“But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half-world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind…?”
Good hard questions, these. In all of cinema I’m not sure there’s a villain I enjoy more than the man who puts them – Satanist and children’s magician Dr Julian Karswell, played by Niall MacGinnis in Jacque Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957, scripted by Charles Bennett from the story ‘Casting the Runes’ by M.R. James.) MacGinnis does nothing showy, and his line readings are admirably unfussy. (For instance a lesser actor would have made ripely ‘sinister’ work out of the dialogue extracted above, aimed by Karswell at Dana Andrews’ tough-minded psychologist John Holden; MacGinnis just rattles it off, as any intelligent Satanist would.)
Night of the Demon is a spookily beautiful piece in which Tourneur makes his customary and celebrated use of darkness to shred the nerves; yet some of the film’s most unsettling passages are in daylight. The dimly-lit séance (from which Kate Bush sampled ‘It’s in the trees! It’s coming!’ for her Hounds of Love) and the pitch-dark pursuit of Holden by the Demon (through dense and tangled woods) are obvious standouts. But for sheer original chills it’s hard to top Karswell’s casually pointed summoning of a storm that ruins the annual children’s party he is throwing in the grounds of his estate, but which indicates to us the audience, if not to the obdurate John Holden, that the powers of darkness may be memorably invoked under the sun.
And is there a tip of the hat to Tourneur in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest? You need hardly ask. Around midway point the clinical psychiatrist Dr Steven Hartford, in a troubled frame of mind, is tramping the grounds of Blakedene Hall (the upscale residential clinic of which he is director) when all hell breaks loose in the elements:
“I had been conscious, from the moment I stepped outdoors again, of the disturbing white-nacre shade of the sky, the wind in the treetops now a shuddering hiss. Autumn is here, for sure. But as I marched across the lawn… it seemed the air was full of moaning sounds, behind these a dull but rising roar. Then the storm broke…”