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There’s nothing quite like a good spine chiller for passing the long, dark winter nights; MR James was a master of the genre, and although his work has irregularly been translated into the mediums of film and television, the results have been uncommonly good. So settle down by a roaring fire with snifter of brandy as you get in the mood for some atmospheric storytelling with Whistle and I’ll Come To You, a BBC production from 1968 featuring Michael Horden as a sceptic whose beliefs come into question after a chance encounter on a beach. Also within easy reach are televised versions of MR James’s Number 13, or A Warning to the Curious, or you can even enjoy Charles Dickens writing in a very James-ian mode in The Signalman, immaculately performed by the late great Denholm Elliott.

But for your main feature, lock the doors, draw the curtains and brace yourself under the bedclothes for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 classic Night of the Demon. Based on MR James’s short story Casting the Runes, it’s a taut, sober and chilling story of a psychologist (Dana Andrews) chasing around London to evade the curse put on him by occult master and part-time children’s clown Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Even though Tourneur tried unsuccessfully to have added detailed shots of the fearsome fire-demon removed from the ending, the eerie effects and overall serious tone easily knock today’s 3D horror extravaganzas into a cocked hat.

The very essence of cult horror, Night of the Demon turns up in the small hours of TV schedules to terrify the unwary, but despite a strong critical reputation, hasn’t been issued on DVD in the UK. So if you want a look at the movie which inspired everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love. And if Night of the Demon’s handling of occult seems oddly plausible, that may well be because director Tourneur claimed to know what he was talking about; he announced to audiences at the 1975 Edinburgh Film Festival that he had consulted a number of white witches while making the film, and claimed to possess a few of their powers himself.

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1. godfrey hamilton10 Jun 2009, 9:16am Report

Actually, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that the shots of the Demon were added with Tourneur's full knowledge and approval; it's certainly a magnificent, iconic creature and doesn't, as critics have often charged, break the delicate web of unease woven by the movie (what's inexcusable is Dana Andrews's completely plastered, slurred delivery; as he plays a skeptical investigator, however, his wooden, alienated performance is somehow appropriate). I recommend Tony Earnsahw's "Beating the Devil' for fascinating background material on the making of this Great British Movie. And a read of the original M.R. James story as well. Unmissable.

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