October 26, 2010

night of the demon

“I detest the expression ‘horror film.’ I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe it.”  – Jacques Tourneur, Positif

The lead character in Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, psychiatrist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), declares that he is “not a superstitious sucker.” He is a sardonic skeptic of mystical powers and things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately for him, Tourneur is a master of visualizing dread, at uncanny images that disturb the orderly corridors of consciousness. So Night of the Demon, my selection for this week of supernatural selections at Movie Morlocks (it airs on TCM on October 29th at 6PM), finds Holden’s self-righteousness crumble in the face of Tourneur’s terrifying control of the medium. As Raymond Bellour wrote, Holden’s “problem is trying not to believe in the devil, while ours is trying to accept belief in the cinema.”

All inquiries into Tourneur run through Chris Fujiwara’s critical study, The Cinema of Nightfall, and the following is deeply indebted to his essay on the film. If you have the time, ditch this essay and read the book.

Holden flies to London to study the activities of a Satanic cult led by the urbane Julian Karswell (a coldly charismatic Nigel MacGinnis). He was to join Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) in the venture, but the latter died under mysterious circumstances, torn apart as if by wild animals. Soon Karswell is warning Holden against investigating any further, and predicts his death in three days’ time. Beginning to suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations, Holden accepts the help of Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), and attempts to uncover the truth behind Karswell’s morbid declaration (the ending was strikingly re-purposed in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell).

The film was based on the short story “Casting the Runes”, by M.R. James (available to read here). Charles Bennett, the scriptwriter on many of Hitchcock’s British films (Blackmail, The 39 Steps) bought the rights and worked with executive producer Hal E. Chester to bring it to the screen.  Chester was reputed to have re-written parts of Bennett’s script, and cut around 13 minutes out of the 95 minute British feature for the American release, re-titled Curse of the Demon (both versions are available now on DVD). Chester also had producer Frank Bevis re-shoot scenes to feature the title monster more prominently, alienating Bennett and Tourneur in the process. Tourneur:

The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon.

He went on to tell Joel E. Siegel that he only wanted “four frames” of the monster to be shown in the film, during the ending on the train tracks. “People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw.” Tourneur wanted very fleeting glimpses of the monster, to let the horrors unfold off-screen, in the viewer’s mind, as in his superb work with producer Val Lewton (Cat People, The Leopard Man). This strategy would also keep doubt alive about the ultimate reality of the creature. For while Tourneur believed in the supernatural, he wanted his viewers to come to their own conclusions.

The monster, modeled on demonology books from “3,400-year-old prints copied exactly”, was created by art director Ken Adam. Adam: “I designed the monster, but under protest. I agreed completely with Tourneur.” (from Christopher Frayling’s Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design). The demon looks grotesque enough in stills, but its immobility on film gives it the unfortunate rubber-suited ridiculousness of a Godzilla knock-off. It does not tonally fit into Tourneur’s elegant frames.

From Harrington’s first appearance it’s clear the characters in the film will be at the mercy of their environment, and that the world is disturbingly outside of their control. His car appears as a halo of light in between a thatch of dark forest, he mops his nervous brow in a medium-shot profile, and then a cut to a POV shot looking up, as branches emerge into his headlights and descend back into blackness (Bellour compares this opening flicker effect to film running through a projector). Once he arrives at the Karswell’s, to tell him he’s giving up the investigation, fearful for his life, Tourneur cuts to an extreme high angle, with Harrington dwarfed by a gaudy chandelier in the foreground. He is already swallowed up by the world, the darkness ready to take him next. After he leaves the demon makes its first, and very controversial, appearance.

It is from this sequence that Fujiwara, contra Tourneur,  makes an intriguing case for the demon’s presence, that it “fits into the film’s structural play with ambiguity of point of view.” That is, Harrington first spies the creature in a POV shot, but then there is a cut to a long shot, with Harrington in the frame watching the monster. The latter backs away from subjective identification with Harrington, taking an exterior perspective, and, “his [Harrington’s] presence in the frame splits the viewer’s gaze into two – one that identifies with Harrington’s look and one that frames Harrington himself and the image constructed by this other gaze.” Fujiwara notes a similar play with POV in the rest of the feature, including Holden’s optically wavering hallucinations, and the uncanny appearance of an aging hand that is seen by no-one in the film’s universe. The viewer is constantly weighing the verity of each shot, as well as the idea that it might be impossible to determine the difference between what the characters see or imagine.

Holden ends as dazed and confused as the viewer, no longer safe in his assumptions about a rational world, or in man’s ability to discover absolute truths. His last line is, “it’s better not to know”, and then he disappears behind a passing train.

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