Monday 5 December 2016

Night of the Demon (UK 1957: Dir Jacques Tourneur)

These are the notes from my introduction to the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse on Sunday 4 December 2016

Good afternoon. My name's David Dent, a local writer on film, and I'm here to give you an introduction to one of my favourite horror films.

This afternoon’s film, Night of the Demon, has a claim to fame in being the only direct big screen adaptation of one of the ghost stories of M R James. Published at the beginning of the last century, James’s tales of dusty academics foraging in old churches and houses, disturbing things that shouldn’t be disturbed, and being menaced by unknown demonic forces as a result, are arguably not particularly cinematic.

That’s not to say that James hasn’t been an inspiration for film makers; some have spliced elements of his stories into their movies, while others have adopted a Jamesian feel rather than direct references. Quite what ‘Jamesian’ means is a bit of a loose concept, but usually involves some sort of creeping dread, a gradual haunting rather than a succession of shocks, and a sense of the unreal entering into the everyday. Some of the other films in Picturehouse’s current ‘A Warning to the Curious’ season are good examples of this: the 1970 UK film Blood on Satan's Claw finds a hairy monster summoned by 18th century English country villagers, David Robert Mitchell’s recent US flick It Follows sees a bunch of young slackers being menaced by a slowly advancing something, and the terrific recent Iran set film, Under the Shadow, has a mother and child haunted by an ancient being in war torn Tehran.

In keeping with the claustrophobic nature of his writings, adaptations of the James canon have been far more successful on television. Most famous of these was the run of adaptations on the BBC between 1971 and 1975 by former documentary maker Lawrence Gordon Clark under the ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ umbrella. For those of a certain age eg me, these will always fondly be remembered as rites of passage television, screened at a time when children like me should have been in bed, but were allowed to stay up by seasonally motivated sherry fuelled parents, who were as chilled as their offspring when watching the broadcasts. Gordon Clark eventually left the BBC but went on to adapt ‘Casting the Runes’ for ITV in 1979.

Which brings us to this afternoon’s film, also a reasonably faithful adaptation of ‘Casting the Runes,’ one of James’s more lively tales. Originally published in 1911, it’s the story of a researcher for the British Museum, who has recently unfavourably reviewed some writings by the notorious Mr Karswell, an Aleister Crowley-like alchemist and occultist. The researcher, Dunning, finds that he has been cursed by Karswell, via a rune – a parchment containing arcane symbols secretly passed to him – which will summon a demon at an appointed hour to kill the possessor of the parchment. Dunning must find a way to reverse his demonic death sentence before the appointed time of his demise. 

The script for the film began development in 1955 at the hands of former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett who held the rights to the story, with Elstree Studio booked for the shoot.  At more or less the same time just 40 minutes down the road, a guy called Anthony Hinds was negotiating another adaptation of literary weirdness – Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' at Bray studios, which would become the first of Hammer Studios’ popular Eastmancolor horror outings, entitled The Curse of Frankenstein. The British horror film, which up until that point had produced only a small handful of examples of the genre - notably Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night in 1945 – was about to see in its golden age of English Gothic film making, kicking off with these two 1957 releases.

But I digress. Bennett’s working script title was 'the Bewitched,' although that changed to 'The Haunted' during filming. Both of these titles give you an idea of the subtlety that Bennett was aiming at with his adaptation – that would all change with the arrival of one Hal Chester, to whom Bennett sold his script.

The American former child star turned movie producer Chester optioned Bennett’s script to Columbia Pictures. In the grand tradition of movie hucksters Chester claimed that he had already written his own treatment of the movie, and used Bennett’s only because it had more detailed production notes. But he had the decency to give Bennett top billing for the script, even though, in the producer’s eyes anyway, it was largely Chester’s own.

Having secured a deal with Columbia, Chester started injecting a few more commercial ideas into the script, with his eyes firmly on the youth market to whom the movie would be pitched on release. Most controversial was the suggestion that audiences should actually see the 40 foot high fire demon, which was only suggested in Bennett’s original screenplay. He entrusted the specifics of these changes to long-time friend and former Orson Welles collaborator Cy Endfield, a McCarthy blacklisted screenwriter who had left the US for England in 1950. Like many caught up in the anti-communist House Un-American Activities trials, Endfield came to the UK in order to keep working, mainly as a script doctor. He remained uncredited in the film, as his inclusion would have automatically resulted in the film being blacklisted in the States.

