The most fascinating aspect of books of this genre is the way they unveil collective authorship, thereby raising spectres of all the possible alternative movies that might have transpired if circumstances or personnel had been even slightly different. In describing a project’s evolution, through the various stages of development and production, the creative processes undergone are invariably revealed to be both complex and fragile. In an era when the primacy of the director as auteur is gaining renewed popularity, it is always useful to be reminded of the significant contributions made by other participants.
Tony Earnshaw’s stimulating account of the imprints left on Night of the Demon by a host of key contributors, as well as by the British censors, provides a clear illustration of the pressures and processes that shaped this particular film. In so doing, it also acts as an excellent case study of the mechanics of filmmaking at large. In particular, Earnshaw focuses upon the different ways in which Night of the Demon was envisaged by its writer, director and executive producer. The input of each of these authors is clearly visible in the final product and he examines the ways in which an astonishing and unusual movie emerged from the fusion of their differing agendas. If the divergent styles that coexist are often thought to sit somewhat unhappily with one another, the film nonetheless remains a compellingly atmospheric treat.
Night of the Demon was made in 1957 as a British-American co-production. Its origins lay in a short story, ‘Casting the Runes’, which was written in the first decade of the twentieth century by the renowned master of English ghost stories, M. R. James. The rights to the story were purchased by the screenwriter (and regular Hitchcock collaborator) Charles Bennett who used it as the basis of a speculative script. Bennett initially teamed up with a British producer who hoped to turn it into a film suitable for a teenage audience. After the censors had examined an early screenplay and made it clear that no amount of script revision would persuade them to pass it for this age group, the original producer dropped out. The script was then hawked around Hollywood where it was picked up by the producer Hal E. Chester. Chester re-envisaged the project as one to be expressly targeted at adult audiences and instigated a series of script revisions that excised its humorous interludes whilst magnifying several scenes of explicit horror.
The main point of contention between the filmmakers was whether or not to visually feature the colossal fire demon that pursues Dana Andrews’ sceptical academic. Neither Chester nor director Jacques Tourneur were in favour of doing so. Tourneur’s position is hardly surprising given his prior credentials as the director of three classic horror films for the celebrated Val Lewton unit at RKO: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943). The subtle, understated style of these films, whose latent horrors were born of suggestion rather than depiction, is carried through into Night of the Demon and this approach is arguably its greatest strength. Nevertheless, Chester was quite right to regard this kind of filmmaking as somewhat anachronistic in the year that launched The Curse of Frankenstein and with it the Hammer studio’s grisly horror cycle. Indeed, Chester’s insistence upon including footage of the demon finds validation in the central role that its image played in the film’s marketing campaign. Earnshaw’s book reproduces a wide selection of contemporary posters and publicity materials in which it invariably features prominently. In fact, the much-debated demon has continued to be the film’s most iconic image, a fact affirmed by a range of later book and magazine covers, including that of Earnshaw’s own study.
In uncovering the intersecting forces that shaped this remarkable movie, the author draws on a wide selection of sources ranging from censor’s reports to first- and second-hand interview material. His chronicle is interspersed with reproductions of an absorbing array of documents and illustrations. These include a collection of striking sketches by production designer Ken Adam, many of which are published here for the first time. If Earnshaw’s history is weakly structured in places, and thus sometimes marred by repetitions and abrupt changes of topic, such petty carps are but a minor distraction from the compelling nature of his account. The scope and detail of the materials presented here have produced a splendid companion that assuredly encourages further appreciation of a strange and wonderful film.