Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

It’s not often that a screenwriter says he would be happy to shoot a former collaborator dead on sight. The artistic differences arising from the 1957 movie The Night of the Demon, however, were strong enough to provoke this reaction from former Hitchcock associate, Charles Bennett.

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Night of the Demon, official poster

Bennett had acquired the rights to M.R. James’s short story Casting the Runes. In a move he would later regret, he sold the rights to Hal. E. Chester, former child actor and producer. Chester, with whom Bennett would share screenplay credit for The Night of the Demon, was the man to earn Bennett’s violent animosity.

The difference of opinion centered around Chester’s decision, against the wishes of both Bennett and director Jacques Tourneur, to show the demon of the title in frank and undeniable detail at the end and at the beginning of the film.

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Culprit or hero? Does this demon make the movie or ruin it?

Here, in broad strokes, is a summary of Night of the Demon.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an academic leading an investigation into a ‘devil cult’, finds himself pursued by cult-head Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Karswell demands Holden stops his investigation and leave Karswell and his “followers” in peace. When Holden refuses, Karswell puts a hex on Holden. He predicts the date of Holden’s death and says Holden’s “symptoms” will start with mental deterioration and uncertainty, then escalate into fear and, finally, horror as death approaches.

Although assailed, as predicted, by unexplained occurrences — preternatural winds, a glowing, smoking sphere on the grounds of Karswell’s home — Holden remains resolutely skeptical, much to the frustration of Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins). Joanna is the niece of Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was similarly cursed and died on the exact date predicted by Karswell.

Showing the demon early in the film is pivotal to how the audience experiences the battle of wits between skeptic Holden and black arts practitioner Karswell.

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Unconventional Battle of Wits, Karswell and Holden (image: British Film Institute)

Unbeknownst to Holden, there is no level playing field between them. The audience knows in advance Holden’s confidence is unjustified. When Holden patronizingly waves Joanna’s warnings aside, the audience is on her side and, ironically enough, on the side of Karswell, the nominal “villain.”

This turns out to be a rather unconventional twist and it draws attention, in true M.R. James style, to the intellectual brittleness of the protagonist (Holden). It’s left to Joanna, a schoolteacher, to articulate the thematic core of the story when she tells Holden, “You can learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark until we tell them it’s not so. Maybe we’ve been fooling them.”

It isn’t surprising director Tourneur wanted to keep his demon confined to the viewer’s imagination. Working under Val Lewton’s RKO unit in the 1940s, Tourneur had played a leading role in establishing a  sophisticated brand of horror which relied on ambiguity. The viewer is rarely certain whether Lewton’s “monsters” are genuinely supernatural or part of the psychology of the main characters.

In Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), the closest in style and structure to The Night of the Demon, newly-married Irena (Simon Simone) believes she will turn into a murderous panther should her husband attempt to make love to her. Determined, in her psychiatrist’s words, “to loose evil upon the world,” she lets a panther out of its cage in the Central Park zoo.

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Supernatural horror, or all in the mind, Tourneur’s Cat People, 1942

Animal attacks ensue off camera and the viewer is unsure which — actual panther or Irene transformed — is committing them.  Irene’s rival in love is tormented by a distorted black shadow in a hotel swimming pool. Her bath robe is shredded, apparently, by monstrous claws. The possibility that Irene really is transforming grows slowly in the mind of the viewer. The suspicion becomes all the more tantalizing because it is posed as an alternative to a logical explanation (namely that the escaped panther is committing the mayhem).

Tourneur works in reverse, slowly debunking this “logical explanation,” leaving the viewer’s mind vulnerable and open to hints about that other possibility. A woman’s footprints the sidewalk, for instance, dissolve inexplicably into animal paw marks.

Tourneur believed the fearful images conjured in the mind are far more subtle and potent than anything an on-screen monster can present. If The Night of the Demon had been part of the famous Lewton package, Tourneur might have been right to keep to this theory.

But the film had to serve the spirit of M.R. James. The question becomes whether  this most celebrated of ghost story authors would have disapproved of the demon as much as Tourneur and Bennett did.

Casting the Runes

M.R. James: atmosphere and frank, physical horror

The first obvious counter point is that James relished very specific, sensuously vivid details. Who can forget the “intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen,” (italics in the original), as Professor Parkins’s bedclothes come to life in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad? Or the painfully visceral descriptions of the ghostly waif in Lost Hearts whose chest showed only “a black and gaping rent?”

In Casting the Runes, hexed Mr. Dunning (Holden’s equivalent), slips his hand under his pillow and touches “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it . . . not the mouth of a human being.”

While there is a sense of distance between the story and the reader in James it’s not achieved by eschewing physical horror. The arms’ length between reader and monster is created by framing the stories within the fussy, competitive world of scholars and English “types” of the period.

But this frame is merely an effective ruse. The reader comes to James through a humorous after-dinner glow. The reader sinks, smiling into their chair. It feels safe to descend into horrors. This is where James starts to work on our unconscious fears.

 

Even the extreme malignity of Karswell — one of the most chilling aspects of Casting the Runes — is cunningly established through a comedy of manners. The reader is presented with a series of formal but increasingly firm rejection letters from an (unnamed) organization’s secretary. These are in response to Karswell’s (unseen) requests to present a paper, The Truth of Alchemy.

It is clear from the final letter that Karswell is demanding to know the identity of the peer reviewer who gave his proposal a negative report. We subsequently hear, second hand though a dinner conversation, about how Karswell dislikes village children and bitterly complains about them trespassing on his extensive grounds. Unexpectedly, we are told, he recently invited all the children to a slideshow, only to display the most vivid and appalling horrors, including a demon on Karswell’s grounds who seems to have “torn in pieces or somehow made away with” a trespassing child.

James’s subtlety as a writer is revealed in his ability to create a formidably wicked characterization from the distance of reported events. James’s Karswell is, rather like the demon Bennett and Tourneur wanted to create, made up of shadows, hints, and an accumulation of small details.

But as The Night of the Demon‘s Karswell is not as terrifyingly cruel as in James’s original, the film instead concentrates both Karswell’s evil and James’s love of physical horror into one memorable image. With its shining teeth, smoking talons, horny flesh and fierce eyes, the demon does an admirable job being evil incarnate.

Aided by evocative photography by Edward Scaife, and a framing background of scholarship and edgy competitiveness, The Night of the Demon‘s monster also encapsulates the medieval-style terrors of M.R. James.

I think the famed author would have approved.

Paul Butler is the author of the novel, The Widow’s Fire.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

  1. A nicely made-out case and I do rather like that old demon and would certainly miss him. I admire the suggestion that he expresses the inner malignity that is lacking in Niall MacGinnis’s outward show. Whether James would have approved seeing the demon is arguable – he did not care for blatant effects at all, but he is happy with glimpses. I also suspect he had a liking for the cinema as a medium – he mentions it explicitly in ‘The Five Jars’ and makes use of allied technologies like Karswell’s magic lantern and Dennistoun’s photography in his stories, while the dream sequence in ‘O Whistle’ is very cinematic in character. Thanks for an enjoyable piece.

  2. Pingback: Ghosts and the Radio | paul butler novelist

  3. Pingback: The Uninvited: Macardle’s Political Ghost Story | paul butler novelist

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