To direct Chester chose French born Jacques Tourneur, who had famously worked with director Val Lewton at RKO studios in the 1940s with a string of expressionist horror movies, whose lurid titles betrayed their subtlety – films like CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN.

Tourneur was impressed with Bennett’s script, but he also did some rewriting of his own, being
unhappy with the sudden lurches towards horror – Tourneur envisioned something more psychological, trying to reconcile Endfield and Chester’s more lurid ideas with Bennett’s nuanced take on the story. In the end Bennett didn’t recognise any of his script and wanted his name taken off the project. He failed. Years later a still bitter Bennett said of Chester  “if he walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”

To help bolster his confidence when dealing with the pushy Chester, Tourneur cast two actors in leading roles who he both knew and trusted. Peggy Cummins played Joanna Harrington (a character not in the original story) and Dana Andrews was selected for the lead part of John Holden, a name change from James's Dunning.  

Andrews had been battling alcoholism for some years, and as his drinking increased in the 1950s the parts began to dry up. But Tourneur took a chance on him. Chester was less impressed, claiming that Andrews, drunk, fell down the steps of the plane when it brought him to England The Head of Columbia pictures also witnessed this and the mogul reputedly questioned of Chester “There’s your star?” Andrews largely kept it together but close watching of the film reveals one or two scenes which demonstrate that he must have been a nightmare to direct.

Andrews was a character, that’s for sure. One story tells of ten policemen arriving on set one day to arrest him. Apparently Andrews used to go out on the town after shooting and on one occasion slapped a girl in a bar. The production company had to pay the girl off to avoid a common assault lawsuit. Also while shooting the film he attended a Royal Command Performance in London. On being presented to the Queen, she asked him whether he was in England for business or pleasure. He told her he was here making a film about witchcraft in England, and she replied saying “Good heavens. Don’t bring that back again!”

Another piece of casting worth noting is Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as Julian Karswell – the script gave him a first name which James’s story did not. His performance is a tour de force of profound menace cut with gentlemanly charm. MacGinnis was used to more prestigious pictures than this – four years previously he’d been the lead in Irving Pichel’s brilliant 1953 biopic Martin Luther – but he delivers his role with dignity and panache.

And Brit TV fans should also keep a look out for Brian Wilde as crazed farmer Rand Hobart. Wilde is more popularly remembered for his parts as soft prison warder Mr Barrowclough and amiable Foggy Dewhurst in BBC comedies ‘Porridge’ and ’Last of the Summer Wine.’

The Director of Photography on the film was Ted Scaife. Scaife was a much in demand cameraman who’d previously done some great work on films like 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings and An Inspector Calls the previous year. His night shots are particularly good – no easy feat on a limited budget with a fairly tight shooting schedule – and he imbues various mundane locations like Bricket Wood train station and Watford Junction with a real sense of unease.

Night of the Demon is now considered a classic of that rather awkwardly categorised sub genre known as folk horror. It has also seeped into popular culture. Two examples being a line from the opening song in the 1973 musical 'The Rocky Horror Show' which goes "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes/And passing them uses lots of skill." And more recently a sample of Professor Harrington’s chilling line, uttered in the movie's séance scene “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” was used by Kate Bush in her 1986 hit ‘Hounds of Love.'

Night of the Demon is a classic, of that there’s no doubt. That it successfully combines subtle scares and brilliant set pieces, while maintaining the sense of Jamesian dread as the story unfolds, is some feat. That it manages to do this when you consider its production history is something of a miracle. I still find the séance scene one of the most frightening in any British horror film. For those that have seen it, you’ll be pleased to know that rumours of me about to lead the audience in a sing a long to the song ‘Cherry Ripe’ are quite unfounded.

And before we settle into the movie, I leave you with this information. A new film adaptation of 'Casting the Runes' was announced back in 2013 by director Joe Dante, a modernised re-imagining of the story with James's characters of Dunning now portrayed as a celebrity blogger and Karswell a successful motivational speaker and self-help guru with connections to the occult. Actor Simon Pegg has been attached to star. I am beside myself with excitement.

Now, does anyone have Mr Joe Dante’s address (producing a rune from pocket)?

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