Dead of Night (1945)
Release Date: September 4th, 1945 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer Actors: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Antony Baird, Judy Kelly, Sally Ann Howes
alter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is invited to stay at Pilgrim’s Farm in the country to assist with architectural reconstruction. When he arrives, he’s shocked to discover that he recognizes everyone gathered in the living room, despite having never been there and having never met any of them before. He has a recurring dream in which he approaches the house, walks in and sits down with the group, exactly as he just did. In his dream, a short time thereafter, a penniless brunette barges in quite unexpectedly. He discusses this supernatural drama with the group; some believe him, a few are delighted at the occult theory, and others are understandably skeptical. Thus begins a series of flashbacks, recalling strange, horrific stories told by each member of the party. Produced by the legendary Ealing Studios and directed by four accomplished filmmakers, “Dead of Night” is one of the first films to assemble several smaller stories together into a single-movie anthology, paving the way for countless others to utilize this collecting method.
The first story, told by Hugh Grainger (Antony Baird), involves a disastrous racecar crash that leaves him with odd visions of a hearse driver reappearing frequently to call out to him. Psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is the disbeliever, intent on dispelling the notion of delusions, premonitions, and otherworldly visions. Perhaps it’s all an elaborate joke. But Craig continues to remember unique details about the way the day unfolds, made particularly eerier when dark-haired Mrs. Grainger (Judy Kelly) walks in unannounced and tells her husband to pay the cab fare as she’s spent all her money shopping.
The next story, told by young Sally (Sally Ann Howes), involves a Christmas costume party and a game of hide-and-seek with Jimmy Watson (Michael Allan), who tells her about the ghastly murder of a little boy. As she searches for a better hiding spot, she wanders into an attic where she discovers a crying child – who she later discovers to be the same boy who was killed. No one believes her and she’s sent to bed as if ailing. When she’s done telling her scary account, Craig remembers more of his dream, which includes savagely beating Sally sometime after she’s forced to depart. Sure enough, her mother whisks her away for her uncle’s birthday party. The following recital is about a haunted mirror that seems to reflect a different location. Could it be an optical illusion? The catoptric device has a superstitious background that must also be told, creating the rare instance in which a story is told within a story within a film. This is one of the best tales in “Dead of Night,” successfully utilizing the spine-tingling subject of mirrors with incorrect echoes – without bloodshed or graphic images but plenty of genuine chills.
Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) recites the next yarn, involving a cheating golfer plagued by the ghost of his rival, who committed suicide after losing a game. This is easily the weakest of the lot – it’s not out of place when the purpose for it is exposed, but it’s a mostly comical and light-hearted haunting. Dr. Van Straaten himself tells the final story, concerning his visit to an asylum to see a ventriloquist with a very unusual dummy. This bit is also told in multiple layers, with Straaten reporting a side story within the main one. During Maxwell Frere’s (Michael Redgrave) voice-throwing routine, Hugo the Dummy starts to act up, seemingly having a mind of its own. The puppet propositions competing ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power) to take over as his partner frightfully suggesting that Maxwell is no longer in control of Hugo. Even after each character reveals their personal horror scoops, further terrors await in the revealing of the twist that brings everyone together at the farm.
“Dead of Night” is one of the first films to gather seemingly unrelated short stories and cut them together with a linking narrative. It’s brilliantly creepy, with frightening orchestral music to boot; each component gradually gets weirder, more bloodcurdling, and undeniably more creative. The ideas are truly spooky, the dialogue smart, the cinematography and lighting effectively unnerving, and the acting solid. Although it would be unlikely for a remake to be as perfect as this clever thriller, it could serve as a great source of inspiration for a contemporary horror revisionist.
– Mike Massie