Cult Connections: Night of the Demon (1957) & The Wicker Man (1973)

[This article contains major spoilers for both films.]

“Take it kind of easy on our ghosts,” a reporter appeals to Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), early in Night of the Demon, “We English are rather fond of them.”

Holden is in England to attend a convention, where his colleague Professor Harrington intended to expose the leader of a devil worship cult, Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis).

Unfortunately, Professor Harrington is dead, victim of a freak accident.  The only link in the investigation now is Rand Hobart, a member of the cult who agreed to testify, but has since fallen into a catatonic stupor.

Harrington’s niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins) has her Uncle’s diary and believes his death was no accident.  In his last entries, he wrote of being stalked by a terrifying demon after Karswell passed him a slip of parchment bearing ancient runic symbols.

Holden remains predictably skeptical, despite Karswell’s threats, and plans to continue Harrington’s investigation of the cult.  Karswell manages to pass Holden a similar parchment, and invites him out to his stately pile in the countryside to borrow a rare book on witchcraft.

Holden continues to mock his host’s beliefs, angering Karswell into giving him only three days to live.

The sub-genre of occult horror often operates differently to standard horror, when we are supposed to identify and root for the hero.

Instead, the nominal heroes of occult horrors are often representatives of an uptight, narrow-minded, killjoy establishment – Science (Night of the Demon), the Law (The Wicker Man) or the Government (The Omen).

During Holden’s visit to Karswell’s home, Karswell explains to him the rules of Snakes & Ladders, saying how he always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing the ladders.

In these films, we always get a perverse joy out of watching the hero slide down the snakes, have their veneer of unshakeable confidence stripped, and their stubborn beliefs brought low.  If Science killed God, then it also killed our ghosts – and as the reporter at the beginning points out, we English are rather fond of those.  It is no surprise that we use movies, our modern form of storytelling, to take revenge on the killers.

Devil worship, witchcraft and sacrifices remain a working class faith in these films, out in the provinces or remote parts of the British isles.  The British Empire was locked in terminal decline after WWII, and the US was established as a world Superpower by Night of the Demon‘s release.  Holden is an outsider, a member of the uptight establishment visiting the UK, which is portrayed as a quaint province of America in the movie.

Karswell’s stately mansion, Lufford Hall, is clearly well out of the city, somewhere in the Home Counties.  Karswell is the leader of a devil worship cult, but doesn’t like getting his hands dirty.  When Holden and Joanna visit, he is throwing a party for the children from the village.  His wealthy upper class status implies his power over the rural population, and it is clear running a cult pays well, although it is not without it’s dangers.  As he tells his mother: “Nothing is for nothing.”

Karswell mentions his followers on a number of occasions, but we don’t see him in the same scene as any of them.  Karswell is an intelligent man, and likes to keep his hands clean.  When we do eventually see his followers, Rand Hobart and his family, they are poor, uneducated, unfriendly, superstitious folk.  They’re the workers, and all the grubby witchcraft stuff is usually left to them.

The hapless member of the establishment blundering into occult danger in The Wicker Man is Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), summoned to a remote Hebridean island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl.

The islanders are all cheerfully unhelpful in Howie’s inquiries, and the devoutly Christian copper is appalled to find the population of Summerisle openly reveling in the worship of their pagan Gods.

Appealing to the laird of the island, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) about the “real” God, Howie is abruptly told: “He’s dead.  He can’t complain.  He had His chance, and in modern parlance, He blew it.”

Howie’s allegiance to the Establishment is slightly more complex.  While he is on the side of the Law, he is serving the Crown, and therefore Scotland’s oppressors, as well as on the side of an uptight Christian God.

Lord Summerisle lives in similar opulence to Karswell, and enjoys similar status among the peasants he lords it over.  Both are charismatic and intelligent men, and are acutely aware of the dangers invoking these ancient beliefs.

Karswell certainly doesn’t want to be around when the Demon rolls up to claim his victims.  Summerisle urges his islanders to take human sacrifices, even though he knows if their crops fail next time (which is likely) it will be him they are sacrificing next year.

Night of the Demon and The Wicker Man share similar themes, but the look of the two films couldn’t be more different.  Jacques Tourneur creates an elegant, noirish atmosphere, which manages to survive producer Hal E Chester’s decision to include the Demon at the beginning and end of the film.

Without Chester’s interference, Night of the Demon would be a monster-less monster movie, leaving it up to the audience to decide how real the creature was.

It is testament to Tourneur’s masterful direction that the film not only survives the demon’s early arrival, in all it’s papier mache five-bob glory,it thrives on it.  The suspense builds so much that you are simultaneously dreading and looking forward to seeing the Demon again.

While Night of the Demon, predictably, spends most of its time at night, The Wicker Man is a nudie folk horror musical set almost entirely in broad daylight.  The accumulation of dread in Robin Hardy’s cult classic builds from the weird detail of the islander’s pagan rituals and the sense of something horrific awaiting Howie…which of course it is.

Holden’s faith in science and logic is suitably shaken by events in Night of… that he is able to save himself; Howie resolutely holds onto his Christian faith, praying and singing defiant hymns even as the flames engulf him.

Occult horror gives us back our primitive old joyous Gods, lets us enjoy our ghosts.  We’ll always enjoy watching the hero burn in these movies, and like the islanders of The Wicker Man, we’ll be singing and dancing while they’re burning.

About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 10/06/2012, in Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, N, Reviews, Uncategorized, W and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. This is an ambitious comparison between these two films, and a very well-written article. But as an occult horror fan, I hate to think that the average Wicker Man fan likes the movie because they’re happy about what happens to Howie. And as for standard horror fandom, what about all the people who lionize the killers in slasher franchises? Those fans love Freddy and Jason, and their victims are deliberately written as two-dimensional, if not downright unpleasant, so viewers can enjoy the slaughter.

  2. Thanks very much for your comments & taking the time to read my article! I agree, I perhaps over-egged the point about singing & dancing while the hero is burning, although I meant it more in context of the overall article.

    However, I believe there is a great deal of schadenfreude involved when watching this type of movie – the viewer is almost complicit, watching the ‘hero’, blinkered by his faith and arrogance, work himself into deeper and deeper danger.

  3. Dana Andrews and Jacques Tourneur never got over Hal Chester’s insistence on the cheesy monster, but I agree the film survives its poor special effects. For more background on the film you might read my forthcoming biography HOLLYWOOD ENIGMA: DANA ANDREWS.

    • Thanks for your comments, and I’ll certainly make a note of your book – I’d like to expand this article into something more substantial, so it might be useful for some background info! All the best with the book.

  1. Pingback: Video Krypt at 20,000 hits – and some of the weird shit people search to find us… | Video Krypt

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