Rightly regarded as a classic of the horror genre by many, Night Of The Demon is directed by the great Jacques Tourneur and based on the short story "Casting The Runes" by the great M. R. James. So it's basically got a foundation of greatness. The cast, which includes Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Nial MacGinnis, is full of people just right for their characters and therefore the movie can't really fail.
But then there are those moments in which the titular demon is shown onscreen. We'll get to those scenes later.
The plot is all about Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) and his visit to England to expose the workings of cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis). When he arrives, Dr. Holden is upset to hear that a colleague he was collaborating with (Professor Harrington, played by Maurice Denham) is dead. He is determined to continue his work but also ends up being assisted by Harrington's niece, Joanne (Peggy Cummins), as he investigates the mysterious death of the Professor. Meanwhile, Dr. Karswell predicts another death and seems very confident in his powers. Initially dismissive of the paranormal, Dr. Holden starts to believe that there may be something more happening that can't be easily explained but he only has a few days left to get to the bottom of everything if he is to avoid his own premature death.
With so many scenes positively dripping with atmosphere and some wonderful exchanges between "rational minds" and those who believe in the paranormal, Night Of The Demon is both old-fashioned horror at its simplest and best and also intelligent and full of characters who are enjoyably sceptical of what they see as a load of hokum.
Impressively, that scepticism runs through most of the movie. There are times when things occur that could be just coincidence (such as the moment in which Dr. Karswell "conjures up" a strong wind) and the movie is almost as much about the way in which people only need to believe in something bad for their behaviour to change in such a way that brings about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The script is by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester (who was also an executive producer and quite a meddlesome presence), with some uncredited work from Cy Endfield, and they deserve their credit but the fact is that the source material was superb. For that reason, even though it may seem slightly unfair, I give the most thanks to M. R. James and director Tourneur, who knew exactly how to make the best of every scene.
Oh, I've still to mention the moments when the demon itself appears onscreen. This has long been a bone of contention among many horror fans, with most claiming that those scenes spoil an otherwise perfect film. Tourneur claims that he never wanted the demon to be shown so directly and the blame is often heaped upon Chester for this major mis-step. Mind you, according to the excellent Beating The Devil: The Making Of Night Of The Demon by Tony Earnshaw, the offending, unambiguous shots were included in the early stages of production development.
I'm in agreement with the majority anyway, those scenes DO spoil an otherwise perfect film. On the other hand, this movie has that great mix of onscreen quality and offscreen turbulence that makes it just as enjoyable to watch and investigate further nowadays as it would have been over 50 years ago.