A Definitive Night of the Demon from Powerhouse

Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur, director/Powerhouse Indicator Blu-Ray box set   In a deluxe Blu-ray package with copious extras, Powerhouse Indicator have given us the definitive version of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), the finest supernatural film ever made in the United Kingdom. There is a debate that rages about the film to this day – even among those who would place the film securely in the pantheon. The famous image of the gigantic eponymous demon itself (much reproduced, as here) has made it well known even to those who have never seen the film: a hideous bestial visage with flaring nostrils, horns, pointed ears and basilisk eyes, open maw crammed with vicious fangs. And this monstrosity was a problem – not just for the critical establishment (who saw it as an emblematic, debased example of a certain kind of popular culture), but for the auteur director on whose film this iconically unpleasant image was imposed (and who was keen to keep his film’s supernatural manifestations off-screen). The film’s producer Hal Chester was certainly no Val Lewton in terms of taste and influence (Chester was undoubtedly closer to such fairground hucksters as Herman Cohen, of Horrors of the Black Museum fame), but the director’s loathing of the tampering he felt that Chester subjected the film to needs to be examined (and certainly not taken at face value). Tourneur was wrong (as this discussion will attempt to prove) to suggest that his producer’s crassness in adding explicit shots of the gigantic, horned demon discussed above (that the director was reluctant to show) had ruined his film. Traditionally, the serious press (both in broadsheets and magazines) has treated films utilising Gothic horror themes with an aloof combination of derision and distaste. The critical climate has changed recently (with more iconoclastic writers casting their nets wider than the standard literary or filmic canon), and become less allergic to genre. It might be said that there is a more serious attempt to examine such subjects on their own merits – even though there is still a basic assumption that this material is automatically suspect and has to establish its worth in a way that more respectable subjects are not obliged to do. The heavyweight literary antecedents cut no ice here, as it is considered that the popular cinema has often cheapened and tarnished such legacies. The corollary of this is the fact that the ‘quality’ bar for genre product is set much higher, and horror films, which may offer considerable rewards but are still perceived as endemically-flawed works, invariably judged from a jaundiced viewpoint. This negative perception kicks in before any secondary attempt is made to perceive the virtues of such films – and it frequently occasions a simple dismissal of the Gothic as a now-debased genre. Certainly many horror films which appeared as a corollary of Britain’s long fascination with the macabre are obliged to suffer from a variety of compromises (mostly because of commercial imperatives), even though the actual level of accomplishment is often considerably greater than that of more mainstream establishment fare. A good example of this qualified response is that accorded to the film which is generally considered to be the gold standard for supernatural work ever made in the UK (and the one referenced in the paragraph above), Jacques Tourneur’s astonishing Night of the Demon (1957). As a work of art, it undoubtedly has its flaws – and many viewers (even admirers of the film) might consider the imported American actor Dana Andrews to be one of these. But a lively defence might be made of his work in Tourneur’s adaptation of MR James’ story ‘The Casting of the Runes’. Film aficionados might be aware of the actor’s well-known alcoholism, fully developed by 1957, which often compromised his work and dulled the sharp edge that his performances had sported in his younger days (notably as the obsessed detective in Otto Preminger’s definitive film noir Laura (1944)), but such problems are not really evident in his performance in the Tourneur film. Admittedly, it is hard to accept him in the profession he is given the film – the academic Dr John Holden – as the actor was far more at ease playing tough guy heroes or no-nonsense reporters. But Andrews is always professional (if limited), and fulfils the function that is required of him in the film (not least being an American name utilised in order to sell a British film such as is the United States, where it was re-titled Curse of the Demon) and the virtues of the film lie elsewhere than in its slightly dull hero. There are so many aspects of Night of the Demon which are simply nonpareil (not least the most fully-rounded, nuanced villain in any British horror film) that its cult status is unchallenged – and Tourneur, very much a genre filmmaker, is undoubtedly a better director than many contemporaries who specialised in more ostensibly serious subjects. The director (the son of celebrated filmmaker Maurice Tourneur) had made his mark in the subtle, intelligent supernatural films produced by the urbane and civilised Val Lewton in the 1940s, and Tourneur’s oblique and subtle approach to eldritch subjects chimed with his producer in such poetic pieces as Cat People (1942) and, a year later, I Walked with a Zombie; the famous description of the latter film as ‘Jane Eyre in the West Indies’ is not a wry dismissal (as it might sound) but the suggestion of the level of ambition for producer and director.

Made a decade or so later in Britain, Night of the Demon is a valedictory work for the director in the Gothic genre, and one wonders if he was aware of this fact that he would not work in this field again. Certainly, this would account for the rigorous effort on his part to make this his Magnum opus and fill it with every facet of his considerable skills. In this endeavour, he accomplished his goal triumphantly. Even though he regarded the film as irredeemably compromised the unique status of the film is assured.

LUCKY, John Carroll Lynch, director/ Eureka Blu-ray  For the modern viewer, it’s fascinating to catch early glimpses of one of America’s great screen character actors, Harry Dean Stanton, in his first films. But now we can see what is, sadly, his swansong – and thankfully it’s an excellent grace note on which to end a distinguished career. John Carroll Lynch’s well crafted film (his debut) follows the journey of the curmudgeonly title character who has somehow outlived all his contemporaries but finds himself obliged to come to an accomodation with the life he’s lived. Stanton, as throughout his career, is matchless in this final curtain call role.

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