A Walk In Fear And Dread… NIGHT OF THE DEMON Reviewed

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“Like one who, on a lonely road, Doth walk in fear and dread, And, having once turned round, walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread…” The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

BD. Indicator / Powerhouse. Region Free. PG.

Among genre fans of a certain vintage, one of the principal rites of passage was having the holy shit scared out of you by Night Of The Demon, Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 screen adaptation of the classic M.R. James spine-chiller Casting The Runes (first published in 1911). As any seasoned Horror devotee will no doubt already be aware, in Tourneur’s film sceptical American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews), while investigating the mysterious death of his colleague Professor Harrison (Maurice Denham) in England, pokes his nose a little too intrusively and imprudently into the affairs of malign magus Julian Karswell (a superbly nuanced performance by Niall MacGinnis) who slips him a parchment containing runic symbols, possession of which guarantee the bearer an unwanted meeting with a terrifying elemental being at an appointed hour. Neither the support of love interest Joanna (Holden’s niece, played by Peggy Cummins) nor his own cherished rationalist convictions can prevent the inexorable erosion of Holden’s sang froid in the face of the mounting evidence that this is no mere mumbo jumbo, that the existential peril facing him is all too awfully real…

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For some time now, my traumatic recollections of a youthful TV exposure to Night Of The Demon have been safely contained within the box of Mediumrare’s 2010 DVD edition (which observes me resentfully from the shelf as I sit typing these words), containing two versions of the film, the “full length UK cut” and the shorter “re-edited American version” (as Curse Of The Demon). What more could I possibly need in this regard? How much more should I be prepared to risk? The arrival of Indicator’s double BD limited edition, though, establishes that those appellations are misleadingly simplistic. As well as correctly identifying those variants, it presents us with another two, alongside a slew of extras that draw back the veil of obfuscation, question critical orthodoxies that have stood nearly as long as Stonehenge and finally reveal Night Of The Demon in all its troubling magnificence… curse them for cracking my comfortable complacency!

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Disc 1 contains the BFI’s 2013 2k restorations of both the 96 minute UK pre-release version and the US re-issue, which is the same length but went out under the American title Curse Of The Demon. Each of those is watchable in either 1.75:1 or 1.66:1 ratio options and you can also access an informative commentary track by noted NOTD obsessive (and author of the 2005 Tomahawk Press tome, Beating The Devil: The Making Of Night Of The Demon) Tony Earnshaw. Over on Disc 2 you get HD remasters of the original UK and US theatrical cuts, each running at 82 minutes, plus a sackful of bonus materials…

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Grab ’em while they’re hot…

The 2007 featurette Speak Of The Devil involves Earnshaw, fellow film historian Jonathan Rigby, star Peggy Cummins and production designer Ken Adam in an in-depth dissection of the film’s making. Cloven In Two is an all-new video essay which deploys split screen techniques to compare and contrast what goes on in different cuts. Further light is cast on cinematic darkness in several talking head pieces, each tackling NOTD from a different angle, each between 20 and 30 minutes long and delivered by such genre heavyweights as Christopher Frayling (talking up the influence of  Hitchcock alumnus Charles Bennett, who co-scripted and Tourneur’s former collaborator Val Lewton), Kim Newman (who compares and contrasts Tourneur’s film with such contemporaries as The Innocents, The Haunting and Sidney Hayers’ 1962 knock off, Night Of The Eagle) and Ramsey Campbell (delighting with tales of the Winter Gardens cinema in Waterloo, Merseyside, whose posters used to tantalise me with horrors I was way too young to even think about sneaking in to witness). Frayling challenges the received and lazily accepted wisdom that the explicit revelation of the monster (Ray Harryhausen was approached to execute these scenes but didn’t care to work for producer and former East Side Kid Hal E. Chester) goes against the Jamesian precept that there must always be room for the reader of his stories to interpret the ghastly goings on as “all in the mind” of the protagonist… in fact James (below) never entertained any such notion, the supernatural entities in his tales of terror invariably being presented as objectively real, however stubbornly their protagonists postpone this realisation.

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Something else that gets refined in the course of these featurettes is our understanding of who inserted the tangible demon, at what point in the proceedings and over the objections of whom. The assembled cognoscenti are unanimous, furthermore, that the much derided demon itself (once described as “King Kong in drag, riding a model train”) actually looks pretty good. Popular misconceptions about the different cuts and the part played by the BBFC in shaping NOTD are also addressed. Roger Clarke debunks the notion that James’ Karswell was based on Aleister Crowley, who had achieved nothing like his later notoriety when Casting The Runes was written, identifying as a more plausible model Oscar Browning, James’s rival for the post of Provost at King’s College, Cambridge. Of course it’s highly likely that Karswell as played in the film by Niall MacGinnis was informed by public perceptions of Crowley.

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Tourneur biographer Chris Fujiwara places NOTD in the context of the director’s wider career. David Huckvale and Scott MacQueen both talk about Clifton Parker’s music and MacQueen is afforded another featurette in which he talks about growing up as a genre fan in the US, discovering Night / Curse Of The Demon via Famous Monster Of Filmland magazine and speculating about the (then mythical) longer version in a piece he had published in Issue 26 of the American fanzine Photon. Having cherished audio recordings of the film’s TV broadcasts as a youth, MacQueen’s joy at being involved in such an impressive BD restoration is almost palpable.

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The British contributors here evince a similar voyage of fascinated discovery regarding NOTD for genre fans on this side of the Atlantic (including myself) and much is made of BBC 2’s out-of-the-blue broadcast of its full 96 minutes on 28/06/80, during one of their beloved and much missed Saturday night Horror double bill seasons. Happy (albeit scary) days…

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We’re further treated to a cut-down Super 8 presentation of the film (silent but with laughable subtitles bridging its many gaps)… so that’s actually five cuts of NOTD on this set! Also, an impromptu audio interview with Dana Andrews, taped by MacQueen doing his “stage door Johnny” bit… Michael Horden reading James’ original short story and a radio adaptation from 1947… optional isolated music & effects track on the US theatrical cut… a Curse of the Demon theatrical trailer in which an abandoned demon design is briefly glimpsed… and a gallery of behind-the-scenes and promotional photos, also rare production design sketches from the Deutsche Kinemathek’s Ken Adam Archive.

Enough there to put this Limited Edition in contention with recent Nucleus releases of Death Laid An Egg and Lady Frankenstein for THOF’s “Disc(s) Of The Year” Award. If you can’t wait for Indicator’s standard release, exclusive to this edition are an 80-page book containing a new essay by Kat Ellinger, a history of the film’s production through the words of its principle creators, a profile of witchcraft consultant Margaret Murray, the film’s history with the BBFC, (another) look at the film’s different versions, contemporary critical responses, a look at the original ending as envisaged by Charles Bennett and more… not to mention an exclusive double-sided poster. Although I often moan about such materials not being made available to the humble reviewer, for once I was glad…

… I mean, who knows what might have been slipped in between those pages?

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Coming right up… our review of Indicator’s similarly blockbusting William Castle At Columbia, Volume 1 set.

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