Night of the Demon is a first-rate B movie that some consider a classic, or at least a cult film. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is consistently interesting. It's not a horror movie exactly, but it works up a good head of steam in the eerie department.
Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to help debunk a cult leader, Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), who says the devil can be raised through the ancient spells and incantations he has discovered, and that this evil can be directed toward individuals. Karswell and his mother live very well from the donations given to him by his cult followers, who live in fear. Holden is absolutely sure Karswell is a charlatan, and when a colleague is found dead and mutilated, he is even more determined to expose Karswell. It doesn’t take long before Holden suspects evil might really be ready to pounce on him. A lot hangs on passing a parchment to a willing recipient.
What makes the movie work for me?
First, Tourneur's direction. Tourneur was an experienced director who took on many assignments, most of them second rate in one way or another. He also was capable of outstanding work. He was the director of Out of the Past, Cat People and Stars in My Crown. Here he keeps things moving tightly; there are no slow spots and he builds up a sense of unease and dread. He does this partly though atmosphere and camera work, but also through set pieces that stay with you. There's a seance scene which is amusing and very weird. In one scene Holden visits an isolated, ramshackle farm house to get written permission from the mother of a catatonic cult member to use hypnosis on him. The scene isn't long, but it builds suspense when it turns out the aged mother has many sons and they all join her while Holden tries to explain what he wants. They are all members of the cult. The climax in a train and in the train yard at night is all shadows and light. And the thing in the forest, while small potatoes in this age of Computer Generated Overkill, is still worth watching.
Second, the script by Charles Bennett. This is not a corny movie. The usual horror cliches are gone. In the scenes where Holden and Karswell verbally duel -- there are four or five -- the dialogue is first rate.
Third, the performance of Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Julian Karswell. MacGinnis gives the role a hefty dose of charm and irony, but he's also convincing as a man who believes in what he has discovered and how it can be unleashed. Or is Karswell really just a shrewd charlatan after all? MacGinnis provides the role enough shading that, now and then, a viewer won’t be sure. One scene has Holden going to meet Karswell at Karswell's country home, where he and his mother are giving a party for the village children. Karswell is dressed as Bobo the Magnificent with full clown costume and makeup. Their discussion is serious and at times tense. MacGinnis plays the part absolutely straight, and his seriousness combined with his clown makeup make for a very odd and effective set piece.
Tourneur, the screenwriter Charles Bennett and the star Dana Andrews objected mightily to having the demon shown at the start and the end of the movie. The producer took control, added the demon and cut about 14 minutes from the film as it was released in Britain and the U.S. The Sony DVD release looks first rate and the disc includes the cut version of the movie retitled, for the U.S. market, Curse of the Demon. The demon stays in both. I didn't bother to slog through the cut version.