Night of the Demon is a 1957 British horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis. An adaptation of the M. R. James story "Casting the Runes" (1911), the plot revolves around an American psychologist investigating a satanic cult suspected of more than one murder.
The film's production was turbulent due to clashing ideas between producer Hal E. Chester on one side and Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett on the other. Although the original plan was not to show a literal demon, producer Chester inserted a monster over the objections of the writer, director and star Dana Andrews. To accelerate the pace, the film was trimmed down to 83 minutes (and retitled Curse of the Demon) in the US where it played the second half of a double feature bill with both The True Story of Lynn Stuart and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).
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In England, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) approaches Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), the leader of a satanic cult, promising to call off an investigation of the cult if Karswell will call off "what he has started". After learning that a parchment given to Harrington has disintegrated, and seeing by the clock it is already too late, Karswell says that he will do all that he can and ushers Harrington out. After Harrington arrives at his home, a demon materialises in the woods and approaches. Fleeing in his car, Harrington crashes into a telegraph pole, which apparently causes falling power lines to electrocute him.
Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to attend a convention where Harrington had intended to expose Karswell's cult. Holden is informed of Harrington's death and that the only link between it and Karswell's cult is an accused murderer, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), who has fallen into a catatonic stupor. While Harrington's collaborators consider the possibility of supernatural forces, Holden rejects the idea as superstition.
Following Harrington's notes, Holden visits the British Museum's library to examine books on witchcraft. A book Holden requests is discovered to be missing. He is approached by Karswell, who offers to show Holden his own copy at his mansion. At Harrington's funeral, Holden meets the dead man's niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins), who provides him with Harrington's diary. The diary reveals Harrington's increasing fear of Karswell's power. Holden remains sceptical, but goes with Joanna to Karswell's mansion the next day.
There, on a bright, sunny day, Holden and Karswell mock one another's beliefs. A very strong windstorm abruptly starts, which Karswell claims to have created with a spell. When Holden continues to mock him, Karswell grows angry and predicts that Holden will die in three days.
At his hotel, Holden and his colleagues discuss Karswell and make plans to further examine Rand Hobart. Harrington's diary mentions the parchment passed to him by Karswell; Holden finds a parchment with runic inscriptions, that Karswell secretly passed to him at the library. Powerful winds come through the window, blowing the parchment from his fingers. It nearly burns in the fireplace before Holden rescues and pockets it.
Holden begins to feel more uneasy after a visit to Hobart's family, who disowned Hobart as "not a true believer". As Holden leaves, the parchment flies from his hand again. Hobart's family become fearful and declare Holden to be "chosen". Holden compares the parchment's runes to ones inscribed on the nearby stone circle at Stonehenge.
Joanna takes Holden to Karswell's mother (Athene Seyler), who has arranged a séance. The medium channels Harrington, who tells them that Karswell has the key to the problem from his book. Holden leaves, dismissive towards both the medium and Mrs. Karswell. That night, Holden breaks into Karswell's mansion to examine the book. He is caught by Karswell, but is permitted to leave. Holden leaves through the woods and finds himself being chased by a living ball of smoke. On escaping from the forest, Holden finds that the phenomenon has vanished. He reports the event to the police but feels embarrassed, believing that he is falling for Karswell's mindgames.
Mrs. Karswell telephones Joanna, imploring her to tell Holden that Rand Hobart knows the secret of the parchment. "All this evil must end, Miss Harrington!", she says, as her son Julian appears and overhears her betrayal. While Holden prepares an experiment to break Hobart's stupor, Karswell kidnaps Joanna to prevent her reaching Holden with the message.
Under hypnosis, Hobart reveals that he was "chosen" to die by having a parchment with a curse passed to him, but avoided death by passing it to another person. When Holden shows Hobart the parchment he received from Karswell, Hobart goes berserk and throws himself from a window to his death.
Informed that Karswell is leaving London by train, Holden, convinced now that he must return the parchment to Karswell to save himself, races to catch it. He finds Karswell with Joanna. Karswell avoids any contact with Holden to guard against the parchment being passed back to him and grows increasingly fearful. When the train stops at the next station, Karswell tries to leave, but Holden manages to sneak the parchment into his coat as he gives it back to its owner. Karswell is frightened when he realises this and the parchment flies from his hands. He chases it down to the tracks, where the parchment burns to ashes. As an oncoming train approaches, a demon appears above it, seizes Karswell and slashes him, and tosses his body onto the tracks. The station crew find his mangled, smoking carcass and can only believe that he was struck by the train.
