Hal E Chester: Producer of cult hit 'Night of the Demon'


Hal E Chester had two careers in film, first as an actor and then as a producer. As a teenager he featured in several films in the series dealing with the escapades of an unruly group of juveniles known as "The Little Tough Guys", having made his acting debut on Broadway as one of the "Dead End Kids" in Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End (1935). He was known as Hally Chester in those days, but in 1945 he persuaded the poverty row studio Monogram to let him produce a film, changing his name to the more distinguished Hal E Chester.

After six years of "B" movies he moved into weightier fare and produced several outstanding films, including an engrossing thriller that dealt with journalistic ethics, The Underworld Story (1950), and the superior monster movie The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms (1953). He later moved to the UK where his films included the very English comedy School for Scoundrels (1960) and Jacques Tourneur's classic horror tale The Night of the Demon (1957), acknowledged as one of the finest screen depictions of the supernatural, and described by Martin Scorsese as "one of the scariest films ever made".

The son of a property developer, Chester was born Harold Ribotsky in Brooklyn. When his father suffered in the 1929 crash, he helped by working as a magician's assistant at Coney Island and as a Wall Street runner. He was 14 when he was cast in Dead End, the socially conscious drama about New York slums. The youths, known as the Dead End Kids, were particularly effective, and several of them, including Chester, were signed by Warner Bros to appear with Humphrey Bogart in Crime School (1938), an exposé of brutal reform schools.

Chester then moved to Universal to appear in Little Tough Guy (1938), as a newsboy who becomes part of a gang. Chester appeared in four more Little Tough Guy features, two of the studio's popular serials, Junior G-Men (1940) and Sea Raiders (1941), and over a dozen other films, including Juvenile Court (1938), which featured a young Rita Hayworth. His last appearance on screen was in one of the two films he made with the East Side Kids, Mob Town (1941).

After a series of personal appearance tours he returned to Hollywood, producing musical shorts. He then acquired the rights to Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka comic strip about a boxer, initiating a series. The first feature, Joe Palooka, Champ (1946), spawned 10 more movies, concluding with Triple Cross (1951).

Chester had demonstrated that he could handle more prestigious fare with The Underworld Story, which starred his friend Dan Duryea as a reporter with questionable ethics who buys a stake in a provincial journal which flourishes when he sensationalises a murder case. It was followed by The Highwayman (1950), about a Robin Hood type gang. Chester's finest American movie is one of the best of the 1950s films about monsters unleashed by atomic testing. Eugene Lourie's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was based on a Ray Bradbury story, and for its special effects Chester hired a master, Ray Harryhausen, who excelled in the two most spectacular sequences, in which the monster strides through Manhattan and reappears at Coney Island, where it becomes entangled with a roller-coaster.

In 1955 Chester moved to the UK, where international co-productions were being set up to take advantage of tax breaks. A man of some dynamism and a natty dresser who enjoyed parties, he could be seen at the best restaurants, became a member of Highgate Golf Club and owned a yacht in the south of France. Chester's first British film, The Weapon (1956), directed by Val Guest, was a well-paced suspense tale in which a small boy accidentally shoots his friend with a gun he has found.

Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins were the splendid stars of Chester's masterpiece, Night of the Demon, an adaptation of MR James' classic tale of a satanic cult, Casting the Runes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose contribution evokes his earlier work with Val Lewton, and scripted by Chester with Charles Bennett, who wrote several early Hitchcock scripts, the exceptionally eerie film has acquired cult status, though Chester is sometimes criticised for over-riding Tourneur and Bennett, who felt the monster should be left to the imagination. But the film remains both unsettling and unnerving as it unfolds its tale involving a parchment on which a deadly curse is inscribed in runic symbols.

School for Scoundrels, based on Stephen Potter's books on "gamesmanship", was another triumph, with Ian Carmichael as the ingenuous Palfrey, consistently out-smarted by the bounder Delauney, perfectly realised by Terry-Thomas. Because of director Robert Hamer's alcoholism, Chester directed part of the film, as did Cyril Frankel.

It was the producer's last big hit, though The Double Man (1967) starring Yul Brynner, was an acceptable Cold War thriller. His and Hers (1961) was a limp comedy, while The Comedy Man (1964) was a melancholic study of an ageing actor (Kenneth More). Take a Girl Like You (1970), starring Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed, misfired despite the talents of Kingsley Amis, George Melly (writers) and Jonathan Miller (director). It was Chester's last film, and he returned to the US. In 2003 he was partially paralysed by a stroke.

Harold Ribotsky (Hal E Chester), actor and film producer: born Brooklyn 6 March 1921; married 1948 Virginia Wetherly (died 1980; two sons, and one son deceased); died 25 March 2012.

peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Media baron Rupert Murdoch owns News Corps and 20th Century Fox
theatrePlaywright David Williamson is struggling to find a big name to star as the media mogul
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?