Dead of Night (1945). Directed by: Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer. Starring: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Michael Redgrave.Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Autumn and early winter are ghost story weather, and the weeks between Halloween and Christmas seem particularly well-suited to spectral tales. In honor of the season, we here at the Vault of Secrets have unearthed a rare and legendary early anthology horror film, Dead of Night. There’s nothing better for ghost story weather than a good anthology (or “portmanteau”) horror film, and while Dead of Night isn’t quite the first of them (a distinction that might go to Paul Leni’s 1924 film Waxworks), it is one of the most influential.
Indeed, if Dead of Night suffers from anything, it’s that by now, almost everything about it feels familiar. From the setup of the wraparound story – in which an architect visits a house and several strangers that he has visited before in repeated nightmares, each of whom has a supernatural story of their own to tell – to the particular segments themselves, especially the famous ventriloquist dummy segment, which may be the best of the bunch, and is certainly the one that’s been most often copied. Pretty much every movie about a creepy ventriloquist dummy owes at least some debt, however diluted, to Dead of Night.
Produced by the famous Ealing Studios (supposedly the oldest continually-operating film production facility in the world), the five segments (six, if you count the framing story) that make up Dead of Night are helmed by four different directors, none of whom are particularly known for their horror output. Nor are any of its stars major names in horror circles. It makes sense, as at the time that Dead of Night was produced, Britain wasn’t putting out a lot of horror films, which had been banned from production during the war.
Though, like our last film, it made it onto Martin Scorsese’s list of the 11 scariest horror movies of all time, Dead of Night isn’t actually all that scary, by modern standards. But it is very effective and at times, genuinely very creepy. There’s a scene in the closing moments of the wraparound segment that is as spine-chilling and indelible as any image you’ll scare up (no pun intended) in any other film. You’ll know it when you see it.
What originally brought Dead of Night to my attention is that it’s one of the only films adapted from the writing of E.F. Benson, a protégé of M.R. James and one of my favorite writers of ghostly stories. His tale “The Bus Conductor” is adapted pretty directly into the hearse driver segment of the film and the framing sequence bears his handprints, as well.
There’s also a segment taken from a story by H. G. Wells, which at first seems oddly fitted into the movie, as it’s a comedic tale of a pair of golfing buddies (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, famed as Caldicott and Charters from The Lady Vanishes) , their love for one woman, and the haunting that ensues. Surprisingly, though, this “golfing story” segment works, and not just as a comedic break in tension before the film’s scariest segment. It works because the story is being told by the host of the house where the storytellers are gathered, in an attempt to add a little needed levity to what seems to be becoming a rather tense gathering. Unlike the other segments, it isn’t supposed to be true, or taken seriously.
In some ways, the whole of what works so well about Dead of Night can be seen in the juxtaposition of the comedic “golfing story” and the much more intense “ventriloquist dummy” story. Like the ghostly tales of E.F. Benson that obviously afforded at least partial inspiration for it, Dead of Night is playful at least as much as it is menacing. Its treatment of the supernatural is very much of its time, a combination of credulity and amusement that is difficult to recapture in this day and age. It’s summed up nicely near the beginning of the film, when the obligatory psychologist character attempts to debunk the architect’s theories that he’s dreamed all this before and one old lady replies, “Well, I must say it’s very disappointing not to be one of the leading characters in a sort of supernatural drama, after all.” It’s this combination of belief and playfulness that makes the creepy parts creep all the more.
Dead of Night isn’t exactly easy to come by on DVD, though there’s a region 2 version with a really nice cover floating around, and if there was ever a movie begging for a feature-filled Blu-Ray release, here’s one. While it may not evoke the shivers it once did, and while it may feel a little overly familiar to viewers immersed in decades of its imitators, Dead of Night is a masterpiece, and a hell of a lot of fun, if you can get into it.
And its influences show up in the weirdest places. Director Christopher Smith was supposedly inspired by the circular quality of the framing narrative when making his excellent 2009 film Triangle (See it, if you haven’t) and that same circular narrative also supposedly influenced English astronomer Fred Hoyle’s version of the Steady State model of cosmology. Not a lot of horror flicks can boast something like that!
That’s it for tonight’s program, but be sure to join us next time when worlds go to war!