Like the best horror tales, the “Night of the Demon” came back from the “dead.” This was as a result of a late-night slot for cult movies on British television in the late 1980s. Continuing to this day, the film has attracted ever-increasing praise from critics and found an ever-more appreciative audience. It seems the perfect horror movie for a post-Christian generation.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes vividly the barbarism and cruelty he encountered at Wyndard School where he was a pupil from September 1908 until June 1910. The school no longer exists, long since demolished. In fact, its existence was relatively short lived, the school’s closing coinciding with its sadistic headmaster being incarcerated in an insane asylum.
Wynard School was in the Hertfordshire town of Watford. It is a place known now mainly for its rail station: Watford Junction. This station is a busy rail junction for trains heading into or out of London, from and to the Midlands and North of England. In 1957 at that station and around the neighboring countryside towns a film was shot called Night of the Demon. Loosely based on the M.R. James tale, Casting the Runes (1911), the film has two main protagonists: one a devil worshipper and the other an agnostic scientist who has little time for anything supernatural. They sum up perfectly the two extremes of the human attitude to evil to which Lewis alluded in another of his works: The Screwtape Letters in which a senior devil writes to his nephew, the less experienced Wormwood.
My Dear Wormwood,
Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves… We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics.
In Night of the Demon we have both magician and materialist skeptic. The 1957 film directed by Jacques Tourneur, now a cult classic, is unusual for films dealing with the occult in that its frame of reference is not the one familiar to audiences in the 1950s, namely, the battle between good and evil. In this atmospheric film the conflict is between science and some form of unspecified supernatural realm. The existence of this realm is largely unacknowledged by most of the film’s characters and, by the end, the realm’s reality or otherwise remains vague and essentially unexplained to the audience.
The film’s two principal characters are the magician Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) and an American visiting academic, the materialist skeptic, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews). From the start, theirs is a battle of wills. One uses magic in their personal conflict, the other science—at least to begin with. The film explores the nature of free will. The central trope is Karswell’s reliance on casting spells by the exchange of notes inscribed with runic hieroglyphics. This method of spell-casting has been Karswell’s modus operandi up until now, and from the opening scenes, in which we observe the death of one of Karswell’s opponents, we see how effective his spells have been for the magician. The film turns on whether the curse that Karswell has cast on Holden will hold or if it will be possible for it to be undone. Is Holden able to survive the appointed hour of his death as designated by Karswell?
Given the story’s premise, the film moves far from any Christian understanding of the universe. In the Night of the Demon magic is undone only through magic. In a sense, all here, and indeed throughout the world, are at the mercy of these forces and, therefore, are doomed to be subject to them.
The film was shot in monochrome at a time when cinema was increasingly moving to color to attract audiences. Another English film production company, Hammer Films, then also filming at nearby Bray studios, understood this trend to color better than the producers of Night of the Demon as evidenced in the soon to be released The Revenge of Frankenstein. In 1958, both films were released on the same bill in the United States. Hammer’s film was a box office triumph, just as had its earlier horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein. In the process Hammer kick-started a horror industry revival. Hammer’s studio at Bray would become the one associated with that genre for the next 20 years, and profitably so. In contrast, the Night of the Demon sank into obscurity.
Like the best horror tales, however, the Night of the Demon came back from the “dead.” This was as a result of a late-night slot for cult movies on British television in the late 1980s. A new generation watched on TV Jacques Tourneur’s stylish filmmaking and the dark theological ambivalence of this superbly acted movie.
What perhaps to audiences in the late 1950s had looked already dated, now, to a new audience decades later, appeared wonderfully retro. In some ways, the total lack of any Christian trappings within the story appealed to a generation far removed from any sense of traditional religious belief more than it had to its original audience in the 1950s. From then on, and continuing to this day, the film has attracted ever-increasing praise from critics and found an ever-more appreciative audience. It seems the perfect horror movie for a post-Christian generation.
It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.
The film was shot at a number of train stations. Trains and the passing of the cursed note are the two dominant themes in the film, and, indeed, the original short story.
My own experience bears this out.
Late one evening, sometime in the 1990s, I was sitting on a train as it arrived into London’s Victoria rail station. The compartment was unusually empty except for one man sitting opposite me who was reading a book. As the train shuttered to a halt at its final stop, quite unexpectedly, the man stood up. Then, with the book opened at a certain page, he handed it to me before exiting the train and disappearing into the crowds in and around the London terminus. Left alone I looked down at the title of the book just passed to me. It was none other than The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, and it was opened at the start of one of those tales, none other than, Casting the Runes.
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