Children believe in things in the dark, until we tell them otherwise
The Night of the Demon feels so much at home with Tourneur’s (and company’s) work with Val Lewton from the 1940s. The budget is higher, the cast more prestigious, and the scope wider… but in spirit, they take the same approach to suspense. At first I thought, Tourneur had completely disregarded the minimalist style that all of Lewton produced films had. Early in the film, there seems to be a committal to the supernatural, and I was afraid the film would move in that direction. I couldn’t be more wrong, and as Dana Andrews’ character asks later in the film “How do we know those under hypnosis are telling the truth?”
This seems to be the raison d’être of great cinema… at least as I understand it. Great art, for me at least, is an extension of our dream world. It evokes a kind of heightened or altered reality that reflects a subjective understanding of the world around us. That isn’t to say Night of the Demon is subjectively minded in the way a horror like Suspiria would be, because it isn’t at all. It is more about that struggle between reality and fiction that are in constant battle in each of our minds.
Dr. John Holden (Andrews) arrives in England to help lead an investigation into a devil cult, only to discover that his colleague had died the night before under very mysterious circumstances. He rationalizes it as a freak accident, but soon finds himself in a strange bind, as the man he is investigating threatens him… and says he only has three days to live.
The film runs a rather conventional narrative route, as Andrews with the help of his dead colleague’s niece, attempt to find evidence of what happened to the dead man, and what may be happening to Andrews. The film remains ambiguous as to what is actually happening; only that much is seemingly unexplainable… how much lies only in the character’s minds is as clear to the audience. This could have gone badly, but I’m sure anyone who has seen Cat People knows that this is a very high compliment.
Even the film’s use of (studio imposed apparently) monster magic is charming in its silliness. The monster is never frightening, but the design is intriguing, and personally… I have an unexplained nostalgic response to how badly done it is. I don’t think it is particularly ill-advised, though early on I do admit fearing the worst. The cast is all around magnificent, and the beautiful “noir” like atmosphere is commendable. A lovely older horror film I urge people to see, reminds me a bit of an episode of the x-files