Dead Of Night (1945)
An architect (Mervyn Johns) is invited to a country estate and from the very moment that his car pulls up outside he is stricken with a sense of impending dread. This premonitory feeling only deepens once he is inside and meets the guests, for though they are complete strangers to him he can’t help but feel that he knows them, has been there before in his recurring nightmares and that at some point the proceedings will be beset with evil. In hearing this, the guests begin to relate their own chilling experiences of the supernatural and the macabre. The stories which make up this compendium of horror: a tale from an injured racing driver (Anthony Baird) who has a spine-tingling vision of death; a young girl (Sally Ann Howes) for whom the fun of a Christmas party is marred by a brush with the paranormal; a woman (Googie Withers) whose gift to her fiancée of a gilded mirror invites an evil presence into their lives; a wealthy man (Roland Culver) tells an amusing story of two golf-mad friends (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, recognisable from their pairing in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) whose rivalry for the affections of a lady continues beyond the grave (let alone the 18th Hole); finally, a psychiatrist (Frederick Valk) tells of his most disturbing case, involving a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) and his creepy wooden-headed sidekick.
Ealing Studios is generally associated with very British, old-fashioned comedies of a bygone, more civil era, and certainly not synonymous with horror. Though if you stop to consider the pitch black humour of films like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), perhaps it’s not such a stretch to imagine that they would also be the studio which can be accredited with having given us a piece of horror heritage in producing the prototype for the anthology fright film, a template that has been used time and again since Dead of Night‘s release sixty-odd years ago. If you’ve seen any omnibus of scary stories since, whether it be one of Amicus’ classic offerings like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) or something more like Romero & King’s collaborative Creepshow (1982), the structure of Dead of Night will instantly be familiar because it’s their progenitor, not only that but often with some of the more middling affairs the “wraparound story” got the least amount of attention and the other tales didn’t integrate well together, here everything fits together nicely like a jigsaw puzzle.
In terms of the tales themselves, as with all of these compendium pieces it’s a mixed bag, but quite an even one, there’s no hugely weak link in the chain. The only real odd-duck in terms of tone is the story of the two golfers, penned by none other than H.G. Wells, but only in so much as it’s played totally for laughs. In practice it works out well, not the least because it comes between two of the best (and ergo creepiest) segments, thus giving a nice bit of levity which strengthens the impact of the other two stories, but also it has some genuinely funny moments. This segment aside, however, what’s interesting is that within the stories are a set of ideas and themes that have since been used over and over (both in other anthology shorts and in some cases the subject of full length features) and are still universally considered “spooky” – déjà vu, premonitions of death, creepy mirrors, ventriloquist’s dummies, possession, hauntings.
The standout for me is the final segment with the ventriloquist – not only because do you have in microcosm the essence of every “scary doll” movie since made (the Anthony Hopkins film Magic (1978) comes to mind), but there is even a seed planted by this segment that could very well have influenced Psycho (1960), with Michael Redgrave‘s performance every bit as powerful and compelling as that of Anthony Perkins. Two other segments really stood out also – the possessed mirror and the Christmas haunting. Both of these are incredibly simple, the latter in particular is really just a campfire ghost story (which allegedly was based on an experience of the actress playing the part herself and concerned an actual, real life murder case), but they work nicely because of that, relying on the old-fashioned technique of letting the audience’s imagination do the work and make it scary for them.
That I would say is the one caveat to the viewer, despite the deserved praise this movie receives and it’s not really a fault of the film itself: overall it truly has that “ghost story” feel rather than the kind of bang-boom stuff most modern audiences are used to. If your idea of a good ghost movie is Poltergeist (1982) or The Frighteners (1996) and anything quieter leaves you cold, then there’s a chance this’ll just be a snoozefest for you. To get the most out of it you really have to be able to appreciate the more subtle approach of a horror film made in the 40′s or perhaps be particularly sensitive to tales of the supernatural. If you’re the type of person who can watch the old Universal monster movies or episodes of The Twilight Zone and still get a cold shudder then this is going to be perfect for you, or even if you’re just one of those all-round fans of the genre and want to check this out for the sake of posterity, it’s well worth your time as this is a well-crafted, memorable and effective film, deserving of its standing as the granddaddy of anthology horror flicks as we recognise them today.
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