a huge, slavering demon monster that some believe was originally meant to be barely glimpsed in the film itself. (more on Mister Demon monster below.)

Night of the Demon isn’t adverse to complexities and nuances. We get a range of scientist characters, with different attitudes toward the occult. Professional skeptic John Holden’s smart-tongued dismissal of other viewpoints seems more stodgy now than it did in 1957, when heroes confidently defended conformist values without being challenged. He scores debate points by scoffing at the then-current ‘regression to past lives’ scam popularized by the Bridey Murphy craze. Holden sees himself as having common sense, but his peers are impressed by the consistency of demonological beliefs through history. Maybe they all saw Christensen’s Witchcraft through the Ages, the silent Danish film that might have served as a primer for author Charles Bennett. While Holden stays firmly rooted to his position, coining smart phrases and sarcastic put-downs of believers, the other scientists are at least willing to consider alternate possibilities. Indian colleague K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott) is probably a Hindu or a Sikh, and has no difficulty reconciling his faith with his scientific detachment. He keeps his opinion to himself, but when asked, politely states that he believes entirely in the world of demons! Holden is far too tactful to call Kumar a crazy third-world guru but that’s probably what he’s thinking. He instead politely ignores him. It’s Kumar’s timely information that saves Holden’s hide. I hope he remembered to thank him.

Holden may think he has the truth by the tail but it takes Kindergarten teacher Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins of Gun Crazy fame) to show him that being a skeptic doesn’t mean ignoring facts in front of one’s face. Always ready for a drink (a detail added to tailor the part to Andrews?), Holden spends the first couple of reels as interested in pursuing Miss Harrington as he is the devil-worshippers. The details and coincidences pile up with alarming speed — the disappearing ink untraceable by the lab, the visual distortions that might be induced by hypnosis, the pages torn from his date book and the parchment of runic symbols. Holden believes them to be props in a conspiracy to draw him into a vortex of doubt and fear. Is he being set up the way a Voodoo master cons his victim, by being told he will die, with fabricated clues to make it all appear real? Holden even gets a bar of sinister music stuck in his head. It’s the title theme — is this a wicked joke on movie soundtracks?


Speak of the Devil…

This brings us to the wonderful character of Julian Karswell, the multi-millionaire cult leader with a sideline as a kiddie clown. The writer who launched Alfred Hitchcock as a maker of sophisticated thrillers here creates one of the most interesting villains ever written, one surely as good as any of Hitchcock’s. In the short American cut Karswell is a shrewd games-player who shows Holden too many of his cards and finally outsmarts himself. The longer UK cut retains the full depth of his character. Forget Trump, we want to see Karswell’s tax returns: “Profession: Children’s Entertainer. Annual Income: Five Million Pounds.”

Karswell has tapped into the secrets of demonology to gain riches and power, yet he tragically recognizes that he is as vulnerable to the forces of Hell as are the cowering minions he controls through fear. Karswell’s coven means business. It’s an entirely different conception from the aesthetic salon coffee klatch of The Seventh Victim, where nothing really supernatural happens and the only menace comes from a secret society committing new crimes to hide old ones.

Julian Karswell taps his vast following to support his extravagant lifestyle; we don’t see a range of his subjects but one look at Karswell’s grand Lufford Hall tells us that thousands of them send him money. The miserable Hobart Farm (seen only in the Night version) at first seems to harbor religious Christian fundamentalists who have turned their backs on their son, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), who has gone insane from fear of Karswell’s Demon. Then we find out that the Hobarts are Karswell followers, living blighted lives on cursed acreage and bled dry by their cultist ‘leader.’ Also in the longer Night version, Karswell’s mum (Athene Seyler) strikes us as an inversion of the usual insane Hitchcock mother, the one who actively abets the son’s crimes. Karswell’s mother is different in that she lovingly resists her son’s philosophy and actively tries to help the heroes. The shorter American cut Curse loses most of this detail. Mum only makes silly attempts to interest Joanna in her available son and arranges for a séance. Concerned by his negativity, Mother confronts Julian on the stairs. He has no friends, no wife, no family. He may be a mass extortionist but he’s still her baby. Karswell explains that by exploiting his occult knowledge, he’s immersed himself forever in Evil, and there’s no turning back. “You get nothing for nothing.”

Karswell is like the Devil on Earth, a force with very limited powers that he can’t always control. He cannot trust any of his own minions, as they’re unreliable and prone to double-cross each other, and they attract publicity that makes a secret society difficult to conceal. He can’t just kill Holden, as he hasn’t a single henchman on the payroll. He instead summons the demon, a magic trick he’s only recently mastered. When Karswell turns Harrington away in the first scene we can sense his loneliness. The only person who can possibly understand his situation is right before him, finally willing to acknowledge his power and perhaps even tolerate him. Karswell has no choice but to surrender Harrington over to the un-recallable Demon. In his dealings with the cult-debunker Holden, Karswell defends his turf but is also attempting to justify himself to a peer, another man who might be a potential equal. It’s more than a duel of egos between a James Bond and a Goldfinger, with arrogance and aggression masking a mutual respect; Karswell knows he’s taken the Palladists’ ‘wrong turning in life,’ and will have to pay for it eventually.