Dana Andrews as John Holden
Peggy Cummins as Joanna Harrington
Niall MacGinnis as Doctor Karswell
Maurice Denham as Professor Harrington
Athene Seyler as Mrs. Karswell
Liam Redmond as Mark O'Brien
Reginald Beckwith as Mr. Meek
Ewan Roberts as Lloyd Williamson
Peter Elliott as Kumar
Rosamund Greenwood as Mrs. Meek
Brian Wilde as Rand Hobart
Richard Leech as Inspector Mottram
Lloyd Lamble as Detective Simmons
Peter Hobbes as Superintendent
Charles Lloyd-Pack as Chemist
John Salew as Librarian
Janet Barrow as Mrs. Hobart
Percy Herbert as Farmer
Lynn Tracy as Air Hostess
Screenwriter Charles Bennett owned the rights to the original story "Casting the Runes" and wrote a script loosely based on it, using the title The Haunted. He sold the script to independent producer and former child actor Hal E. Chester shortly before going to America. Bennett regretted selling the script because on arrival in America, he was approached by RKO who wanted to purchase his script and allow him to direct the film. Actors Robert Taylor and Dick Powell had been in line for the leading roles if this production had taken place.
Jacques Tourneur was brought in by Chester on the recommendation of Ted Richmond, the producer of Tourneur's previous film, Nightfall (1957). However, Tourneur and Chester had serious disagreements during filming. One argument was about the wind scene; Tourneur tried to convince Chester to replace two electric fans with two aeroplane engines. When Chester hesitated, star Dana Andrews threatened to leave the picture if Chester didn't let "the director direct the picture." Locations for the film include Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire (as Lufford Hall), Stonehenge, Bricket Wood railway station, and the British Museum Reading Room.
After completion of the principal shooting, producer Chester decided to show the demon at the beginning and end of the film. Tourneur later said that he was against the addition, stating "The scenes where you see the demon were shot without me...the audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon." Stop motion master Ray Harryhausen was requested by Columbia Pictures to create the demon for the production, but was already committed to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, with producer Charles H. Schneer. Author Tony Earnshaw's book Beating the Devil-the Making of Night of the Demon argues that showing the demon was planned early on in the production (despite Tourneur's protests to the contrary), in order to heighten the tension in the film by letting the audience know the demonic powers were real. Bennett, also angry at the script changes said, "If [Chester] walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead."
The film was released in the United Kingdom for a theatrical run in December 1957. In Britain, running to its original 96 minute length, it was released as a double bill with the American film 20 Million Miles to Earth as a double feature. In the United States it was released as Curse of the Demon. According to Charles Bennett, the title was changed as the studio didn't want it confused with the similarly titled story of The Night of the Iguana. Curse of the Demon toured drive-ins and theatres variously with The True Story of Lynn Stuart and The Revenge of Frankenstein. Columbia cut the film down to 81 minutes for the US release. Cut scenes included a visit to the Hobart family farm, a trip to Stonehenge, and snippets of the séance scenes and conversations between Karswell and his mother.
In the United States, the film was released on VHS in 1986 by Columbia TriStar Home Video with a run time of 81 minutes. A second VHS with a 96-minute running time was released by Goodtimes Home Video Corp in 1988. In 1988, a Laserdisc of the film was released by Image Entertainment/Columbia Pictures with an 81 minute running time. A double-bill version with both the UK version of Night of the Demon and the edited US version as Curse of the Demon was released on DVD in August 2002. In the United Kingdom, Night of the Demon was released on VHS in 1995 by Encore Entertainment/Columbia TriStar Home Video. The film was released on DVD in the United Kingdom for the first time on 18 October 2010. This release also includes both the UK and US versions of the film.
In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. Night of the Demon placed at number 52 on their top 100 list.
"Science Fiction/Double Feature", the opening song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, includes the line, "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes/And passing them uses lots of skill."
Director Martin Scorsese placed Night of the Demon on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.
The Kate Bush song "Hounds of Love" (1985) begins with a line of dialogue from the film, "It's in the trees, it's coming!" Coil's "Queens of the Circulating Library" (2000) also features the line "It's in the trees, it's coming!", sung by Thighpaulsandra's mother.