"Dana Andrews said 'prunes,' gave him the runes, and passing them used lots of skills."It may not be immediately obvious, but these lyrics from the song "Science Fiction Double Feature" refer to the British 1957 film, Night of the Demon, itself an adaptation of the short story "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James.
You've probably never heard of "Casting the Runes," but really, it should be much more popular, given how frequently it has been adapted for television and film. Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell strikes me as probably the most recent of these adaptations. Night of the Demon takes quite a few liberties with the story, but all the major plot points are there.
Night of the Demon begins with a confrontation between Professor Harrington and Dr. Julian Karswell. Harrington promises to stop investigating Karswell if Karswell will just stop the thing he has started. Karswell agrees, and hurries Harrington out the door. On his drive home, Harrington is accosted an killed by a winged demon. The authorities attribute the death to an unusual car accident.
Cut to Dr. John Holden. Holden (Dana Andrews) is a professional skeptic who has come from America to England in order to assist Harrington and debunk Karswell's satanic cult. He is quite unsettled to learn of his friend's death. He decides to push forward with the investigation anyway, and eventually strikes up an acquaintance with Karswell, who is none to thrilled about the impending exposé, leaves Holden with a mysterious calling card bearing the handwritten note, "allowed two weeks."
Holden doesn't know what to make of this, and he is considerably unsettled to learn that Harrington was also "allowed two weeks" by Karswell. He discovered a slip of paper in his possessions -- probably secreted there by Karswell -- on which ancient runic symbols have been drawn. Holden, a strict materialist who normally mocks superstition, finds that he must return the runes to Karswell or be forced to endure the same fate as Harrington.
I've left a lot out, but that's the plot, in a nutshell. It follows the basic structure of the original story, in which a guy offends a wizard who deposits an artifact into the guy's possessions, in order to call down a demon to destroy the offensive guy. The guy finds the artifact, and shows it to someone who recalls a deceased acquaintance who received a very similar artifact shortly before his untimely death. The guy, putting two and two together, realizes that in order to avert an awful fate, he must return the artifact to the wizard who must accept it willingly. And this hand-off happens on a train. Night of the Demon differs from "Casting the Runes" (and indeed Drag Me to Hell) in that the third act isn't a long, drawn-out series of unsuccessful attempts to return the runes to Karswell. Interestingly, all three versions (and the various TV and radio versions) reach their climax in a railway station or on a train. You'd think that a modern screenwriter would ditch the train in favor of a nightclub. Whatever.
Night of the Demon was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the veteran horror/suspense director who would go on to make A Comedy of Terrors. He did fine with comedy, but he really shines when directing horror and suspense. The movie is well executed, and well-paced, and though it takes quite a few liberties with the original plot, this is the best adaptation of "Casting the Runes" that I've ever seen. It's rightly considered to be one of the better serious horror films of its time. And the special effects are impressive.