❉ It’s in the trees! Andy Murray pores over Powerhouse’s exhaustive Blu Ray edition of the cult classic, here with a generous section of extras.
Some films have greatness thrust upon them as though it were a runic parchment hidden in a jacket pocket. When Night of the Demon was made in 1957, nobody expected it to excel and it wound up being hacked about and released on double bills and drive-in programmes. Within sixteen years it had developed enough of a reputation to be one of the stone-cold genre classics mentioned in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show opener Science Fiction/Double Feature. That’s a hell of an upward curve.
Here it’s being released by Powerhouse Films as a hugely handsome two-disc Blu-ray set. It’s a positive embarrassment of riches fit to make Dr Karswell’s sprawling country retreat look spare and modest in comparison. It takes in featurette documentaries, rare footage of cast and crew, a lavish booklet, a poster, a brand new commentary by Tony Earnshaw, author of the definitive (and now sadly out-of-print) behind-the-scenes volume Beating the Devil, and even an archive recording of Michael Hordern reading M R James’ original short story Casting the Runes. The fact that it’s one of very, very few James stories to have been adapted into a feature film is genuinely an enduring mystery.
The whole package is exhaustive. For instance, many will be aware that the film was released in the US in a substantially shorter form under the title Curse of the Demon. In fact, this set manages to squeeze in a total of eight different versions of the film, taking in theatrical cuts, pre-release edits, alternate aspect ratios (1:75:1 and 1:66:1), an isolated score and effects track, and even a silent version released for Super-8 home cinema viewers which is a remarkable curio, though to be fair at seven minutes long it’s unlikely to be reappraised as the definitive cut.
That said, where Night of the Demon is concerned you never quite know. Debates continue to rage about the relative merits of various aspects of its production. A generous section of special extras here, under the banner ‘Appreciations’, allows admirers of the film to discuss their memories, observations and opinions direct to camera, most of them clocking in around the twenty-minute mark. It’s actually a very simple, refreshing way to include a whole variety of takes on the subject, giving a human face to the subject at the same time.
Those involved, including Kim Newman, Ramsey Campbell and Scott MacQueen, take different stances on the key issues, such as whether Curse of the Demon is a bastardisation of its counterpart or else a valid alternative, and whether the titular demon gets too many close-ups for its own good. To be fair most settle on the verdict that the demon’s appearance is necessary but overused. For this writer’s money, it’s the inconsistency between effects shots that really causes problems. Well, that and the accompanying whistling that’s heard whenever the demon approaches, which sounds just a bit too much like a shopping trolley with a squeaky wheel.
However, what no-one would dispute is that the film is brought to greatness by the direction of the great Jacques Tourneur, and whichever version punters select to watch, his weird, shadowy vision looks absolutely pin-sharp here. Of all the performances, arguably the best is Niall MacGinnis as Karswell, who brings real heft to proceedings as well as a perfect lightness of touch. He’s given a run for his money by Reginald Beckwith, though, who nearly steals the entire show in a matter of moments as jittery medium Mr Meek.
The film, in short, is a little marvel, a considered, economical and gripping piece which is by turn richly entertaining and brilliantly tense. As Sir Christopher Frayling observes in his particularly fine ‘Appreciation’ feature here, it’s a thrilling collision of all sorts of good things: M R James (for the source story). early Hitchcock (via veteran screenwriter Charles Bennett), classic Tourneur thrills and the then-current final wave of black & white horror cinema that gave also gave us The Innocents and The Haunting.
Essentially, Night of the Demon deserves its place up there in the horror pantheon, and this limited-edition release represents it at its very best, according it all the respect and attention that it deserves.
❉ ‘Night of the Demon’ Limited Blu-ray Edition (UK premiere on Blu-ray) was released by Powerhouse Films 22 October 2018, RRP £21.99. Click here to order.
The standard edition Blu-Ray will be released on 19 November 2018.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.