Dead of Night
1945 / 1.33 : 1 / 102 Min.
Starring Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Googie Withers
Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe
Directed by Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcant, Charles Chrichton, Robert Hamer
Anthology films have been a reliable Hollywood staple since D.W. Griffith’s time-traveling Intolerance and Paramount’s depression-era dramedy If I Had a Million. The short story format has proved especially popular with horror movie fans who prefer their thrills lean, mean and straight to the point.
That humble subgenre contains multitudes – from Masaki Kobayashi‘s elegant Kwaidan to the comic book stylings of Freddie Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors to the state of the art shocker Nightmare Cinema – but the great-granddaddy of them all is surely the 1945 classic from Britain’s Ealing Studios – Dead of Night.
Mervyn Johns, the eternal Everyman, plays Walter Craig, a restoration expert whose newest project – a provincial manor called “Pilgrim’s Farm” – takes him to a remote region of the English countryside. Craig has lately been plagued by recurring nightmares and his first sight of that unassuming cottage inspires even more dread along with a severe case of déja vu.
That sinking feeling is amplified when he meets the owner of the manor, Elliot Foley, and his houseguests. Foley and his friends – a race driver, a schoolgirl, a beautiful fashionista and a smugly paternal psychiatrist – are characters drawn straight from Craig’s dreams. To convince the nervous engineer that he’s not losing his mind they play a game of “top this” with increasingly strange tales of their own supernatural experiences.
As those stories play out contemporary audiences may be forgiven for sharing the architect’s déja vu – because Dead of Night is a wellspring of movie tropes – inspiration for fantastic entertainments from The Twilight Zone to The Dead Zone. If you’ve seen a horror movie in the last six decades, you’ve seen Dead of Night.
Our first tale of terror concerns one Hugh Grainger, a retired race driver with an unwelcome knack for predicting the future. And so, as the man said, “submitted for your approval…”
Anthony Baird plays Grainger, a motor jockey on the mend in Basil Dearden’s The Hearse Driver. The banged-up daredevil has an eye for his nurse and after a long night of futile flirting he finds himself distracted by the curtains billowing at his bedside – unfortunately he decides to open them. Waiting below is a hearse driver with a chilling invitation – “just room for one inside, sir”.
That cabbie brings a darkly satirical spark to the story because the fellow commanding the coach is none other than Miles Malleson – a small stroke of genius to cast the impish grandpa of British film as a modern day ferryman on the river Styx.
Dearden’s light touch keeps the atmosphere creepy yet comforting – helped along by the fact that Malleson’s strange warning prevents certain disaster for the rattled race driver.
In Alberto Cavalcanti‘s The Christmas Party, a teenaged Sally Ann Howes takes a wrong turn during a game of hide and seek and finds herself with only the echo of a crying child to keep her company.
Undeterred, the brave little lady makes her way to a dimly lit nursery where the teary-eyed toddler waits. She comforts the boy with a lullaby and puts him to bed – when she returns to the party she learns the truth about her otherworldly playmate.
Cavalcanti’s direction is seductively sinister but the strangely poignant clincher – a murdered child finally finds peace in a sisterly embrace – really doesn’t register – perhaps because of Howes’ aggressively perky performance. Nevertheless the sequence, with strange and melancholy images of abandoned toys and empty rooms, must have had an influence on Herbert Wise’s completely unnerving adaptation of The Woman in Black in 1989.
George Auric’s nerve jangling melodies haunt the soundtrack of Dead of Night but it was left to the composer’s friend and collaborator Jean Cocteau to sum up the film’s third story – “Watch yourself all your life in a mirror and you’ll see Death at work like bees in a glass hive.”
To anyone who’s sensed a figure lurking behind them while gazing at their own reflection – whether it was Catherine Deneuve’s attacker in Repulsion or that pesky urban legend Candyman – The Haunted Mirror will raise hackles. The film stars Googie Withers as the long suffering but courageous wife to Ralph Michael – an unfortunate soul who finds a parallel universe in his looking glass.
Based on a story by E. F. Benson, the short was directed by Robert Hamer, the man behind the hilariously coldblooded Kind Hearts and Coronets – he is equally ruthless in his approach to Benson’s tale. If there’s any humor to be mined from the story of a man driven to murder by his own reflection, Hamer downplays it, displaying the same cool approach to horror that he applied to the comical extermination of the ghastly D’Ascoyne family.
Regarded as driftwood by American distributors, The Golfer’s Story (along with The Christmas Party) was cut from stateside prints – and for once, crass commercialism pays off. The segment is an extended gag with a Playboy Party Joke payoff and just about as funny (the racy ending is reminiscent of the randy finale of 1948’s Miranda – the cheeky mermaid tale starring Mervyn Johns’ daughter Glynis).
Charles Chrichton directs Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne who revive their characters from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes – in Chrichton’s film they’re two duffers who live for the game but fall in love with the same lady. Wayne loses the bet and ends up in the drink only to return in ghostly form to wreak havoc on the couple’s honeymoon.
In a new documentary on Dead of Night, Kim Newman calls attention to the dog that didn’t bark – absent from the film is any mention of the World War that had roiled the country for the last six years (the movie was released just seven days after the war’s end). That real-world horror might be fundamental to the movie’s devastating climax – beginning with its last chapter, The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.
In times of war men can be occupied just as surely as countries – and that’s what happens to Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist whose imperious dummy is determined to possess him.
Though based on Gerald Kersh’s The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy, first published in 1939, the film uses Erich von Stroheim’s The Great Gabbo as its springboard. Von Stroheim played a twisted ventriloquist who experiences life and love through his dummy – in Alberto Cavalcanti‘s film Michael Redgrave pushes that characterization into deliriously uncharted territory.
In one scene after another Frere is moved to do and say shocking things – even murder – at the behest of his little wooden dictator. Is he mad or is the dummy alive and kicking? The ambiguity is preserved in the finale – a jail cell confession that predates Norman Bates’s padded room monologue in his mother’s voice.
Up to this moment the film’s horror was modulated by its innate British reserve – Foley’s houseguests treat their weird recollections with a stiff upper lip and a shot of whiskey. But Redgrave’s astounding performance tilts the film toward madness and that reserve begins to crack. The illusion of civility bursts when Craig himself – the benign Everyman – abruptly strangles the psychiatrist.
In Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland is plagued by mysterious visions that resolve themselves in cataclysmic but coherent fashion. In Dead of Night the nightmare visions accelerate until chaos reigns – there are no bombs or air raid sirens but the effect is the same. Then Craig wakes up.
Unlike Dorothy, there’s no “No place like home” moment for the bedeviled architect – instead the movie simply begins again – the architect returns to Pilgrim’s Farm to relive the horror ad infinitum. After six years of war it must have seemed that some nightmares would never end.
Kino Lorber’s Blu ray boasts a 4K scan and it looks fine if rather ordinary – the image is nicely detailed but the deep shadows that highlighted Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography are murky rather than lustrous.
The sound is oddly tinny as well (apparently a problem that has troubled previous releases). This is nitpicking to be sure but Dead of Night is an important film deserving the best treatment. That said, buyers don’t beware – all in all the Kino Lorber release is a worthy presentation, particularly because of the extra features.
The supplements include a typically loaded commentary from Tim Lucas who keeps the insight and factoids flowing and the aforementioned documentary, Remembering Dead of Night with a good line-up of critics and filmmakers including Newman, Matthew Sweet and John Landis.