The Demon in the Corner: Narrative Queerness in Night of the Demon

As some of our previous entries indicate, we sometimes like to start our postings with a quiz question. (It’s a sure audience-grabber.) So here goes for this one: Who’s the hero of the 1957 cult British horror classic Night of the Demon?

For those who think you know the answer, don’t say anything yet. For those who need more time to think, you can bookmark us here< and come back later. For those who are confused, you may recognize the movie under its better-known American title, Curse of the Demon (produced in Britain by Sabre Films and presented by Columbia Pictures, the film was cut by American distributors for double-feature showings). And for those who don’t know the movie under either title, you can watch it on DVD, which includes both complete and cut versions (check out our new DVD-list page). As for all of you who are wondering just what we mean by “narrative queerness” in our title, read on—

We’ll give you some background first. As a horror film, NOTD comes backed by some hefty credentials. The film’s source, the short story “Casting the Runes,” is by M.R. James, one of THE greatest of all ghost story writers (run, don’t walk, to get a copy of his work). A Cambridge professor of medieval texts, James wrote stories marked by a preoccupation with the remote past, revolving around dusty tomes, ancient spells, rare manuscripts, and arcane documents in Latin. His elegantly scripted tales, written with an urbanely malicious humor that seems to not quite take everything seriously, are known for their subtle, understated invocation of horror. “Casting the Runes” tells of a vengeful occult scholar named Karswell (supposedly based on Aleister Crowley) who “casts” the runes on Edward Dunning, a critical reviewer of one of Karswell’s articles, on alchemy. Karswell doesn’t take bad reviews lightly; he had previously dispatched another critical reviewer, a man named Harrington, who died under horrible and mysterious circumstances. Dunning manages to pass the runes back to Karswell, saving his own life but placing Karswell in the same position he had planned for Dunning. Soon after a newspaper article reports Karswell killed by a falling bit of statuary from a building under repairs. What actually did in Karswell is not explained; we can only surmise that his death was not accidental.

NOTD’s director, Jacques Tourneur, was also, like James, noted for his subtlety in creating horror. Tourneur is probably best known today for the three horror films—Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man—he directed under the aegis of Val Lewton. (Tourneur also directed two essential noir classics, Out of the Past and Nightfall). Lewton, of course, was the innovative producer who headed RKO Studios’ low-budget B-unit in the 1940s, where he crafted a series of small-scale horror masterpieces noted for what Carlos Clarens calls their “nearly subliminal hints of something almost too evil to be put into words and images.” As Michael Lee’s description of NOTD as “the last gasp for the Tourneur-Lewton style of understated horror” indicates, the film occupies a peculiar position in Tourneur’s oeuvre. Although made years after Tourneur’s Lewton collaboration, NOTD has stirred up a debate over what John McCarty calls “the irrelevant guessing game of who did what, Lewton or Tourneur.” In his book-length study of the director, Chris Fujiwara writes that Tourneur’s partisans see NOTD as “confirming the originality of [Tourneur’s] contribution to the Lewton pictures,” whereas Lewton fans see it “as Tourneur’s ‘homage’ to Lewton.” But what does unify all of Tourneur’s horror films, says McCarty, is his “emphasis on atmosphere and understatement”; “His domain is the land between light and dark, where the supernatural and the rational collide, where illusion and reality bend.” Tourneur himself said that his own approach to horror was to shoot scenes “so that you couldn’t really be sure what you were seeing. That’s the only way to do it.”