Karswell eventually earns Holden’s respect, especially after the fearful testimony of Rand Hobart. It’s taken an extreme demonstration to do it, but Holden budges from his smug position. He may not buy all of the demonology hocus-pocus but it’s plain enough that Karswell or his ‘demon’ is going to somehow rub him out. Seeking to sneak the parchment back into Karswell’s possession, Holden becomes a worthy hero because he’s found the maturity to question his own preconceptions. Armed with his rational, cool head, he’s a force that makes Karswell — without his demon, of course — a relative weakling. Curse of the Demon ends in a classic ghost story twist, with just desserts dished out and balance recovered. The good characters are less sure of their world than when they started, but they’re still able to cope. Evil has been defeated not by love or faith, but by intellect.


Curse of the Demon has the Val Lewton sensibility, as has often been cited in Tourneur’s frequent (and very effective) use of the device called the ‘Lewton Bus’ — a wholly artificial jolt of fast motion and noise interrupting a tense scene. There’s an ultimate ‘bus’ at the end when a train blasts in and sets us up for the end title, but minor ‘buses’ happen all through the picture, whenever Holden is alone. Compared to the relatively crude ‘grasping hand’ shocks in Jack Arnold movies, these jolts are always beautifully staged and timed.

Visually, Tourneur’s film is marvelous, effortlessly conjuring menacing forests lit in the fantastic Mario Bava mode by Ted Scaife, who was not known as a genre stylist. There are more than a few perfunctory sets, with some unflattering mattes used for airport interiors, etc.. Elsewhere we see beautiful designs by Ken Adam in one of his earliest credited outings. The ornate floor and central staircase at Karswell’s Lufford Manor evoke an Escher print, especially when visible/invisible hands appear on the banister. A hypnotic, maze-like set for a hotel corridor is also tainted by Escher and evokes a sense of the uncanny even better than the horrid sounds Holden hears. The build-up of terror is so good that the film’s one weak effect does no harm. It’s a fight with a Cat People- like transforming cat, but isn’t as convincing. Other effects, such as the demon footprints appearing in the forest, work beautifully.

In his Encyclopedia of Horror Movies Phil Hardy very rightly relates Curse of the Demon’s emphasis on the visual to the then just-beginning Euro-horror subgenre. The works of Bava, Margheriti and Freda would make the photographic texture of the screen the prime element of their films, often above acting and story logic.


 

The Blu-ray disc in Wild Side’s Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Night of the Demon plays perfectly in both Regions A and B, making it a highly desirable item for horror fans. Columbia / Sony’s DVD from 2002 was a coveted item in its day, but the transfer quality seen here makes it look dull by comparison. Scanned and encoded at the English 1:66 ratio, the image has a luster not seen since museum screenings. The cinematography is excellent throughout, and the night scenes are especially marvelous. Harrington’s car flying down the misty road is a highlight, as is the ‘haunted’ nighttime forest behind Lufford Hall, where it’s definitely night yet seems lit up like a fairyland. This is a really attractive B&W show.

The disc is given the film’s French title, Rendez-vous avec la peur (Rendezvous with Fear). Both versions of the film are presented and the French menus aren’t difficult to decipher. One does need to access the audio setup and choose English, because the track defaults to the French audio. On my machine the French subtitles can be turned off with my remote. There are no English subs, unfortunately. The audio track is extremely good. Clifton Parker’s music aids and abets the spooky mood throughout, and opens with a thunderous main theme that serves notice that a rip-roaring ghost story is about to unspool.

Columbia cut down the movie for its American release, surely to trim the picture for fast double bill turnover. I’m one of the people who saw the short version many times before being blown away when the longer cut suddenly turned up on cable TV, VHS and laser disc in the late 1980s. It plays well in the short cut, but is far better at its full length. I first knew of the long version in 1977, through an excellent comparison article by Ronald V. Borst and Scott MacQueen in the long-gone but fondly remembered magazine Photon (thank you correspondent Marshall Deutelbaum for finding that).

This was way before such analytical work was common. The article made clear the differences between the two versions, accurately describing the cut scenes. When the film was finally available full-length, it was a major revelation, akin to the first time I saw Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers in its international cut.


A quick description of the version differences.

Being able to see the two versions back-to-back shows exactly how they differ. Curse omits some scenes and rearranges others. Gone is some narration from the title sequence, most of the airplane ride, some dialogue on the ground with the newsmen and several scenes with Karswell talking to his mother. Most crucially missing are Karswell’s mother showing Joanna the cabalistic book everyone talks so much about, and Holden’s entire visit to the Hobart farm to secure a release for his examination of Rand Hobart. Of course the cut film still works, and there are people who actually think it’s better. But it’s nowhere near as involving as the complete UK version. Curse also reshuffles some events, moving Holden’s phantom encounter in the hallway nearer the beginning, presumably to put a spooky scene in the middle section or to better disguise the loss of whole scenes later. The chop-job should have been obvious. The newly imposed fades and dissolves look awkward, and one cut very sloppily happens right in the middle of a previous dissolve.

