Monday, November 5, 2012

31 Horrors: Night of the Demon (#21)

Wherein I attempt to watch 31 horror films over the course of October. 31 horror films that I have never seen before, from obscure to acclaimed classics. We'll see how well I go in actually finding the time to watch and then write about them in some way.

I was entirely surprised when I happened across the DVD of this film at the local library. A Jacques Tourneur film described as "one of the scariest films ever made"? I've already discussed my affinity for this French director's horror output - specifically Cat People, but also I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man - and I'd never heard this British film from 1957 mentioned alongside them in any real reverence. It's not produced by the esteemed Val Lewton so that probably doesn't hurt, but I imagine that maybe its newfound recognition comes from this list by Martin Scorsese wherein he labels Night of the Demon as one of the "eleven scariest horror movies of all time." Why eleven we'll never know, but it's hard to not see the internet culture immediately rushing to claim it as such after somebody of Martin Scorsese's stature says it's that good.

As if the title and the poster up top (a fabulous original UK quad) didn't alert you, Night of the Demon (retitled to Curse of the Demon for its recut American release) is about a demonic spirit that forms itself into the form of a cross between a roller-skating Godzilla and the creature from the Black Lagoon. As silly as that sounds, the demon's brief appearances are actually quite startling in their effect. That instant, unexpected appearance of something unnatural in an otherwise benign scenario will always work at eliciting a chilly shudder up the spine at a far greater ratio than anything other scare you can manufacture and Tourneur does a remarkable job when he utilises it here.

Night of the Demon is actually far less about a demonic apparition than it is about a skeptic's ambition to reveal a cult as false. It that respect it would make a surprisingly apt and fabulous double with Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. They both have a very cold, but beautiful, way of getting to the core of the institution that is the cause of so much conflict with a robust and lively central figurehead and a meek, if feverishly determined, younger man trying to work it all out. Night of the Demon, of course, twists its story of a cult and its charismatic leader into a very literal horror direction, but it works.

I loved that Tourneur and writers Charles Bennett and Hal E Chester utilised classical elements into the story. Stonehenge being a particularly inspired choice as that mysterious formation will always make for an easy backdrop to something supernatural. Several set-pieces are indeed flatout terrifying for what they suggest and how they're framed - how about that visit to the homestead of a "demon" victim with the reveal of the parchment? - although an extended storm sequence at the mansion estate of Niall MacGinnis' Karswell perhaps could have been shortened (maybe the US version does as such) and causes the pace to lag. Filmed in a way that utilises Tourneur's trademark film-noir aesthetic, Night of the Demon is surely a beautifully made film. While it doesn't quite all come together as a whole that warrants the title as one of the scariest films ever made, it does make for a delicious surprise and a wonderfully smart take on the issues. B+

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