Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As part of our two weeks of Halloween-related content, we offer five days of monster movies.
Night Of The Demon (1957)
Is it possible to have a monster movie without a monster? Jacques Tourneur thought so. The French-American director, who made the great Robert Mitchum noir Out Of The Past and some of the moodiest, classiest horror films of the ’40s, never intended to show the titular attraction of his 1957 British fright flick Night Of The Demon. His rationale was simple: Putting the beast onscreen would destroy the ambiguity of the tale, which was meant to leave audiences guessing as to whether its supernatural threat was real or imagined. But the film’s producer, Hal E. Chester, had other ideas; he commissioned additional footage against Tourneur’s wishes, inserting scenes of a fanged, cross-eyed creature at the beginning and end of the movie. So much for ambiguity.
Compromises aside, Curse Of The Demon—as it was re-titled for U.S. release—still feels like a classic of the genre, on par with the melancholic chillers Tourneur made for Val Lewton earlier in his career. Dana Andrews plays Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist snooping around London to expose a Satanic cult, whose leader (a wonderfully hammy Niall MacGinnis) he believes responsible for the mysterious death of his confidant. The audience knows the actual culprit, of course, thanks to that added footage, and soon the thing from beyond has a new target—one whose refusal to succumb to superstitious panic won’t save him.
There’s plenty of humor here, as when Holden pulls the plug on a theatrical séance, but also a good deal of unnerving atmosphere. A major influence on 2009’s Drag Me To Hell—see: the general shape of the creature and a curse that can be literally passed from one person to another—Tourneur’s movie shares with its Sam Raimi descendant a ticking-clock tension. Because we do know what happened to Holden’s predecessor, his stubborn skepticism becomes a source of suspense; the demon really is coming to get him, so the longer he puts off believing, the further he drifts towards certain doom. Highlighted by a couple scenes of convincingly expressed fear—as when a murder suspect awakes from a coma bellowing with primal terror—Demon is a rationalist’s nightmare, playing on anxiety that maybe, just maybe, the kooks are right to be afraid. As for the unwanted prologue and epilogue, there are much worse things to superfluously tack onto a horror movie than a flying, snarling monster.