Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon
Tomahawk Press/NMPFT, 2005, softback, £10.50
Night of the Demon is a potentially difficult film to take as the subject of a book-length study, but is an excellent choice nonetheless and Tony Earnshaw rises admirably to the challenge. The film was made just under half a century ago and many of the principal participants, on both sides of the camera, are no longer with us but Earnshaw has tracked down those who are, as well as ploughing through the archives of the British Film Institute and the BBFC in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the movie and its notorious controversy.
Produced concurrently with Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, NOTD therefore effectively just predates the British horror boom of the late 1950s. Nor does it fit neatly into the then-shocking genre which was burgeoning around it on release, being an atmospheric, black and white chiller based on a classic MR James story (Earnshaw makes the interesting point that, although James has been adapted numerous times for TV, this is still the only feature based on his work). Director Jacques Tourneur is best remembered today for the Val Lewton-produced pictures which he worked on, such as The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, movies that effectively trod the fine line of is-it-supernatural-or-is-it-psychological?, and this may be why so many people have expressed dismay that the demon is very visible in this film, at both the beginning and the end. The feeling seems to be: we never actually saw Simone Simon turn into a cat, so why do we need to know that Karswell is actually killed by a demon rather than by a train while fleeing an imaginary demon?
Tracing the story of the film's development through original documents and interviews both old and new, Earnshaw makes it clear that the idea of American producer Hal E Chester insisting on the inclusion of additional special effects shots at a late stage is no more than a myth. The demon was always planned to make an appearance, firmly establishing the threat as both real and supernatural, right from the earliest draft of the script (and it went through a lot of drafts, all clearly explained and described here). That's not to say that everyone involved was happy about the idea or pleased with when, where and how the thing was seen. At this remove it is impossible to determine exactly how much of what people say (or said) is true; Earnshaw very judiciously avoids calling anybody a liar while allowing us to read between the lines.
Night of the Demon has long had the curious twin status of being (a) an acknowledged classic, and (b) widely regarded as a film that could have been better, a contradictory position which it shares with The Wicker Man. However Earnshaw, with his researcher's hat temporarily swapped for that of a critic, presents a very sound argument for why the film actually does work perfectly in the form in which we know it.
The book does not contain the film script in any version or the source material, MR James' 'Casting the Runes.' It does however have a good, detailed precis of the movie plot and explains clearly the similarities with, and discrepancies from, James' story. There are extensive quotes from numerous BBFC reports, this being the era when scripts had to be submitted to the British censor prior to filming, and a selection of wonderful production designs by Ken Adam, of Bond film/Dr Strangelove fame, some of them previously unpublished. Add in to the mix a good selection of stills, posters and admats, a guide to locations and useful biographies of cast and crew (including the uncredited effects men who actually built the full-length and head-and-shoulders demon models) and you have a superb book which is pretty much the last word on the subject. I hesitate to call Beating the Devil definitive because after all this time, and with the limited resources available (great and brilliantly used here, but still limited), a definitive account would be an impossible thing to achieve.
But this is as damn close to definitive as anyone is ever likely to get and is unreservedly recommended for anyone with an interest in classic British horror movies.
Available direct from Tomahawk Press