I would argue that this lowly horror film is a major performance title for the nearly-always good Dana Andrews, and perhaps the best for Niall MacGinnis, although I haven’t seen all that many of his pictures. Peggy Cummins is excellent as well, although her character isn’t nearly as exciting as her Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy. The billing for these three is different in the two versions. Night places both Andrews and Cummins’ credits above the title and gives McGinnis an ‘also starring’ credit immediately afterwards. Oddly, Curse sticks Cummins afterwards and relegates McGinnis to the top of the ‘also with’ cast list. It’s likely that Dana Andrews’ contract called for sole credit above the title in America.

Technically, both versions look just fine, very sharp and free of digital funk that would spoil the film’s spooky visual texture. As explained in the accompanying Wayne Schmidt Savant article, the American Curse version is closer to the original negative, but it’s seen far more wear and tear through the years.

Wild Side’s deluxe presentation gives us Rendez-vous avec la peur in a classy package. A card sleeve contains a disc holder with both the Blu-ray and DVD copies, next to a 144-page book by Michael Henry Wilson, Le Versant crépusculaire. It tells the entire making-of story in great detail, even including details like the writing participation of expatriate American director Cyril Endfield. The bad news is that the book is in French. However, being caught studying its notes and illustrations does make one feel better educated.*

There are no other extras, not even a trailer. I do recommend Wayne Schmidt’s new Savant article Rescuing the Runes: The Almost-Lost Original Long Cut of Night of the Demon, which tells the story of the rescue of the long English version. A few years after the release of the two-version DVD, it was for a time nowhere to be found.


Now, what’s the controversy about that big ugly Demon? (opinion)

Curse of the Demon’s Demon monster has been the subject of debate ever since the heyday of the fan magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. From what’s on record it’s clear that producer Hal Chester added or maximized the shots of the creature, a literal visualization of a fiery, brimstone-smoking classical woodcut demon. Some viewers think the monster looks ridiculous. Bennett and Tourneur’s original idea was to never show a demon, something the producer certainly wasn’t going to go along with. Tourneur probably directed most of the shots, only to have Chester over-use them. To Savant’s thinking, the demon looks great. It is first perceived as an ominous sound, a less strident version of the alarming noise made by Them!  Then it manifests itself visually as a strange disturbance in the sky: bubbles? sparks? early slit-scan?  That’s followed by a billowing cloud of sulphurous smoke, a dandy effect not exploited again until Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The long-shot demon is sometimes called the bicycle demon, because he’s a rod puppet with legs that move on a wheel-rig. Smoke belches from all over his scaly body. Close-ups are provided by a wonderfully sculpted head ‘n’ shoulders demon with articulated eyes and lips, a full decade or so before Carlo Rambaldi started engineering such devices.

Most of the debate centers on how much Demon should have been shown, with the general consensus that less would have been better. People that dote on Lewton-esque ambivalence say that the film’s slow buildup of rationality-versus demonology is destroyed by the very real Demon’s appearance in the first scene, and that’s where they’d like it removed or radically reduced. The Demon is so nicely integrated into the cutting (the giant foot in the first scene is a real jolt) that it’s likely that Tourneur himself filmed it all, perhaps expecting the shots to be shorter or more obscured. It is also possible that the giant head was a post-Tourneur addition. It doesn’t tie in with the other shots as well (especially when it rolls forward rather stiffly) and is rather blunt. Detractors lump it in with the gawd-awful head of The Black Scorpion, which is filmed the same way and also became a key poster image. This demon head matches the surrounding action a lot better than does the drooling Scorpion.

Savant wouldn’t change Night of the Demon but if you put a gun to my head I’d shorten most of the shots in its first appearance, perhaps eliminating all close-ups except for the final, superb shot of the the giant claw reaching for Harrington / us.


Savant correspondent Wayne Schmidt has just written an inside story about the ‘rescue’ of the film elements for this movie: Rescuing the Runes: The Almost-Lost Original Long Cut of Night of the Demon.

*  There is a book in English on this movie, that I read and liked: Tony Earnshaw’s Beating the Devil: The Making of the Night of the Demon from 2010. Thanks to Gary Teetzel for reminding me of it. Looking at the prices, you’ll need to make a deal with the Devil to afford a copy.

(extra)  And correspondent Gary Teetzel strikes again, pointing out a definite hommage to Tourneur’s film in the opening scene of this Twilight Zone episode by Harlan Ellison: Crazy as A Soup Sandwich.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night of the Demon Region A+B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two versions, full book by Michael Henry Wilson, Le Versant crépusculaire.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: French only
Packaging: One all-region Blu-ray and one PAL DVD disc in special package with book
Reviewed: May 17, 2017
(5422demo)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.