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This was the second film we saw at the Manchester double-bill evening, following after Dracula. It was a good pairing, actually. I hadn't realised until I looked it up just now how close together the two films were made (just a year apart, with this one the earlier), and the difference in style really brings home how innovative Hammer's films were in this period in a way that might otherwise be difficult to notice from a distance of fifty-five years.

While Hammer embraced full technicolor, building a rich world of draperies, gowns and Kensington gore, Night of the Demon is in black and white. It's crisp, beautiful black and white, making enviable use of shadows, contrasts and highlights, but it means that visually it looks more as though it should sit alongside Universal's horror output from the 1930s - and the effect is highlighted by having an American as the central character. Though it is based on an M.R. James story first published in 1911, and could thus very legitimately have made use of a period setting, the film is actually set in the present day - again a characteristic of pre-war American horror adaptations (Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein are both set in 1931), which Hammer was just at this moment definitively rejecting in favour of an almost fairy-tale style Gothic aesthetic.

I don't mean to criticise Night of the Demon for any of this. Horror movies were changing, and I suspect it would have looked pretty dated already within about five years of its release in a way that Dracula did not. But it's nonetheless a very compelling story, with some beautiful visuals and some great scary moments. I particularly enjoyed the violent wind-storm which Karswell (the black magician who is the villain of the piece) calls up in order to demonstrate his power to Holden (the American scientifically-minded psychiatrist who becomes his antagonist), as well as a scene in which Karswell's cat turns into a much bigger animal and attacks Holden after he has broken into his house at night. The horror of the latter is all suggested by half-seen close-ups and big shadows, and reminded me strongly of The Cat People - as well it might, given that it is by the same director.

Rather less subtle is the titular demon, which the lore has it Tourneur did not wish to depict literally on screen, but was inserted nevertheless in full-blown animatronic form at the insistence of the producer, Hal E. Chester. Aesthetically, I think Tourneur was right about that, and, as the scene with the cat shows, he certainly had the necessary skills to suggest the demon effectively without ever showing it. Probably the best approach would have been to show a half-formed shadowy face in the smoke (easily done using hand-drawn animation) - enough to show that the demon was real, but not enough to reveal it as a model. But I also think Chester probably had a good sense of what audiences of the day demanded, and again the pairing of this film with Hammer's Dracula helps to make it clear. Hammer was putting dripping fangs and disintegrating vampires right there on the screen, and others needed to compete.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 10th, 2013 07:20 pm (UTC)
Your link to the James story is missing the ending - which I was going to quote to support your belief that not showing the demon is the better choice. You can find the full version here. The final paragraph - to my mind one of the most chilling in Eng Lit - reads:

Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell's sale a set of Bewick, sold with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut of the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also, after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of what he had heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long before Dunning stopped him.
Nov. 10th, 2013 07:30 pm (UTC)
That paragraph is there in the version I linked to, actually, as I was just reading it myself. It's directly above the picture of the book at the bottom.

You're right, though - it shows nicely how effective suggestion can be, and also that drawing attention to the fact that you are stopping at suggestion by saying something is too terrible to speak of directly can be powerful too.

M.R. James is just great, in short.
Nov. 10th, 2013 07:35 pm (UTC)
How curious! When I click it gets as far as "Therefore, it occurs to me to ask you whether you have anything to put beside what I have told you." and then there's a big black gap before the picture.

I've tried it three times now....
Nov. 10th, 2013 07:44 pm (UTC)
That is strange. Evidently something demonic at work...
Nov. 10th, 2013 11:38 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed that too - but like you I think it suffers from showing the monster which isn't as terrifying as it could be if was just left to suggestion, but I was especially impressed by the service offered on transatlantic flights in those days when he says he can't sleep and the air hostess asks if she can get him a pill. You don't get that on Jet2.
Nov. 11th, 2013 09:06 am (UTC)
Haha, I had forgotten about the pill! Thanks for reminding me - classic stuff. :-)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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