The 20th century saw two great storytellers who understood that it's not always what you see, but what you feel, that makes a story truly scary: H.P. Lovecraft and Val Lewton. Lovecraft had the balls to say, in the first line of one of his best stories, “Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.” His stories were full of events that couldn't be explained by any scientific or even traditionally religious means. Lewton's most famous movies were, however, more focused on something obscured. Was it a monster, or merely a madman?
When Jacques Tourneur, who directed Lewton's two best movies, took on Night of the Demon in 1957, he did it the same way he and Lewton would have done it after The Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie. In the movie proper, everything can be explained by either Dana Andrews's realist John Holden or the evil magician, Dr. Karswell. The death of Professor Harrington might have been the result of a drug-induced nightmare. Or it might have been the result of an uncontrollable demon summoned from the depths of Hell. We may never know.
Well, we may never have known if Tourneur had his way. After principle shooting was completed, the studio forced Tourneur to edit in footage of the demon. While the special effects are genuinely well-made for the era, the movie manages to create such an unsettling, bizarre atmosphere without them that it just seems completely unnecessary. Seeing the demon doesn't ruin Night of the Demon, but it makes it takes away a little of its mystery.
What's most striking about Night of the Demon is how far it is from the B-plus feel you'd expect from a movie called Night of the Demon that came out in 1957. The movie is full of scenes where reality seems just a little bit off. When Holden and Karswell first meet in the British Museum, we see Karswell walk away, silhouetted, through Holden's eyes. What was an institution of learning and science now looks like a catacomb. When Holden and Harrington's niece, Joanna, visit Karswell's mansion for the first time, Holden and Karswell have a philosophical conversation about the way the two of them view the world ending in Karswell appearing to summon a thunderstorm from nowhere, all while he wears clown make-up. Moments like these create a mood that's closer to Mr. Arkadin than It Came From Outer Space.
Night of the Demon was Tourneur's last truly great movie, and it may in fact be the last vestige of the kind of filmmaking that he and Lewton innovated in the early 40s. It's the kind of horror that comes from being just as afraid of the kind of people that prey on your weaknesses as you are of the things that go bump in the night. Night of the Demon gives it a fitting send-off, showing how it can be disabled with just a few glimpses of a bat-winged monster emerging from the woods, and getting to the core of the genre with just a few words to close the film: “You were right. Maybe it's better not to know.”