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Night Of The Demon
Running Time: 82 minutes (Curse Of The Demon)/96 Minutes (Night Of The Demon)
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
Written by: Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Retail Price: $24.95
Features: Theatrical Trailers
Specs: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital Mono, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Japanese Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (28 Scenes)
Released: August 13th, 2002
Jacques Tourneur's 1957 British thriller, "Night of the Demon," suffered a title change and a loss of nearly fifteen minutes when it first reached American theaters as "Curse of the Demon." Tourneur was well-known to American audiences for his work with RKO and producer Val Lewton in the early 1940s, a collaboration which produced one true classic American horror film ("Cat People"). It is indeed shocking to think that the powers that be in 1957 Hollywood thought that "Night of the Demon" would benefit somehow by re-arranging and dropping one scene entirely, but that's the truth behind this double feature disc from Columbia. While long sought out by horror mavens, the British titled "Night of the Demon" has never been available before in a widescreen presentation on home video; a full-frame laserdisc was available for a while at the tale end of the late laserdisc phase.
Anyone remember that obscure sci-fi film reference in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show's" opening song, "Science Fiction Double Feature?" You know, the one that goes, "Dana Andrews said prunes/gave him the runes/and that passing them used lots of skills..." Well, composer Richard O'Brien sufficiently synopsized the final tense moments of Tourneur's film with that triplet. Like O'Brien, I will continue to refer to the film under its British title, and point out the major difference between the films a few short paragraphs from now.
"Night of the Demon" is an Hitchcockian tale of suspense and terror centering around demons, witches, curses (DUH!) with a dollop of contoversial horror thrown in for good measure. Modern audiences will be reminded of "The X Files" as well, since one of "Night of the Demon's" major thematic devices is that of an analytical skeptic joining forces with a true believer to solve a paranormal mystery.
In the dead of the night, a vary harried and terrified man makes a trek through an enveloping forest to a secluded mansion. Insisting on seeing the master of the house, he makes an offer to the diabolical appearing man, a certain Julian Karswell (suave Niall MacGuinnis) . The man, Professor Harrington, has been trying to debunk Karswell's work with demonology and cults, but he promises to call off any further investigations IF Karwsell will lift a curse that has supposedly been placed on the kindly professor. Harrington's timing is off, though, as a certain parchment containing runic writing has been destroyed; it was this parchment that Karswell pawned off onto the unsuspecting professor. On the dark return ride home, Harrington sees a fireball in the skies which in turn morphs into a fire-breathing, fur-covered hideous demon; in his alarmed state, he backs his car into a pole, and ends up being electrocuted.
This brief opening sequence successfully sets the tone for what could have been a psychological horror tale, had the producers of "Night of the Demon" not tampered with director Tourner's vision. For in their haste to get the film into theaters at a time when the Technicolor gore of Hammer horror films was beginning to catch on, the producers inserted close-ups of the demon - which indeed does look like an ancient wood-cut come to life - a move which would create a continueing controversy over the film. Personally, I don't really mind the addition of the demon itself, even if its looks aren't all that great, it is still a sublime imaginary creature, which looks like it could have indeed been a part of ancient history.
The true meat and potatoes aspect of the film is the ongoing investigation into Karswell's demonia. The search for the truth is taken up by an American paranormal debunker, John Holden. As portrayed by Dana ("Laura") Andrews, Holden is a precursor to Gillian Anderson's Scully on "The X Files;" nothing is true that cannot be proven by scientific fact. Holden's major accomplice in the investigation is the Americanized neice of the departed Professor Harrington, and is played charmingly and disarmingly by the very underrated Peggy Cummins, who will always be best known for her dynamic work in 1949's sleeper, "Gun Crazy." In a classic noir vein, Holden is also slipped a parchment of runic writing, giving him, according to Karswell, mere days to live. Stakes are set rather high for Holden and Cummins, and without any time to waste, they persue their quarry, even to the point of enlisting Karwell's dear mother to aid and abet them. The finale on the train, with the skillful passing of the runes by Andrews, is a climax worthy of Alfred Hitchock; yet is only one of many memorable images and set pieces along the way. One of my personal favorites doesn't appear in "Curse of the Demon" (one of those scenes deemed unecessary for American audiences): in his search to decunk Karswell, Holden appears at a countryside farmhouse seeking information on one of the previous victim's of Karswell's curses. With a bevy of farmhands and a farm-wife straight out of Grant Wood's "American Gothic," Tourneur sets up a multi-layered suspense scene through actor placement, minimal dialogue and strange surroundings. Had Holden chosen to murder any one of the farmhands, the sequence would definitely have been a precursor to Hitchcock's farmhouse murder scene in "Torn Curtain." The lack of this scene in the American version is quite detrimental, while the rearranging of a few other scenes doesn't harm the impact of the film.
The stark black and white presentation is anamorphically encoded, and presented at a debatable aspect ratio of 1.66:1. For me, this seems appropriate since most British films did not adapt to Academy Standard (1.85:1) for quite a remarkable length of time. Contrast is spot-on, and a highly atmospheric presentation is acquired with deep black shadows as well as finely detailed production designs. The forest scenes convey menace with no loss of detail. There are relatively few signs of age, such as scratches and nicks, to interfer with either films' viewing pleasure.
The monoaural soundtrack has a tendency to be pinched in the high end of the scale, most likely due to the age of the film, rather than its digitalization. Dialogue is crisp and clean, with a musical score that never overpowers the action. Closed Captioning is offered for the hearing impaired; while Columbia has only offered up three sets of subtitles for this feature: English, French and Japanese.
Columbia's choice of Theatrical Trailers to accompany the presentation are quite mixed; "Fright Night" is made to look far less interesting than it really is, while "The Bride" (Jennifer Beal's unfortunate follow-up to "Flashdance" is made to look far more interesting than it really is. Neither trailer is in very good shape though, showing tons of scratches compounded with lackluster colors. I'm giving Columbia an extra star on the features side for providing both versions of the film on the same disc, that's truly a bonus for every horror maven out there. Fair warning should be given however that you cannot jump on the fly from one film to the other.
Tourneur's film has long been discussed by genre fans everywhere, yet few have readily been given the chance to view BOTH versions. Columbia's DVD at its moderate suggested retail price should justifiably find its way into horror champions' hands. With its better than average print, and its compelling noirish tale, this dvd is highly recommended.