By Michael Roberson
Dr. Julian Karswell, as embodied by Irish character actor Niall MacGinnis, is one of the great unsung villains in horror film history. A charming – if perhaps a bit smug – occult expert and cult leader, Karswell is gregarious, honest in his intentions, and at all turns pleasant. However, as another occult expert points out to the rationalist protagonist Dr. John Holden, “[the Devil] is most dangerous when he’s being pleasant.”
After a suitably somber monologue about ancient belief in witches and demons over a stark daylight image of Stonehenge, the first thing we see in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon is the spectre of headlights racing through the forest (a striking image that recalls the climax of Tourneur’s brilliant, genre-defining 1947 noir, Out of the Past). The car belongs to a Professor Harrington, who arrives at Karswell’s sprawling mansion in a panic and begs Karswell to call “it” off. Karswell at first simply gloats over Harrington (“You said ‘do your worst’ and that’s exactly what I did”), but assures him that he will do what he can. But when Harrington arrives at home and steps out of his car, a billowing plume of otherworldly smoke ushers in a monstrous winged demon that reaches down to him with its fearsome claws.
That demon was a bit of a sticking point for Tourneur, as well as for lead actor Dana Andrews and screenwriter Charles Bennett. Tourneur’s initial vision was to present an ambiguous scenario, in which the audience never learns if the titular demon is real or simply Karswell playing his victims’ superstitions to his advantage. Maybe he was right; Tourneur did, after all, do magnificent work with a similarly ambiguous supernatural premise in his classic horror film Cat People (which Night of the Demon has a great deal of fun referencing in a scene involving a shape-changing cat named Greymalkin).
Far be it for me to contradict a master like Jacques Tourneur, but I simply can’t picture Night of the Demon without, well, the Demon. It’s an absolute marvel of effects work and creature design; sprawling wings, a snarling bear-like face, but with a distinctly human intelligence behind its glowing eyes, with an impossibly long tail and jutting horns, all brought to life with a mixture of puppetry, man-in-suit effects, and superimposition that make it truly feel as if it’s on a different plane of existence than the rest of the film. It is maybe second only to Godzilla in terms of great 1950s movie monsters, and despite only appearing in probably less than five minutes of the film’s running time, it leaves a massive impression.
Still, though the demon was the most memorable part of the film when I first saw it as an adolescent, on more recent viewings, Karswell has been the standout figure of the film. The key scene comes about a third of the way into the movie: Dr. John Holden, professional skeptic, has come to London from America to pick up where Professor Harrington left off, exposing Karswell’s Satanic cult as a cheap con. Karswell, for his part, attempts to warn Holden off, but seeing that his skepticism absolutely refuses to budge, he elects to place the curse of the demon on him instead. Despite his stoicism, Holden is clearly spooked, so he decides to check out Karswell’s manor for himself. Rather than an arcane cult ritual, he finds Karswell made up as a clown, entertaining a group of children by pulling a puppy from a hat. Karswell remains positively genial even as he tells Holden of his impending death. Seeing that Holden is still skeptical, Karswell conjures a fierce windstorm; the image of Karswell standing at the center of the maelstrom, unmoving, his clown makeup accentuating his mean little grin, is an even creepier image than that demon.
Still, what makes Night of the Demon so great is that its success can’t be pinned down to just one thing, not even MacGinnis’ great performance. The premise, adapted from a short story by British horror writer M.R. James, whose stories have a chilling creepiness even more powerful than contemporaries such as Bram Stoker, is the picture of elegance, so tension-inducing in its very concept that Sam Raimi was able to basically lift it unchanged for his fantastic 2009 horror throwback Drag Me to Hell. Further, screenwriter Charles Bennett, a veteran of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, gives the dialogue the snap of film noir (“Take it easy on our ghosts,” a reporter tells Holden as he arrives at the airport, “we English are quite fond of them.” “Sure,” Holden replies, “some of my best friends are ghosts.”), as well as concocting a real monster of a climax, a suspenseful Hitchcockian tete-a-tete between Holden and Karswell in a train car.
And of course, Tourneur has an incredible eye for the gloomy, modern-gothic settings, with cinematographer Ted Scaife capturing the fog and gloom of the London settings in Tourneur’s trademark noir-meets-horror style, making Karswell’s mansion or the rural farm Holden goes to looking for answers feel overpoweringly threatening, even in full daylight. Tourneur and his crew know that the best way to get under the viewer’s skin is to slyly insinuate themselves, and in this, Karswell becomes one of the great director surrogates in film, disarmingly likeable even as he’s trying to scare the wits out of you.