Night of The Demon
Black and White, Done Right
For some, the word ‘classic’ in relation to horror is basically another way of saying that a movie was ‘filmed in black and white’. And whilst this is clearly nonsense, with many movies that are unarguably classics of the genre being filmed in glorious colour, I have to admit that there is something about the drama and melancholy of monochrome that lends itself well to horror.
One of my favourite examples of this is the oft overlooked British classic, Night of the Demon (not to be confused with the 1988 film Night of the Demon’s’ plural, which has all the tonal subtlety of a turd in a punchbowl).
Rather than being constrained by the lack of colour, the best examples of black and white horror are those that use the heightened contrasts to create a particular tone or mood, providing subtlety, suggestion and that holy grail of achievements in horror- atmosphere. As a film based on the M.R. James story Casting the Runes, Night of the Demon had to have atmosphere. The source material demanded it.
For those unfamiliar with M.R. James, all I can say is that I envy you the pleasure of encountering his work for the first time. Although he has been accused of being a little stiff and somewhat academic in his prose style ( which is to be somewhat expected for someone who spent most of his life as an academic and was Vice Chancellor at Cambridge) Jame’s stories, which often rely more on suggestion and fragmentary details than explicit imagery, are some of the most atmospheric and genuinely creepy in all of English literature.
Unfortunately for fans of James, the difficulty involved in conveying the indistinct horrors that haunt his tales on film, is probably why so many of his stories have never had big screen adaptations, it being much easier and more profitable to throw together a simplistic creature feature or slasher flick than it is recreate in celluloid an intimate sense of brooding dread.
Luckily for movie goers, director Jacques Tourner, an acknowledged master of spooky atmospherics and impactful use of shadows, was more than capable of doing Jame’s tale justice. From the early scenes of a would be victim racing through a darkened wood to the classic closing sequences in which the inescapable inevitability of the pursued character’s fate is underscored by shadowy train tracks that lead only into the blackness, Tourner’s ability to build suspense and sense of creeping darkness fit perfectly with the source material.
The film’s script, adapted with some rather sweeping changes from Jame’s original tale, was written by Charles Bennett and it is clear to see from the suspenseful pace and frequent use of wry humour, why he so often worked with a certain Mr Hitchcock, the whole film undoubtedly showing some of the character that made that director’s work so legendary. The sense of doom that pervades the film and the original story is supported by a well constructed score which is particularly effective when it collapses into the discordant wails and otherworldly tinkling that signal the manifestation of the creature.
Speaking of the titular demon, this is another area where the desire for on screen visual thrills and reliance upon the power of suggestion came into conflict, with some arguing that to feature the diabolical figure (only hinted at in Jame’s original story) explicitly was a mistake. Suggesting that it would have been far better to allow the viewer to construct an image of the creature for themselves.
Whilst I can appreciate this argument and agree that this would have been effective in leaving open the ambiguous possibility that the supernatural element to the film is merely a delusion brought on by the victims fear of infernal forces, I can’t say I agree.
I have a massive soft spot for the depiction of the demon in this film, from the actual design of the creature, which is more true to the inhabitants of medieval grimoires and woodcuts than almost any demons since Haxan, to the way in which the model itself is shot through the use of flashing lights, shadow obscured figures and looming, King- Kong-esque close ups.
Furthermore, whilst I would, of course, highly recommend that everyone who reads this article search out and watch Night of the Demon in its entirety (and read the M.R. James story on which it’s based for that matter…) even a quick glance at the closing scene -which is available on youtube- will confirm not only how firmly the demon belongs in this film, but also how effective, impactful and indeed terrifying, ‘classic’ black and white horror can really be.
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