Nothing for Nothing

It’s in the trees! It’s coming!

– Professor Harrington

Magic always has a price – and someone must pay it. While Julian Karswell never uses those exact words in the 1957’s Night of the Demon, they are nonetheless at the heart of the film. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, and Niall MacGinnis, the film is based on M. R. James’ seminal story of sorcerous vendetta, “Casting the Runes” and largely follows the same beats. If Dana Andrews’ Holden is a more acerbic protagonist than James’ Dunning, then MacGinnis’ Karswell is far more charismatic figure than his literary namesake.

While the Karswell of James’ story is a reclusive, largely unpleasant academic, the cinematic version is a more boisterous and compelling figure. Here, Karswell is not the sorcerer in his tower, but rather a priest of the faith, delivering miracles to his flock – he pulls back the curtain, returning his audience to the easy beliefs of childhood. He is a salesman, selling the idea of power to the gullible and the faithful alike. This impression is only enhanced by MacGinnis’ performance – by turns oily, charming and menacing, he is the consummate showman, unable to resist any opportunity to display his prowess to an appreciative – or otherwise – audience. And it is this compulsion that proves his eventual undoing.

Karswell is a Faustian figure, equal parts tempter and tempted. He plies his opponents with flattery, hints of secret knowledge, and veiled threats. Those he cannot charm, he attempts to tempt – or frighten. And like the Devil, he saves his best tricks for the most stubborn audiences. Because those tricks are not without cost. One cannot get nothing for nothing. Everything has a price, especially when one traffics with spirits.

It is in his private moments that we see the true Karswell – not the clownish trickster or charming demagogue, but merely a man like any other, frightened of the forces he has conjured and can only barely control. His followers fear, and so too does he. That fear is the price he pays for his power, as MacGinnis so eloquently declaims at one point. Like the storm he summons to impress Holden at the film’s midpoint, Karswell’s magics are easier to call up than to control. His reputed mastery of the dark arts is as much a dodge as his academic qualifications – overblown and illusory.

In the end, that is why Karswell is so desperate to convince others of his power. The more who believe, the more who can pay the price in his stead. Like Maturin’s Melmoth, he collects souls in order to buy back his own – or at least pay down the interest. Unlike his followers, Karswell implicitly understands the true nature of the pact he has made, and what its cost will ultimately be – if not someone else’s life, then his own.

You get nothing for nothing. And once unleashed, the Devil must have his due.

Some things are more easily started, than stopped.

– Julian Karswell

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