Blog Directory CineVerse: The devil is in the details

The devil is in the details

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

It’s an age-old question that horror filmmakers have to resolve at some point in their production: To what extent do you show the monster or evil force in your story? The easy answer is “as often as possible,” which many assume is what genre fans prefer. But one credible school of thought maintains that overexposure of a creature character and the decision to reveal a monstrous creation too early in the movie can backfire. Which begs the question: Was it a mistake to so graphically visually depict the titular figure in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon), especially considering the rubber suit/puppet-like nature of the special effects? Our CineVerse club pondered this quandary when analyzing the film last week. Read on for more insights and observations discussed (to listen to a recording of our group chat, click here).

What is it about Night of the Demon that you found fascinating, intriguing, unexpected, refreshing, or otherwise?

  • The movie focuses on black magic, witchcraft, and a satanic cult, making it a rarity up to this point (1957) in cinema history. Previously, only a handful of films touched on these topics or types of characters, including Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), The Black Cat (1934), and The Seventh Victim (1943).
    • Turner Classic Movies essayist Jeff Stafford wrote: “Only a handful of movies have succeeded in convincing an audience to suspend disbelief and believe in the unbelievable. The titles that come immediately to mind are genuine classics of the genre - Cat People (1942), Dead of Night (1945).
  • Director Jacques Tourneur, famous for his film collaborations with RKO producer Val Lewton in which supernatural elements were only suggested, not overtly shown or evidenced, proves to be the appropriate craftsman for the story. Despite the reveal of an actual demonic figure, Tourneur employs many of the effective techniques used with Lewton, including high-contrast lighting and pervasive use of shadowy cinematography, the Lewton “bus” (in which a jump scare is created by punctuating a scene with a sudden loud sound effect or noise), and imbuing the narrative and its visuals with a foreboding sense of dread and doom.
    • Film critic Richard Scheib wrote: “Tourneur bends the film cleverly – the normal daylight scenes, which are equated with reason, are directed with a monotonic flatness as though Tourneur had only the most rudimentary interest in them. However, this proves to be a subtle ploy as Tourneur is lulling us into a false sense of relaxation, for when the night-set scenes of the supernatural come, the film becomes edgy – the eruptions of the supernatural are seen only momentarily and the camera lens becomes distorted as though the film itself were undergoing the hero’s journey from rationalism into panicky emotion.”
  • Arguably, the story would have been better served if they either didn’t show the demon creature at all or waited until the end to serve up the demon. That would have given the central tenet of the film, the debate between rationality and the paranormal, more weight and relevance. However, many film critics, scholars, and fans say that the artificial and over-the-top imagery of the demon puts the viewer on notice immediately that this isn’t something that can be merely explained away, and the creature’s schlocky rubber suit and puppet-like attributes give it an otherworldly, offbeat appearance.
    • Legend tells it that the movie’s producer force the inclusion of the demon in the film, to the strong objections of the writer and director; other accounts hint that Tourneur was possibly in favor of showing the monster.
  • Probably the best performance in the film is delivered by Niall MacGinnis, whose character of Karswell is the juiciest and most colorful. He plays this personality against type and expectations, demonstrating that he can be both menacing and well-mannered/polite.

Major themes

  • Science versus superstition and reason versus belief. This film firmly insists that witchcraft has power and the supernatural is real, despite giving us a pragmatic and evidence-driven protagonist who is convinced otherwise. By the end of the story, skeptic John Holden gives credence to occult powers and admits he was wrong.
  • A battle of wits and determination. This story essentially pits Holden versus Karswell and depicts their clash of egos.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the universe. A telling line in the movie is “maybe it’s better not to know,” which Joanna tells Holden after Karswell is killed. Holden agrees, suggesting perhaps that, while human beings should put their trust in facts and reason, some unknown and unexplained phenomena in the world could usurp what we’ve come to know and rely on.
  • Karmic comeuppance. It’s pure poetic justice that, by the conclusion of the story, Karswell’s magic, which he has used for malevolent purposes, turns on him and leads to his demise.

Similar works

  • Burn Witch Burn
  • The Devil Rides Out
  • Drag Me to Hell
  • D.O.A.
  • The Omen

Other films directed by Jacques Tourneur

  • Cat People
  • I Walked With a Zombie
  • The Leopard Man
  • Out of the Past
  • The Comedy of Terrors

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