“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”
Despite the movie poster appearing in color, the 1957 horror-meets-noir classic, Night of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, and Niall MacGinnis is shot entirely in black and white, its cinematography making excellent use of the format’s shadowy palette.
Based on the short story, "Casting the Runes," by M. R. James, it tells us, among other things, how occult practitioner Dr. Julian Karswell punishes the investigators of his Satanic cult, and, despite its antiquity, it has for me at least remained a disturbing film throughout the years.
With an early childhood already saturated with thick fog, soot-covered buildings, steam trains, dark woods, and tales of Pendle witches, this particular film fed greedily on my imagination, although in later years it’s come to represent something other than witches and demons, but we’ll get to that later.
We witness Karswell’s tricks at the very beginning, as the titular demon shows up to chow down on a hapless critic, a man named Harrington. It’s a forgivable early reveal, because by the time we reach the end, we realize the film isn’t about the demon, or the final act of retribution, but the crawling fear that precedes it.
Soon after, we meet Dr. Holden, a veritable prince of skepticism who arrives in London to attend a conference where Harrington was about to denounce Karswell’s activities, only to be told of his colleague’s abrupt demise. Undeterred, Holden continues Harrington’s research and heads off to the reading room in the British Museum in search of a particular book on demons and witchcraft; however, not only is the book missing, but Holden encounters the mysterious Dr. Karswell who, after attempting to dissuade him from further research and offering to let him take a look his own copy of the missing book at his country home, secretly hands him a slip of paper containing a line of runic symbols.
From then on, things start to get weird. Handwriting mysteriously disappears on a business card. There’s an inexplicable chill in the air and a feeling of being followed, of being watched. Holden meets Joanna, Harrington’s niece, who has read her uncle’s diary and is convinced “…something horrible happened to him.” The diary mentions Karswell and the delivery of a parchment inscribed with runes.
Together, they visit Karswell’s country mansion and discover their host in the middle of overseeing a party for the local children. Subsequent conversation becomes a tense game of verbal chess. After observing a game of snakes and ladders, Karswell mentions he’d rather slide down the snakes than climb up the ladders, inspiring Holden to opine that perhaps it means he’s a good loser.
“I’m not, you know,” replies Karswell. “Not a bit of it.”
Little by little we begin to see Holden’s skepticism severely tested, while witnessing Karswell’s growing fear of the demon he’s about to unleash; however, even after the conjuring of a storm and Karswell’s subsequent death threats, none of it persuades Holden to drop his investigation.
Holden has three days until he meets his demise, and during a meeting with his colleagues, he discovers all pages of his diary beyond his day of doom have been torn out. During dinner with Joanna the following evening, she mentions her uncle’s diary also had its pages removed. Holden discovers the runic parchment tucked in his notes, handed surreptitiously to him by Karswell at the British Museum, and immediately the slip of paper tries in vain to escape into the burning hearth.
An encounter with the family of a man he’s intending to question about the investigation, a visit to Stonehenge, and an utterly bonkers séance where the famous line, “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” is delivered, do nothing to alleviate the tension.
At this point, Holden has had quite enough. Joanna decides to take matters into her own hands by breaking into Karswell’s mansion in search of some answers, but instead it’s the chivalrous Holden who sneaks through the woods, climbs inside the house through an open window, only to be attacked by Karswell’s cat, Grimalkin. The disturbance summons Karswell, who matter-of-factly reiterates the time of Holden’s demise and asks him to leave.
“If you’re thinking of going through the woods you might find it unpleasant. I suggest you use the drive, I’ll put on a light for you.”
Alas, Holden insists on leaving the way he arrived, and it’s here he has his first real suggestion that something horrific is following him. He and Joanna go to the police regarding the threats, only to face befuddlement and skepticism.
Meanwhile, knowing exactly how this is going to end, Karswell’s dear old mom is calling everyone on the phone in an attempt to pass on information that someone else knows the secret of the runic parchment. She gets through to Joanna but is overheard by her son. Karswell is leaving town, and as a safeguard against mishap he kidnaps Joanna and brings her along.
Meanwhile, Holden and his colleagues resuscitate a catatonic and suspected murderer, Rand Hobart, who may have some connection to Karswell. Eventually, under hypnosis, he begins to talk. He reveals, during his own “Night of the Demon,” how he was chosen, and mentions the parchment.
Holden shows him his own slip of paper. “Is this the parchment?”
“No. I passed it back to the brother who gave it to me. I had to return it to him. It was the only way I could save myself, and the demon took him, not me.”
Convinced Holden is about to hand him the paper, Hobart breaks free of his interrogators, hurls himself through a window, and falls to his death.
A colleague informs Holden of a conversation with Mrs. Karswell on the phone, and how her son will be on the 8:45 p.m. train to Southampton. Holden dashes to the station and just about manages to catch the train. He’s followed by the police who are now holding him under suspicion. Finding Karswell in one of the compartments, he also discovers Joanna there under hypnosis.
Awakened, she tells Holden that Karswell is terrified, and what follows are a number of foiled attempts at passing the parchment back to its originator. The police arrive in time to stop the men from harming one another, and in the scramble, Holden manages to hide the paper in the other man’s coat.
Discovered, the paper escapes from Karswell’s hand and a chase begins. As the train pulls in to the next station, both Karswell and the parchment descend onto the tracks while loud, whistling, steam locomotives pass by on either side. The parchment disintegrates in the path of an oncoming train and, finally, we see the approach of the demon.
The camera shows Karswell being torn to pieces by the monster. The police show up too late and assume the man was hit by a passing train. As for Holden and Joanna Harrington, they prefer not to look and head for the station exit, giving a nod to the ending of Casting the Runes where Holden’s literary equivalent, Edward Dunning, declines to hear any more of Harrington’s nightmares.
When I was a little kid, my grandma and I once rode the train to Blackpool. It was in the early-to-mid sixties, and I guess it was supposed to be a special treat for both of us, but all I can remember is standing on the platform, feeling the deep vibration beneath my feet, hearing that screaming whistle and the slow huff, huff, huff, as the steam engine approached the station. On arrival, the beast blew out steam like an immense dragon that reeked of burning coal and engine oil. What a monster it was! Is this what Karswell really fell victim to? Back then, having no real notion of demons I would have believed the train had gotten him, for sure.
As for a fluttering slip of paper containing a few scribbled runic symbols, there appears nothing to be afraid of and yet, what do we have today? A bitter tweet, a sarcastic comment, a spiteful private message, all of which are capable of inspiring awful consequences. It seems words have terrible power, or at least, at the end of this particular tale, Dr, Holden thought so.