Night of the Demon (1957)
Not my usual choice of picture, the horror flick, but when the mood strikes, I generally prefer something British that proceeds at the pace of Village of the Damned: black-and-white, more creepy than scary, and scattered if possible with tow-headed, post-war youngsters. Night of the Demon (edited and retitled Curse of the Demon in the United States) is one of those.
It's the age-old tale of a modern man, Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), who practices ancient black magic and who terrorizes anyone who crosses him with rune-summoned, demonic death. To underscore how long of this type of thing has gone on, the film opens on Stonehenge under the rolling r's of a deep-voiced narrator, intoning : "It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness..."
One cannot help but think of Spinal Tap.
Karswell has just put into motion the death of Professor Henry Harrington, who had threatened to expose Karswell's practices. Harrington's demise is pretty creepy and would have been scarier had producer Hal. E. Chester not insisted — over the strenuous objections of director Jacques Tourneur — that the audience see an actual demon emerge from the billowing smoke. Tourneur, director of the Noir classic, Out of the Past (1947), and the weirdly compelling and inexplicably (and poorly) remade, Cat People (1942), hadn't wanted the monster to be seen, leaving the question of its existence open. As a result, the demon, to today's audiences, is more Muppet than Moloch.
Meanwhile, psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) has come to England to attend and scoff at a paranormal psychology convention only to learn that his colleague, the late Professor Harrington, has a good excuse for not meeting him at the airport. At Harrington's funeral, Holden meets the professor's beautiful niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins), who instantly recognizes him as the jackass in the seat in front of him who had his seat completely reclined on her tray table the whole flight over from America. Joanna tells Holden that her uncle had known the time and date of his death and had become understandably unhinged as the day drew closer. The two team up to get to the bottom of things.
There are some pretty spooky sequences and the whole thing is gorgeously lit and shot like a Noir film. If you forgive the unwanted monster, it's worth a vieweing, so I'm not going to tell you what happens.
Although the picture ranks number 9 on Martin Scorsese's 11 scariest horror films of all time (again, Spinal Tap; his list goes to 11), it remains more of a UK pop culture staple than an American one, Night of the Demon is referred to in the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and in the opening notes of the Kate Bush song, "Hounds of Love." If anyone can think of an American horror movie that has those legs, please let me know.