Except, however, when it isn’t. The big controversy about NOTD is the graphic appearance of its title character. No demon materializes in the original short story. NOTD remedies that absence by refashioning Karswell from James’ writing-challenged scholar into a black-magic adept (Niall MacGinnis) who’s being investigated for his highly dubious activities heading a devil-worship cult in rural England. The film opens with one of the investigators, Harrington (Maurice Denham), begging Karswell to “call it off,” promising in return to stop the inquiry and affirm Karswell’s claims of occult powers. We are not told what “it” is, although a palpably anxious Karswell dismisses Harrington with vague assurances of safety after the latter tells him he no longer has a rune-inscribed parchment. Only when Harrington reaches home does he (and, by extension, the audience) finally meet “it”—rushing through the trees and trailing clouds of smoke and fire as it comes—the Demon! (Actually, a rubber-and-fur man-in-a-monster-suit ensemble.) As a hapless Harrington tries to escape amidst collapsing power lines (leaving the door open for ‘plausible deniability,’ that is, he died by electrical shock), the monster pounces, a close-up of its snarling face (see the picture above) showing it diving in for the kill. We are a long way from the restrained territory of M.R. James and Val Lewton.

The demon’s manifestation—popping up barely ten minutes into the film’s running time—is a dividing point for many NOTD fans. “The appearance of the creature,” says TCM’s Jeff Stafford, “still generates controversy among the film’s admirers today, splitting them into two camps. Those that believe the film’s effectiveness is seriously damaged by showing the demon and those who believe the creature is a welcome and terrifying addition.” Tourneur said that he had wanted to keep viewers guessing about the demon’s existence—“Did I see it or didn’t I?”—and that the creature was afterwards added without his knowledge by the producer Hal Chester, so the film would appeal to the burgeoning 1950s teen market. (Although Tony Earnshaw in his book Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon claims that the demon was already slotted in before the film began shooting.) Carlos Clarens thought the demon “atrocious,” but The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema thinks it “was not the disaster that some critics have made it out to be…The demon is an impressive creation and, in any event, its initial appearance bestowed a sense of dread on the rest of the narrative.”

Indeed, given NOTD’s switch in plot emphasis in the move from short story to screen, the demon is required. After that startling opening, the narrative follows John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychologist attending a London conference who’s overseeing the Karswell investigation. Holden, however, isn’t merely investigating the cult leader; he wants to disprove the existence of witchcraft, demonology, and the supernatural in toto. “Bunk” is his usual rejoinder when confronted with the paranormal; he believes only in “logic—the reality of the seeable and the touchable.” Karswell is of a different mind. “It’s there, Dr. Holden, it’s there,” he exclaims to the doubting doctor—It being this other, impalpable, yet dangerous supernormal reality. He also informs Holden that he (Holden) will die in three days. It seems Karswell had earlier passed Holden the rune-inscribed parchment that will, as with Harrington, summon a demon to carry away Holden’s soul. Discovering the parchment, the psychologist at first scoffs at what he considers superstitious nonsense. But then, mysterious things occur—disappearing writing on a visiting card; threatening noises in a corridor; pages ripped out of a calendar; and, most menacing, a cloudy ball of fire that chases Holden through a dark wood. By the end of the third day Holden, now realizing “the existence of a world I never thought possible,” must pass the runes back to Karswell so as to inflict on his nemesis the fate meant for him. In effect, Holden must accept the supernatural power of the runes to save himself. “I believe you now,” Holden icily informs a nervous Karswell, who, knowing Holden’s plans, must, in his turn, outmaneuver him.

Andrew Tudor describes how NOTD’s plot is patterned on what he calls a “closed knowledge narrative,” structured as the confrontation between known and unknown. The known, natural order is threatened by an unknown, ambivalent force; events then become out of hand—“the rampage phase,” Tudor calls it—until the natural order is again restored, usually by the protagonist employing knowledge similar to that which caused the disorder to begin with. Holden, representing the rational, known order, is threatened by Karswell’s dark, irrational power, but is further endangered because of his disbelief. Tension, says Tudor, is generated by whether he will “believe in the supernatural soon enough to combat it.” What complicates this closed (order-disorder-restored order) pattern is the demon’s appearance, which, as Fujiwara points out, undermines Holden’s disbelief from the start: “the unknowable is, paradoxically, known: from the beginning, we’re not in doubt that the demon can be summoned to appear and destroy its victim. The film becomes a mystery because of the disavowal of Holden…a disavowal so strong that it ultimately overwhelms evidence.” With the demon’s reality vividly established, the film’s focus turns on Holden’s skepticism (not in the original James story). Without the demon, says Lee, “the viewer would have only uncertainty about the balance of power between the supernatural and reason. With [it], reason’s posture is drastically weakened.” The plot thus hinges on whether Karswell can ultimately persuade Holden of his powers and whether Holden can take advantage of this knowledge to win against Karswell.

