Thursday, February 2, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

Long before The Twilight Zone came the 1945 British anthology film, Dead of Night, which weaves together a collection of eerie tales within a framework that gathers a small group of people in an English country house. While it's not exactly a horror movie, it does offer plenty of weird and even disturbing moments, and it would profoundly influence future horror anthologies, which have since become a unique and much-loved subgenre. Each segment of this multi-part narrative has its own director and stars, and each has its own charms, but standouts of the group include Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, and Michael Redgrave as some of the unfortunate visitors to the stranger side of experience.

The frame tale follows mild-mannered architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) on a professional visit to a remote country house, where he meets the owner, Mr. Foley (Roland Culver), and a group of his friends. Craig feels an overwhelming sense of uneasiness as he realizes that he has seen these people somewhere before, but he only remembers that the gathering ends in tragedy. Psychologist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) doubts that Craig is really experiencing a supernatural vision, but the other guests try to support Craig by telling stories about their own brushes with the inexplicable, which range from the horrific to the humorous.

The anthology contains five stories in addition to the frame tale with Craig, and each one strikes a different tone. The hearse driver tale has an urban legend quality; it mostly functions as a short opening act for the more complex stories that follow. The Christmas party is a lovely, old fashioned ghost story that briskly moves through its beats, with Sally Ann Howes very charming as the heroine and narrator, also named Sally. In the story of the haunted mirror, Googie Withers and Ralph Michael play an engaged couple who become ensnared by the eerie menace of a newly acquired antique. Fans of iconic TV series like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery will find the mirror adventure very much to their taste, and the two leads give great performances that really sell the story. In the fourth segment, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne play golfing pals whose rivalry for the same woman leads to ghostly misadventures; it's a bit of comedic fun that fans of the duo - who first became famous for their appearance in The Lady Vanishes (1938) - will especially appreciate, but you don't need to recognize them as Charters and Caldicott to laugh at their scenes. The final segment stars Michael Redgrave as an increasingly deranged ventriloquist plagued by his sadistic dummy, and it's easily the creepiest and most iconic of the lot, with Redgrave absolutely riveting as the tortured partner of the nightmarish Hugo.

Michael Redgrave hushes the devilish Hugo.

The changes in cast and tone keep each new experience fresh as the picture unfolds, with the haunted mirror and the ventriloquist stories cranking up the horror and the other episodes offering varying levels of relief. In between we return to the frame tale, which works its way toward a hallucinatory climax that merges bits from every segment. The format would inspire many later horror anthologies, leading to genre classics like Tales of Terror (1962), Twice-Told Tales (1963), Black Sabbath (1963), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), and The House That Dripped Blood (1971), just to name a few. These later pictures increasingly leaned into the sexuality and gore that Dead of Night eschews, but television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, The Outer Limits, and Amazing Stories continued to provide eerie chills without buckets of blood. It's worth noting that the anthology format is itself a very old literary genre, famously used in Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which makes Dead of Night a fascinating link in a long genre chain that connects 14th century texts to modern hits like Black Mirror.

Ealing Studios is remembered today for its comedies, and Dead of Night was very much a departure from its usual fare, but it includes many of the studio's regular directors and stars. Charles Crichton, who directed the golfing story, went on to make The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and Robert Hamer, the director of the haunted mirror tale, later directed the classic Ealing comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). You'll find Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers along with Radford and Wayne in The Lady Vanishes, while Withers and Roland Culver both appear in On Approval (1944). Director Robert Hamer also works with Withers, Mervyn Johns, and Sally Ann Howes on Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). If Hugo Fitch, the ventriloquist's dummy, fascinates you, check out Magic (1978) or the two Twilight Zone episodes with similar themes, "The Dummy" and "Caesar and Me." The first one is the more iconic of the two.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great post, Jennifer. I have never heard of this movie, and I'm not a fan of scary stuff, but I am a lover of The Twilight Zone and I think I'd like to give this one a try. Plus, I can never see enough Googie Withers. Thank you for turning me on to Dead of Night!