Despite Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins being perfectly serviceable leads, Night of the Demon never really comes to life without antagonist Niall MacGinnis around. MacGinnis is a Satanic cult leader who conjures forth demons from Hell—hence the title—to deal with his enemies and—while he never explicitly confesses to his enemies… he takes a delight in his villainy. That delight helps quite a bit with all his expository speeches, which lag whenever he’s not giving them.
At first it seems like the film’s going to have some expository shortcuts—for example, Andrews’s introduction is inventive and pragmatic—but then start the various info dumps. Eventually Cummins gets involved—she and Andrews have a mostly chemistry-free relationship other than some seemingly platonic concern (though they have a good “cute meet” on an airplane). Andrews is flying over to England to help fellow psychiatrist Maurice Denham investigate MacGinnis. Cummins is Denham’s niece and returning for some contrived reason. See, once MacGinnis sicks a demon on Andrews, he’s got to be the skeptic but there also needs to be a reluctant believer: Cummins.
The film establishes almost immediately whether or not MacGinnis is full of it on the demonology business; there’s a voice over setting things up, ominously set against various shots of Stonehenge, then it’s time for Denham to confront MacGinnis and we find out what’s really going on. So Andrews’s protracted investigation—which involves local farmer Brian Wilde’s murder trial and a convention to debunk paranormal thinking, specifically MacGinnis’s cult—doesn’t promise a lot of pay-off because the film’s clued the audience in on things he doesn’t know or even suspect.
Andrews even has a separate supporting cast for this subplot, whereas Cummins sticks to the MacGinnis side of things, getting involved with MacGinnis’s sympathetic mother, Athene Seyler.
So most of Demon is rapid exposition—Tourneur gets excellent readings from Andrews and Cummins during their scenes, with this neat trick of delaying reactions so they don’t get in the way of more exposition but they do build up so they’ve got more weight when they do break, sometimes with a nice cut courtesy editor Michael Gordon. When it’s not rapid exposition, the film’s suspense sequences. Tourneur, cinematographer Edward Scaife, and editor Gordon create some spectacular suspense sequences in the film. They’re able to get tension out of MacGinnis offering Andrews a light, but then they’re also able to scale up to full action special effects set pieces too. They can do ominous empty, they can do jumbo action set pieces. Scaife’s night photography is stunning; he and Tourneur do some great work on the suspense here.
Clifton Parker’s music helps too, though not as much as Gordon and whoever did the sound (looks like Charles Crafford). The film teaches Andrews—and the audience—to be afraid of the dark, starting from the first scene after the opening titles. And it’s always night time in Demon. There are some day time scenes in the first act, but pretty soon everyone’s out after dark, whether it’s for a dinner date, a seance, or the paranormal debunking convention. There’s always somewhere for monsters to hide.
Because Demon’s not just a suspense thriller about a Satanic cult out to rid itself of meddling American anti-paranormal psychiatrist, it’s also a monster movie. Maybe. And Tourneur and the crew adeptly pivot between the two genres. It helps the effects are excellent. There’s a quite a bit of process photography during chase scenes, for instance, and it’s always outstanding.
There’s just too much of the exposition in the second act. Even with it “solving” the problem for Andrews, it takes forever while Cummins and presumably MacGinnis are off having a lot more interesting things going on than giving a lecture. If Andrews were better, it might work out. He’s fine, he’s sturdy, but he’s far from compelling. Even with less to do, Cummins manages to be a lot more appealing; Andrews and MacGinnis are both playing jackasses, one of them just happens to be more right than the other about the existence of demons. They play well off each other, with Andrews lighting up for the conflict in a way he doesn’t for the exposition dumps with Cummins.
Excellent direction from Tourneur throughout—even when the narrative is slogging—is key. He likes his jump scares too; while he doesn’t rely on them, he does play with them, trying to keep the audience on their toes but also to jazz up the film after it’s been dragging. It’d be nice for it not to drag, but Tourneur’s compensations work out.
Night of the Demon succeeds, with Tourneur, the crew, and MacGinnis picking up the slack for the script and—consequently—Andrews and Cummins, who always manage to be sympathetic and appealing, but nothing more. It makes the film even more impressive it’s able to get away with not having effective heroes. Good thing it’s so exceptionally well-made.