With “reason’s posture” weakened, so also is Holden’s narrative authority. He may be ‘coded’ as the film’s hero, being played by a top-billed American star (Andrews), given a star entrance (first seen trying to nap on an airplane, his face covered by a newspaper prominently displaying his photo—an audience ‘tease’), and also given a romantic interest (Peggy Cummins as Harrington’s niece Joanna). And yet, as Lee indicates, Holden’s “insufferably self-assured” supernatural ‘expertise’ (“I wrote a book about it,” he boasts to his colleagues) is consistently eroded throughout: he “does everything in his power not to gather information needed in restoring order. In the process, his identity as an authority trickles to nothing” when the curse takes effect. Even the camera, says Fujiwara, undermines Holden’s position: his point-of-view shots are several times optically distorted, as if to inscribe Holden’s onset of mental disturbance into the film’s mise-en-scène (“it’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner,” Holden snaps at one point). McCarty calls Holden an “essentially destructive” hero, whose skepticism is built “on a profound negativism”; only when he can deal with Karswell on Karswell’s terms “is he able to stem the supernatural tide” and restore the known order.

If NOTD gives any character authority, it gives it to Karswell. The necromancer’s position, and, by implication, dominance, is stated outright in the movie’s pre-credit sequence: over a long shot of Stonehenge a fruity-toned voiceover warns us that ancient evil powers are really, as Karswell would put it, there, and may be called up by those who know how. Karswell is NOTD’s strongest character. Unlike the strange, distant Karswell of the short story (who is rarely glimpsed by other characters), the cinematic Karswell is sympathetic and charming, and is engagingly frank about his intentions. He easily triumphs over Holden in most of their encounters (due in no small part to MacGinnis’ excellent performance). As both McCarty and Fujiwara point out, Holden and Karswell are mirror images of each other. Each is a middle-aged man with specialized knowledge (Holden of psychology, Karswell of demonology), and each is out to prove, come hell or high water, that his knowledge is right; Karswell that he’s a real sorcerer, Holden that he’s not “a superstitious sucker” to be taken in. Fujiwara notes how, during a phone conversation between the two men, Tourneur cross-cuts between two shots—Holden filmed from a low angle, with a lit lamp on screen left; Karswell from a high angle, with a fire(light) on screen right—that replicates their mirrored relationship. Karswell and Holden are thus linked as ‘opposing’ twins, each being one-half of the other.

Karswell is not only NOTD’s strongest character, he’s also its most disruptive. He is undoubtedly the film’s ‘queer’ presence. In Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Harry Benshoff describes how monster movies can be understood as “being ‘about’ the eruption of some form of queer sexuality into the midst of a resolutely heterosexual milieu.” The  (male) homosexual, says Benshoff, is perceived as monstrous because he deviates from gender norms, destabilizing the male-female binary. The classical Hollywood narrative demands heterosexual romance, but “the monster is traditionally figured as a force that attempts to block that romance.” The (male) monster, therefore, is ‘signified’ as homosexual because of its opposition to the heterosexual status quo. As NOTD’s ‘monster’ (or at least monster-controller), Karswell is marked as queer by various ‘signifiers’: he’s unmarried and lives alone with his dotty mother (Athene Seyler) in a palatial estate lavishly furnished with beautiful objects (when introduced to Joanna, his mother blatantly asks if the young woman is married, as if scouting her as a wife for her son—who “really ought to be married,” Mum confides, “but he’s so fussy”). Other signs of queerness abound with Karswell. He strokes a cat in one scene, like a Bondian villain; he appears in clown make-up at a children’s party; and he often addresses Holden as “my boy” (even though both actors look to be the same age). The runic parchment he uses can also be understood as a queer signifier; its being passed from one person to another is a transference that ‘contaminates’ each victim who comes in contact with it. By vanquishing the ‘monstrous’ queerness of Karswell, then, Holden will reassert the natural order/status quo by film’s end.

