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Film / Night of the Demon

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"Dana Andrews said prunes
Gave him the runes
And passing them used lots of skill
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, "Science Fiction Double Feature"

Classic 1957 British horror film based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James, directed by Jacques Tourneur, produced by Hal E. Chester, and starring Dana Andrews.

The plot involves Dr. John Holden (Andrews), a visiting American psychology professor, and his attempts to put down an English devil-worshipping cult led by the evil but charming Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), who is able to use Celtic runes to summon a demon to attack his enemies. Of course, Karswell is able to slip some runes on Holden, who must try to avoid death at the demon's scaly hands. Holden enlists the aid of Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the niece of a rival of Karswell's who had died under suspicious circumstances.

The script is very intelligent, the characterizations are awfully good, and it's got a slew of creepy moments and excellent suspense. The demon is well done, and the other effects, though not particularly fancy, do a good job of ramping up the fright.

Released in the U.S. as Curse of the Demon. Not to be confused with the 1988 horror flick, Night of the Demons, or with the 1980 Video Nasty Night of the Demon (1980) featuring Bigfoot. See also Drag Me to Hell which is basically a remake of this with a few character changes and directed by Sam Raimi.

Night of the Demon provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Karswell is this in comparison to the original story, in which he was a vicious bully who delighted in setting his pet demon on people for even minor insults and ended childrens' party by traumatizing the children for laughs.
  • Affably Evil: Karswell is an extremely likeable, charming man. He's also a spell-casting Satanist who murders casual acquaintances.
  • Agent Scully: Holden is a rock-solid skeptic about the supernatural.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: Karswell warns Holden not to do this; Holden ignores him and sees the demon for the first time.
  • Elemental Powers: Karswell very casually conjures up a terrific windstorm.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Karswell's relationship with his mother is very gentle and loving, even after she betrays him.
  • Evil Is One Big, Happy Family: Rand Hobart's creepy family rejected him because he wasn't dedicated enough to die for Karswell's cult. "It were meant for him, but he passed it to a brother... A true believer. Not like him."
  • Folk Horror: A secretive cult, sinister runic magic, and Stonehenge all play into the narrative.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Holden gets almost ridiculous when he starts rationalizing away the most utterly unnatural events imaginable as 'some sort of a trick'. It is subverted at the climax, however, when he tells Karswell that he does indeed believe in his powers now... so much so that he'll keep Karswell with him so the demon can kill BOTH of them.
  • Friend to All Children: Karswell hosts Halloween parties for local children. He appears to really like them, and vice versa.
  • Halloween Episode: Karswell hosts a Halloween party for the local children.
  • Hollywood Satanism: Although note that this movie came out before the foundation of the actual Church of Satan.
  • Gothic Horror: In contrast to the Sci-Fi Horror that dominated most of the decade, this movie draws its scares from folklore, the past, and the supernatural. Its success foreshadowed an entire wave of British-made gothic horror films that would start the very next year with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula and last into the '70s.
  • Guile Hero: Holden becomes this at the climax, initially attempting a Taking You with Me with Karswell then pass the parchment onto him when handing him his coat when the satanist tries to leave.
  • Idiot Ball: Whoever thought it was a good idea to bring an insane, suspected murderer in front of an audience, and inject him with drugs to revive him from a catatonic state, without using any restraints?
  • Instant Runes: Averted. Karswell's runes are written on simple strips of paper.
  • Lottery of Doom: It's strongly implied that this is how Karswell's devil cult chooses its victims for Human Sacrifice. Unlike most such examples, they normally do it to their own members.
  • Monster Clown: Karswell dresses as a clown for the Halloween party. He's not a particularly monstrous clown, he's nice to all the children, and basically friendly with the protagonist... but the guy is a storm-summoning Satanist...
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The original intent was to never actually show the demon, leaving its existence ambiguous. Executive Meddling inserted a few effects shots against the director's will. They're very good effects shots and the demon's design has become iconic, so it's hard to say whether Tourneur's more minimalist original vision would have resulted in a stronger film or not.
  • Oh, Crap!: Karswell appears to have escaped, but Holden hands him his coat. Unthinkingly, Karswell takes it... and then the penny drops: "You've passed me the parchment!"
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: What gets the blame when the demon kills Karswell.
  • Religion of Evil: Karswell's devil cult, what else?
  • Right-Hand Cat: Karswell's pet cat Graymalkin that can turn itself into a leopard.
  • Skeptic No Longer: Holden finally gives up his skepticism, at least about Karswell's powers.
  • Spooky Silent Library: Holden has a creepy encounter with Karswell in the British Library.
  • Spooky Séance: Karswell's mother takes Holden and Joanna to a seance to try to convince them to believe in the supernatural.
  • Super Smoke: The demon's appearance is heralded by an approaching ball of smoke, with the demon rising out of it.
  • Super Window Jump: How Rand Hobart kills himself.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Karswell panics when he realized Holden's intentions to attempt a Taking You with Me when the demon shows up.
  • Vocal Dissonance: The medium at the seance speaks in a wide variety of voices as he channels spirits.
  • The X of Y