Friday, January 25, 2008
Ever wonder what "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes...and passing them used lots of skills" refers to in the song "Science Fiction Double Feature" from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW? Or the lyric "Its in the trees! Its coming!" from Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love"? Well look no further than 1957's NIGHT OF THE DEMON. And, oh what a night it is!
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, it all starts with a shot of some famous big rocks with some cryptic mumbo jumbo about evil and witchcraft and "the runes". (Runes were letterforms used to write Germanic languages before and shortly after the Christianization of the British Isles).
After our credit sequence where we learn that Dana Andrews is our star, we see an unknown man (not Dana) driving down a long, dark wooded road - he stops at an opulent mansion called Lufford Hall - it looks very much like a University building. We learn that this man is Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) and he's here to see Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Karswell's butler lies to Harrington and tells him that the man of the manor is not at home. Karswell then appears and he and Harrington go back and forth about some study that the Professor has been working on. Apparently something sinister has been uncovered and the Professor is frightened for his life. Karswell he just wants privacy for himself and his dedicated followers. The situation goes unresolved and the Professor leaves and gets in his car and drives away. He parks in his garage, when suddenly a GIANT smoke ball appears in the sky. So what does he do? He gets back in his car and drives directly into a telephone pole. Then a GIANT DEMON attacks him!!!
Meanwhile, Dana Andrews is flying to London (we know this because he is trying to sleep on the plane with a newspaper covering his face. The newspaper headline reads something like "Professor Holden Flies to London". I swear!) Unable to sleep because some woman behind him is fiddling with her meal tray - he asks a stewardess for a mask - she suggests he pop some pills instead. Drug pusher!!! The meal tray woman asks if she can change her seat because she realizes that she's annoying Dana. Too late, we're already half-way there. Wonder if the woman has a newspaper that says "Annoying Woman Flies to London"?
Professor Harrington has sent a driver to pick up Dana at the airport, but Dana is assaulted by reporters who want to know WHY he's in England. (Apparently tomorrow's headlines will tell everyone). He tells them he's here to debunk myths about things like ghosts, hypnotism, demonology, zombies, witchcraft, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, etc.. We then learn that Harrington is dead - reports say he was electrocuted! No mention of the Demon. Hmmm...
Dana arrives at his hotel and is greeted by some British guy and two other visiting professors - who we will call Harold and Kumar. Harold tells us that's he been doing research into Karswell's Devil Cult - and specifically the case of a farmer named Hobart who was arrested for murder and placed in a home for the criminally insane. Huh? Kumar just stands around looking very un-Indian. Then they show Dana a drawing of a fire demon. Not sure who drew it. Harold's kid maybe? Then the phone rings - it's Dr. Karswell (How did he get the number?) - he tells Dana in no uncertain terms to rethink his planned expose - or else!
Next Dana goes to the British Museum - but it turns out that a 400 year old book that he wants to see is suddenly missing. Of course, Karswell shows up and declares that he OWNS a copy of that very same book, he then invites Dana to his place in the country for a visit. Wink, wink. Dana tells him he'll visit alright, but he's not gonna stop his "investigation". Karswell then knocks over a pile of papers that Dana is working on and slips in one of his business cards. Only there is cryptic note on the card, which disappears after Dana reads it! Spooky stuff!
Next we are at Professor Harrington's funeral - and guess who shows up? The annoying chick from the plane! Turns out she's Joann Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the late professor's nosy neice. She soon pays Dana a "visit" in his hotel room - with her uncle's diary. The diary contains Runic symbols and because of this she believes that the professor was killed by witchcraft!!! Or maybe he just drove into a telephone poll?
The next day, Dana and Joann pay Karswell a visit - during a magic show that Karswell is putting on for the local (devil worshipping?) kids. We learn that Halloween is only a few days away. Mother Karswell (Athene Seyler) is scooping out ice cream for the kids (and Joann) while her son and Dana discuss the powers of the mind. Did I mention that Karswell is in full clown makeup? Suddenly two creepy kids in Halloween masks jump out at them. Scared the crap outta me!
To show dense Dana that he means business, Karswell waves his hand and removes a protective shield from around his estate. Suddenly a violent windstorm begins, totally ruining the Halloween party. Then Karswell predicts that Dana will die in three days!!! He tells Dana to drop his investigation if he wants to live!!! Dana says no. Huh?
Meanwhile Joann gets kindly Mother K. to show her a book of Runic symbols - which is pretty and all - but it doesn't come with a translation key. Karswell chastises his mother and tells her that they live so well because of his "followers". Okay - where are these so-called followers???
