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31 Days Of Horror: 'Night Of The Demon' (1957)

October 8th, 2010 1:35pm EDT

Night of the Demon (1957) Why didn’t anyone tell me that Drag Me to Hell is basically Night of the Demon on amphetamines?

There’s the three day curse, the floating scrap of paper, the attempts to pass the curse onto others, the séance, the opening sequence  showing the fate of the cursed, an ending on train tracks. It’s basically a remake--which is fine, really, I just feel kind of like a schlub for not knowing that already. In fact, if all remakes were like the Night of the Demon/Drag Me To Hell connection then the world would be a much better place.

But I digress.

Night of the Demon is a title you hear often when it comes to the history of horror movies, often tapped as the best genuine horror film of the 1950s--a decade too preoccupied with flying saucers and cold war anxiety for ancient matters of the occult and superstition. Martin Scorsese even named it as one of the scariest movies ever made; Sam Raimi clearly likes it--so really, who am I to argue?

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, who started out in the 40s directing masterful horror cheapies for producer Val Lewton, Night of the Demon is at times too slow and clumsily handled to compare to Tourneur’s finely tuned Lewton films. You can feel the presence of something sinister lurking within Tourneur’s cascading shadows, but when that presence gets revealed very early in the film, the limitations of the era’s special effects spoil it with a rather doofy looking monster. Let me illustrate.

The film opens with the death of a Professor Harrington, who at the end of a three day curse is set upon by our titular demon. As he’s parking his car, he looks into the distance to the sound of bats. A plume of smoke emerges from the black, revealing a massive demon accompanied by a blast of horns on the score:
Creepy!

But then the scene continues, and as the demon approaches it takes on the unfortunate appearance of a parade float clumsily skirting along the top of the ground on a shopping cart:

Not so creepy!

Apparently, the demon was added against the wishes of Tourneur and the film’s writer, Charles Bennett (who wrote many of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous early films). Unfortunately, what was no doubt a commercial decision blows every ounce of ambiguity and tension the rest of the movie works so hard to craft right in the opening scene.

Aside from that, and the fact that it takes a good 30 minutes for the movie to gain traction, Night of the Demon is a wonderfully creepy movie. It has a great villain played with sinister likability by Niall MacGinnis and the kind of skeptical main character (played by Dana Andrews) that horror movies love to torment. About the worst thing you can do in a horror movie is play the skeptic—they are always the first ones to get thrown down a flight of stairs or torn apart by Hell spawn. It’s too bad that the Hell spawn in this case happens to look, well, kind of dumb.


For Monday: Catching up with the rest of the world with Poltergeist, and a couple of others I haven't decided on yet. Mystery!

Related: Drag Me To Hell, Martin Scorsese, Starpulse Exclusives, Columns, 31 Days of Horror

Photo Credits: Copyright: Columbia Pictures, 1957

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