But then, how much of this status quo does Holden uphold? As the protagonist, Holden may, in Benshoff’s analysis, represent the heterosexual norm, but his own romance with Harrington’s niece (replacing Harrington’s brother from the short story), although meant to function as the requisite libidinal liaison, is singularly pallid. At one point, announcing to Holden she intends to break into Karswell’s house, Joanna coyly asks, “aren’t you even going to try to stop me?”; Holden can barely muster a response to this conventional manhood challenge (he’d sooner stop the demon, he says, than a woman). But, as we noted above, Holden’s (masculine-coded) authority has already been questioned and undermined. After all, we already know that there really is a demon—which, significantly, appears in NOTD‘s narrative before Holden does; Holden is thus placed in opposition to the demon’s own reality (and Holden’s first ‘appearance’ as a newspaper photograph makes him seem less substantial than the supposedly non-existent fiend). The film, as we indicated, is in Karswell’s camp (no pun intended). Holden can only defeat Karswell by, in effect, ‘becoming’ Karswell—using the runic power against his adversary in the same way it was to be used on him. It’s Karswell who, in the film’s terms, represents the actual ‘status quo’—he, after all, stands for NOTD’s ‘there.’ In the film’s final shot Tourneur even undermines the conventional restoration of the heterosexual norm. As Holden and Joanna walk arm-in-arm along a train platform, a train rushes past them; when it exits, we see that the couple has vanished—as if they hadn’t been ‘there’ to begin with.

As you can see by our analysis, NOTD may be read as a deeply subversive film. A provocative queer-theory reading of NOTD could examine how the film’s visual and narrative strategies make visible the demonized queer ‘other’ in its text and, by so doing, challenge the dominant heterosexual discourse.  Holden may eliminate Karswell at film’s end by, as it were, hoisting him with his own petard (literally, in this case, as the demon lifts Karswell into the air to claw him), but Karswell’s defeat does not mean a defeat for our Devilish Friend. Though Karswell might be gone, the demon is not. Someone else can potentially use the runes to bring it back. (They’re not hard to find—a scene with Holden at Stonehenge shows the runes carved on one of the stones, for any and all to see…)

Sources:

Benshoff, Harry M., Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997

Clarens, Carlos, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films: The Classic Era, 1895-1967, New York: DaCapo Press, 1967, 1997

Fujiwara, Chris, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998

Hutchings, Peter, ed., Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema, Lanhorn, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008

James, Montague Rhodes, “Casting the Runes,” in The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1931,1974

Lee, Michael, “Ideology and Style in the Double Feature I Married A Monster from Outer Space and Curse of the Demon,” in Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana, Gary D. Rhodes, ed., Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003

McCarty, John, “The Parallel Worlds of Jacques Tourneur,” Cinefantastique, Summer 1973, Vol. 2, #4

Pixel Surgeon Web Site, “Review: Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon,” http://www.pixelsurgeon.com/reviews/review.php?id=815

Siegel, Joel E., “Tourneur Remembers: Recollections as Told to Joel E. Siegel,” Cinefantastique, Summer 1973, Vol. 2, #4

Stafford, Jeff, “Curse of the Demon: Overview Article,” Turner Classic Movies Web Site, http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=72018&category=Articles

Tudor, Andrew, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1989

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