In attempting to scare the grey flannel trousers off its original 1950s audience, Jacques Tourneur’s deliciously dark little frightener Night of the Demon, based on the M. R. James story Casting the Runes, employed a number of devices to instil fear – the effectiveness of the stick puppet demon itself, insisted on by executive producer Hal E. Chester, still divides opinion – but perhaps the most spine-chilling artefact that the film possesses is no more than a simple strip of parchment.
On it is inscribed a collection of runic symbols that convey a curse upon whoever should have had the parchment passed to them. In an early scene set in the British Library American skeptic Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) unwittingly takes possession of the parchment when the nefarious Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) hands him a dropped book with the slip tucked inside. The act marks the beginning of a countdown to Holden’s impending death, if Karswell’s subsequent prediction of Holden’s imminent demise is to be believed.
The slip itself, once passed, seems charged with life, if only in the pursuit of self destruction; when Holden finds it inside the book back at his hotel room it leaps from his hands and flies in the direction of the fireplace propelled by a sudden gust of wind that has blown in through the window. With the curse delivered the parchment has effectively done its job and the dark forces at work need it to be incinerated so that it cannot be passed on to anyone else. Holden manages to salvage it intact and keeps it safely in his wallet.
He extricates it briefly to compare it to some runes that he finds scratched into one of the sarsens at Stonehenge. Two things to note here; firstly the folks at English Heritage can rest easy, the film-makers didn’t really make those marks in the stone to match the parchment runes. It’s fairly obvious they used a stunt stone. Secondly, and bearing in mind that the film was packaged with at least half an eye on US moviegoers, the little Stonehenge scene is one of those amusing examples of American misappreciation of British geographical distance and proximity. There’s Holden in central London one minute and there he is on Salisbury Plain the next, as though travelling between this particular A and B is as easy as hopping on the number 9 bus from Hammersmith to Aldwych.
(Spoiler alert) The parchment survives and at the end of the film Holden is able to pass it back to Karswell just in time to save his own skin and condemn the Satan Botherer to a catastrophic mauling at the claws of the eponymous demon. Once passed back to Karswell the slip does another fluttering dance, along the corridor of the night train out of Clapham Junction and out along the track where Karswell meets his terrible fate once the slip self-immolates at the stroke of 10pm. Night of the Demon remains an effective scarefest despite its age and offers a reminder that no amount of BOO! special effects are quite as psychologically unsettling as the implication of an ancient curse.
One reply on “Screengem: The rune parchment from Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)”
Yes, a really remarkable film, and nice to see someone tackling it – and I agree with you about Carpenter’s version The Thing – it’s clearly a masterwork. A nice approach to this iconic and often overlooked film, while Tourneur’s work for Lewton in the 1940s – which is also superb – gets all the attention. And, of course, Niall McGinnis is just perfect as Karswell — the jolly demon lover!