“Some of my best friends are ghosts,” says Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews). He is being sarcastic (and Dana Andrews was one of the best serious men at reading a dry line); Holden, a “prominent psychologist” invited to London for an international convention, is an outspoken sceptic who holds the very idea of the supernatural in contempt. He spends most of the film trying to convince others with his reason, although by the opening scene the demon has already been revealed, emerging from a rapidly advancing cloud formation in the night sky to take Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) as his victim. Despite this, it’s easy to understand Holden’s protestations of rationality, and to believe there’s a logical explanation for everything. As with many ghost stories, it is key that doubt is as unclear as certainty when it comes to the presence of the supernatural.
After more than three decades in the industry – longer, if you count his association with his father, director Maurice Tourneur – Jacques Tourneur was approaching the end of his time as a film director. Along with Nightfall (1956), a Columbia noir that embedded the North American urban/rural divide with an inescapable sense of claustrophobia, Night of the Demon would be one of his last great films made before the tail end of his career, which he spent in television. A lot of his television work over the following decade was terrific and fairly high-profile, too, perhaps due to Tourneur’s practice of directing scripts into tight finished products.
Tourneur was clearly experienced at creating a sense of terror. In Night of the Demon, he draws on common tropes of the horror and gothic modes, some of which he helped to develop in his earlier work. One of those called on in Night of the Demon is the subversion of nature’s calm. This trope manifests as, for instance, infernal energy sparking out above the trees, and as escalating winds becoming an environmental sign of chaos, of ill will, a harbinger of horror – amongst other writers, Gaston Bachelard often accuses wind of possessing a particular violent intent. At a children’s party in the gardens of a mansion owned by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) – a man with an almost comically villainous beard – a maniacal wind attacks furniture and play equipment, causing chaos, in a scene that could have influenced Alfred Hitchcock when making The Birds (1963). The attention to detail, with the camera focusing on disturbances in trees and the sound effects of sharp gusts of wind, makes this all the more frightening. Later, phantom footsteps leave impressions in the ground, and a haunting cloud chases Holden through darkened trees before inexplicably disappearing.
It is evident here – as it is in many other Tourneur films – that, much like Mark Robson and Robert Wise (as demonstrated in the psychological horror The Haunting ), the director developed and enhanced his talents working with Val Lewton at RKO. Other visual and aural elements contribute to the film’s sense of terror, like shadows in deserted hallways, apparitions in empty houses and cold homes in sparse rural environments – all of which may fall under the umbrella of Tourneur’s expressionism by “the image of a pursuing, threatening light." In their own way these are all tropes with certain generic affiliations, but compiled in this film they are given a unique strength, a sensory richness. Sound matches are memorable too, like an ambulance vehicle with a screeching alarm that cuts to a telephone ringing in Joanna Harrington’s (Peggy Cummins) dark house. Helen Hanson describes a particularly well-regarded scene in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) as being a sound sequence that provides an intense rendering of place and character – in effect, a moment of “sound affect." Tourneur works with similar designs here, and sound is as evocative as image. With all the film’s use of cinematic techniques, the urgent pace of the investigation gives Night of the Demon an almost clinical sense of the real. Holden, as the eternal sceptic, sternly protests that “It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner,” while the wind howls spookily outside. And in a way, it is the moments not tinged with the supernatural, like when a man who has been driven mad by the cult throws himself out a glass window to the ground several floors below, that are given the most brutal weight.
It may be that Cummins’ last line – “Maybe it’s better not to know” – is representative of the entire film, and of Tourneur’s intentions as a filmmaker. He had never wanted the demon to be shown in its entirely, but frames were added after he left production and the film became something else in his absence. Talking of his general approach to his filmmaking, he told Présence du cinéma, “The real horror is to show that we all live unconsciously in fear.” While Cat People, for instance, is a pure psychological horror in which the monster is never shown, the visual revelation in Night of the Demon changes its tone from psychological to supernatural. However, a number of the deaths are still explained away with rational thinking by bystanders, and, in the end, a chill remains as the existence of supernatural forces continues to be doubted. Holden repeats Joanna Harrington’s words as the final line of the film; no longer a sceptic, he opts for denial. There’s a harsh comfort in pretending you don’t know what goes on in the shadows. --Senses of Cinema