French director Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out Of The Past is a classic of the genre, nothing short of sublime, with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas clashing over Jane Greer. It’s epic and complex, widescreen and sprawling at a time when most noirs were claustrophobic and urban. It was a demonstration of how you can elevate a familiar form to become so much more. Ten years later we find him dealing with witchcraft in England in this gothic supernatural flick with Dana Andrews (Laura) and Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy). He had form in horror films, 1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie among them, and although this is late career Tourneur, he still possessed the ability to elevate the form he was working in.
When American psychologist John Holden (Dan Andrews) arrives in London in order to investigate a famous occultist, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), he discovers his colleague Dr Harrington died violently the night prior. He also learns the he too has been marked for death by the same supernatural force. Holden, ever the rationalist doesn’t believe in witchcraft and teaming up with Harrington’s attractive niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) they attempt to, well it’s complicated. She wants to solve her uncle’s death and Holden, well he just wants to refute everything he sees with as much condescension as he can muster. Perhaps in 1957 Holden was considered cocksure and debonair, but in 2020 he comes off as an arrogant American abroad, always thinking he knows better. Between his patronising ‘scientific’ attitude and his shameless steamroller seduction attempts with Joanna, he’s actually quite infuriating.
‘It would be easier to stop Karswell’s demon than a woman who has her mind made up,” he offers to Joanna at one point while she tries to convince him that the threat is real. Her resilience is impressive. Despite being treated like an over imaginative child she does continue to care for his welfare.
With deep gothic shadows and imaginative cinematography Tourneur keeps things not only suitably creepy, but also a little off kilter. There’s a trip to Stonehenge, a quit absurd séance where they heartily sing a strange English song “Cherry Ripe” to the spirits (“they like it when we sing to them”), a bizarre (surely unethical) hypnosis experiment, and even a clown magic show which changes the weather.
Tourneur was very much about not showing the threat, aware that the audiences imagination was always much scarier than anything he could conjure. He does an amazing job at building tension as Holden’s (and the audiences) awareness grows bit by bit. Which is why the presence of the monster is so bizarre. It seems entirely superfluous. Apparently Tourneur and producer Hal E Chester clashed over this fact, and when Tourneur left the set Chester shot and inserted the monster scenes. Of course it’s a desecration, but to be fair the demon, which looks hokey and ridiculous by today’s standards, is pretty amazing and adds a very welcome kitsch joy.
What’s more fascinating, and probably pertinent to 2020, is how our identity is so wrapped up in our belief systems. Despite numerous interventions and the potential risk of his own death, Holden will not entertain the concept of the supernatural. Trusted people are warning him, the evidence mounts, but still he gets more and more outlandish detailing his ‘logical’ explanation to what he has just witnessed. His scientific rigour (and always being right) appear to be the crutch with which he’s lived his life, and for them to be taken away is inconceivable – no matter the cost.
Night of The Demon is another example of Tourneur elevating the form, turning a tale of modern day witchcraft into a philosophical musing on identity, the self and the rigidity of our belief systems. And there’s also a demon in a rubber suit. How can you go wrong?