Thursday 29 April 2010

Night of the Demon and the BBFC

As atmospheric and genuinely suspenseful as Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon is, the horror is largely psychological and the apdearance of the demon itself, even bearing in mind that this was the era of movie monsters like Them! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, comes across as awkward rather than terrifying; however, during the production stages, there were several conflicts with the British Board of Film Classification.The first version of the script was called The Bewitched and was written by Charles Bennett, who had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on a number of films. An early draft of the script was submitted by producer Marcel Hellman to the BBFC (at the time known as the British Board of Film Censors) in January 1955 in the hope of getting an A certificate to attract a teenage audience.
The anonymous examiner (known only by the initials AAA) returned a long list of concerns, at the root of which lay the fact that no rational explanation was given for events in the story – in other words, the “goings-on are clearly intended to be supernatural.”

She said, “I cannot suggest any way of making this story ‘A’. Even for ‘X’, we do not want the picture (which hangs in Karswell’s room) of the Black Mass, or any references to it. I am not sure whether we want the séance or not [because it is not exposed as fake]…” A number of scenes were objected to, including:
The pursuit of Harrington by the Thing (with the sound of its panting)
Harrington’s notes about the Thing
Karswell’s tricks at the party – bringing a snake from his hat and frightening the children
Woodcut of ‘dinosaur’ accompanied by thunder and lightning
The séance
Supernatural cat
Karswell’s terror-stricken flight and death

The fear was that teenagers would be able to suspend disbelief more than adults…
Another fear was the Americanisation of the picture – presumably a reference to the type of horror in the film. Bear in mind that educationalists, religious and political figures in the country were also objecting the way American horror comics of the time were ‘corrupting’ the youth of Britain.
A second examiner (BBB) doubted that an X was enough, particularly scenes like Holden’s confrontation with the cat while looking for Karswell’s book and the Thing’s pursuit of Holden.

Hellman tried submitting the script to the Motion Picture Association of America in the hope of getting it accepted for a younger audience. Although it received a more considered and careful opinion, objections were made to several scenes, like the séance, the depiction of the Black Mass (“should not be orgiastic”) and some of the language used (“hotter than hell” and “For God’s sake”). The Director of Production Code Administration, Geoffrey Shurlock, recommended that Hellman consider the Association’s recommendations and make changes.

Again, the script was submitted to the BBFC. This time, a different examiner was equally hostile:
“[Some] scenes are horrific, as the monstrous shape or its ‘white leprous hand’ are seen; its victims show abject terror, and the script makes it clear that terrifying effects are to be obtained from the music.”
Bizarrely, he highlighted differences between the script and the M. R. James story it is based on and noted that the depiction of the Black Mass (in a painting, remember), showing demons dressed in masks indulging in an orgy with ‘lissom, unclothed young women whose lovely faces are infinitely evil’ had to be cut. Amongst other sequences he thought had to be cut was one in which a boy pulled a cat’s tail! Dialogue considered (but not objected to this time) included, “You can take a running jump at yourself” – presumably, this was because it was euphemistically saying, “Go fuck yourself!”

Like AAA, he objected to the fact that the first page of the script pointed out that the film would be a “light-heartedly dramatic excursion into what might or might not be the supernatural” – presumably because the events depicted were most certainly supernatural.

AAA weighed in with her opinion again, saying it could only be considered for an ‘X’ certificate.
Hellman made a personal phonecall to A. T. L. Watkins, Secretary of the BBFC, on 11 March 1955, and a note sent in reply later that day made his position that it should receive an ‘X’ clear: “ The supernatural element, with its steady building up of fear, and particularly the fear of darkness could not… fail to be terrifying to children.” He added that it was impossible to suggest cuts that would guarantee it an ‘A’.

As the script underwent re-writes and new producers came on board (Hal. E Chester, Clive Nicholas and Frank Bevis) much of Bennett’s humour was dropped – in favour of a more adult approach to the supernatural as it became clear that the film was to be aimed at an ‘X’ audience.

Several examiners at the BBFC saw the new draft of the script and were pleased it was to be aimed at an ‘X’ audience, but concern was expressed that this should not open the door to unlimited horror and bad taste and one called for the complete omission of Hobart’s praise of Black Magic and the picture of the Black Mass, noting: “I disliked particularly the sequence… where Karswell’s skill at conjuring before a delighted group of children is followed by a storm provoked by his malignant power so that the children are screaming with fear and running in terror.”
Secretary Watkins stressed that there limits as to what could be shown, even with a an ‘X’ certificate, noting that “great deal will depend upon treatment” and the final word rested with the examiners after they had seen the completed film. However, he still advised on a number of specific points:
Shots of the monster should not be too revolting
Harrington’s death should not be overdone and there should be no shots of him on fire or twitching in agony
The portrayal of children’s fears calls for reasonable restraint – i.e. don’t exploit the children in the fear to emphasise the horror
There must be no description of the rites of devil worship
Hobart’s madness and jump through the window must not be depicted in detail
Restraint must be shown in the pursuit of Karswell by the beast and the sounds, including screams, should not be too excessiveAn amended script was sent to the BBFC on October 23, less than a month before shooting was to begin. AAA was the examiner and she noted that there were even more references to Devil worship she didn’t think they would make too much of an impression on the audience. She noted the continued presence and wanted the removal of the Black Mass painting and the description of the true believer. A number of other sequences disturbed her, such as the death of Harrington and the appearance of the beast, the climax of the séance, Hobart’s leap to death and she specified that there should be no shot of Karswell on fire.
In the final letter from Watkins, he warned that any references to “devil worship” should be removed (and the phrase avoided); the Black Mass painting should be removed; and the points noted by AAA should be taken into consideration; however, he added that the final decision would rest with the examiners on seeing the completed film.

The BBFC ordered only one cut – in Rand Hobart’s speech while under hypnosis. They said the filmmakers needed to “Reduce Hobart’s cries when he escapes for the first time into the audience, and the close shots of Hobart’s face when he is being spoken to and interrogated by psychologists; and remove his words, “We blaspheme and desecrate … in the joy of sin will mankind find itself again.”” An X certificate was recommended and it was noted that several earlier drafts had been seen.See Tony Earnshaw - Beating the Devil: The Making of Night of the Demon (The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and Tomahawk Press, 2005)

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