Next Dana and Joann flirt about "causes and effects" i.e. "penises and vaginas". Then paranoid Dana suspects he's being followed - must have something to do with those loud footsteps we keep hearing, no? Later Dana whistles an Irish dirge for Harold and Kumar and waxes on about auto-suggestion and mass hysteria. These guys really know how to have fun!!! Dana tells the guys he's giving a speech on ESP - but they discover that his notes have been torn out of his notebook!!! So, he decides to meet up with Joann "for a drink". ;)
Dana discovers that Karswell passed him "the runes" on a piece of parchment when they met at the museum. Now Dana is cursed and doomed to die - if he only believed in such nonsense! So, since he's only got about 48 hours left he decides to visit the Hobart farm, where he's greeted by an angry English hillbilly with a shovel. Mrs. Hobart invites Dana in to talk - and the rest of the creepy white trash Hobart clan comes out of the woodwork. They all look like sideshow freaks and talk like Yoda. He begs Mrs. Hobart to sign a piece of paper which allows her murderous son to be released from the mental hospital so Dana can try to "help" him. The parchment then tries to escape from Dana's wallet and Mrs. Hobart declares "he has been chosen!"
Then Dana visits Stonehenge and sees that the writing on his parchment (it's like a big fortune-cookie fortune) matches the Runic hieroglyphics on the stone wall. So then he takes a taxi to meet Joann who's been hanging with Karswell's mother. I think Mother K. is giving Joann some special attention - if you know what I mean. Turns out Mother K. is having a seance and wants Dana and Joann to sit in. The medium is then taken over by a) an American Indian chief, b) a certain Mr. McGregor, c) a little girl who lost her doll and finally, d) Joann's uncle - who tells then that Karswell has a translation of the Runic book! Huh???
So, Joann drives Dana to Karswell's mansion after Mother K. tells him that her son is not home - so Dana climbs up a trellis into a open window! The room is filled with dusty antiques and crap covered in sheets. Do people actually cover things with sheets in real life, or only in old movies? We see a hand on the bannister - but wait I thought no one was home? Then we see a black cat! Good thing Dana is not superstitious! Then he finds the translation book - but the cat turns into a leopard and attacks him! Then Karswell appears along with his mother (How the hell did she get home and change into her nightgown so quickly?). Guess Karswell was home after all, thanks Mom. Feeling foolish, Dana decides to walk to his hotel - through the woods. He is followed by smoky footprints and a smoke cloud. Oh no...so he trips and falls and the smoke gets sucked back into the sky! Okay, what the fuck?
So, now it's 3AM and Dana and Joann (where the hell has SHE been?) are at the police station to report the mysterious smoke. The cops are like "what have they been smoking?" They think that Dana is "bewitched". Dana tells Joann that he walks under ladders, cross paths with black cats - he's made a career out of exposing phony superstitions. This pisses her off for some reason. I think she's wishing she was nestled warmly in Mother K's bosom eating ice cream instead of hanging around Debbie Downer Dana.
The next morning, crazy killer farmer Hobart has been released from the asylum. Mother K. calls Joann and bullshits to her about not knowing about her son being home. Yeah, right. She also tells her that someone else knows about the secret of the parchment. Whatever - hey Momma, have any more ice cream? Wanna stay in tonight and rent DESERT HEARTS?
It's now nighttime already - the night that Dana is supposed to die. Joann gets in her car, but she's not alone!!! Meanwhile, crazy killer farmer Hobart is brought in front of a small audience. They surmise that crazy killer farmer Hobart has lost all contact with reality - so they shoot him up with some drug which makes him totally freak out. Dana then hypnotizes him and puts him to sleep in a deep trance - then they give him a dose of (believe it or not) crystal methamphetamine!!!
It's clearly the night of the Demon - when Hobart declares "Its in the trees! Its coming!" and then tells Dana that the parchment was passed to him and he gave it back to the person who passed it to him (his brother), and that person died instead of him. Basically it's like playing "hot potato". Then Hobart freaks out and jumps out a window to his death - very REEFER MADNESS.
SPOILERS AHEAD: So, Dana then rushes to the train station to confront Karswell - jumping on a moving train - he finds Karswell, who has hypnotized and kidnapped Joann. Dana desperately tries to pass the runes back to Karswell, but the guy is just not having it. Eventually it does get passed - but it gets blown out of Karswell's pocket - so he chases the parchment onto the railroad tracks - where it catches fire!!! Suddenly at the same time, BOTH a train AND a demon are headed towards him. The train misses him, but the demon gets him. Dana goes to look at Karswell's dead body - but tells Joann "It's better not to know".
Oh. My. God. I LOVED this movie. Can't tell you what it's about or what it all means, but it's just so atmospheric and interesting that it doesn't matter. Dana Andrews is fun to watch and the rest of the cast as well, even bitchy Joann grows on you after a while. I give it a 10 outta 10. But I wanna know what "prunes" has to do with it all. FYI - there is another version (the US edit) of the film called CURSE OF THE DEMON which is 20 minutes sorter. It's worth seeking out this version to get the full effect.