‘Dead of Night’ review

4 10 2010

[written by Ghost Appreciation Month team member, Sharon Ring]

There are few better ways in this world to spend a rainy day than by watching an old black and white movie, especially a movie from the oldest working film studio in the world, Ealing Studios. They’ve produced some of the most well known and loved movies in cinema history, including two of my personal favourites, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955).

Yesterday’s rainy day treat was Dead of Night (1945), a collaborative venture of numerous Ealing directors, writers and cinematographers who produced a portmanteau style film of huge significance in the development of the modern horror movie. I chose to review this movie as it was one I hadn’t seen before, or so I thought at the time. As I watched though, especially towards the final ‘story within a story’ section, it gradually dawned on me that I had seen this movie as a child. Much of it flew by me at the time, I’d obviously never given it a second thought: this one section bothered me however and may have been the catalyst for a particular pet peeve of mine (more on that when I get to that part of the story).

The film begins with the arrival of an architect, Walter Craig, at a country house. He has been invited by the owner with a view to overseeing some renovations. As he walks into the building the sense of déjà vu he’s been experiencing since getting his first glimpse of the house builds to a point where he explains to everyone present that he has met them all in a recurring dream. When he wakes, the dream usually fades but, now being in the very house where the dream becomes nightmare, fragments of what he believes will happen are coming back to him. The other houseguests are fascinated by Craig’s insistence on knowing them all, apart from Dr Van Straaten, a psychiatrist who sets out to debunk Craig and the others from the outset.

As the guests discuss the possibility of supernatural phenomena, the first frame story is told by one of the guests, racing driver Hugh Grainger. Following an accident on the race track Grainger is confined to hospital where, as he slowly begins to recover, he has a strange vision as he looks out of his hospital window. Completely unnerved by what he has seen he confides in his doctor who reassures him that all is well, it was just his mind trying to deal with the recent near brush with death. On leaving the hospital he is confronted with the man who appeared in his vision. Startled, he backs away from him, only to witness a crash a minute later in which he would have been killed.

Van Straaten immediately sets out to give a rational explanation for Grainger’s story but he is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Grainger who accidentally confirms another of Craig’s predictions. Craig begins talking about an unspeakable evil which he feels will be committed later that day. The host’s mother suggests the youngest of their houseguests, Sally, should go home but she insists on staying and recounting her own tale of the supernatural.

Sally’s tale is perhaps the weakest of all the frame stories, revolving around a Christmas party game of Sardines. Discovering an old nursery, she goes in and finds herself comforting a distressed young child only to discover when she finally returns to the other children that the child was the ghost of a murdered young boy.

As Van Straaten also debunks this story, Craig confesses to something he feels will happen later, causing a stir among the other guests. Sally’s mother arrives and the youngest of the houseguests leaves.

On to the next story within a story; another houseguest, Joan, buys an antique mirror for her fiancé Peter. As Peter begins to use the mirror he is troubled by visions of another room, one quite unlike his own. The visions grow stronger and it takes help from Joan to banish them and regain a sense of control, at which point they marry and life returns to normal. That is, until Joan returns to the town where she bought the mirror to visit her family. While she is away the visions return, stronger than ever. As Joan learns about the history of the mirror Peter descends into madness and, when she returns to her husband, Joan finally understands there is only one way to break the hold the mirror has over Peter.

By now, in the main storyline, Craig is so distraught he announces he is leaving the house. He is eventually persuaded to stay when his host, Eliot Foley, decides to tell a story of his own. And it’s here we go off on a tangent into what is arguably the most out of place component of the entire movie. It’s a tale of two golfing rivals, caught in a love triangle with a woman (Mary) who is unable to decide which man she likes the most. The two men decide to slog it out over a few rounds of golf; whoever loses must leave the tricky love situation and disappear for good. Inevitably, one man accepts defeat and the doomed rival turns on his heel walking out into the lake leaving just his flat cap floating on the surface. He returns in ghost form just as the victor is preparing for the wedding, threatening to haunt him forever if he does not give up both Mary and golf. More distressed at the thought of having to give up golf forever, the man agrees to give up Mary. However, his ghostly rival is now unable to leave his old friend’s life having forgotten the code to return to the more ethereal realms. As a comedy set piece, this section is sheer genius. The dialogue is spot on; the physical humour is laugh out loud funny and it is Ealing through and through. I do wonder why such a light-hearted segment was thrown into the mix though. Perhaps it was down to the particular director for this section, Charles Chrichton who, incidentally, wrote the original A Fish Called Wanda story. Or perhaps it was down to the directors as a whole wishing to lighten the tone and provide a brief interlude between the more serious set pieces.

As the guests laugh at Foley’s story Van Straaten, still cynical but wishing to add his own tale, begins the last of the frame stories. This is the part of the film which really rang bells, a segment which has gone on over the years to be reworked twice in The Twilight Zone (The Dummy – 1962 and Caesar and Me – 1964), formed the basis for the William Goldman script of Magic and, in my opinion, was a huge influence on films like Child’s Play. Van Straaten relates the tale of a case on which he once worked; that of Maxwell Frere, a well known ventriloquist who is in prison for the attempted murder of fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee. Frere claims that his dummy, Hugo, is partly responsible for the attempt on Kee’s life and that he needs to see him. We then see a run through of the events surrounding the case leading up to and beyond the actual murder attempt. Look out for a disturbing portrayal of Frere from Michael Redgrave, the best acting in the film by far, apart from the comedy golfing duo. It’s compelling and makes this segment stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Returning one last time to the main story arc, Van Straaten is faced with another of Craig’s predictions coming true and he finally faces up to the existence of the supernatural. Alone with Craig and Van Straaten, the film now reaches its conclusion. Much of the ending it somewhat inevitable but only because in the years since its making it’s a plot device which has been used countless times with varying degrees of success. At the time though, it would have been a relatively fresh concept, one which played with the minds of its audience.

It is a stunning piece of horror movie history. Dead of Night was released just one month after the end of World War Two, it is thought to be the most important of the handful of horror movies released by Ealing Studios, was the forerunner to the golden age of Hammer Horror stories which were still a decade away from being made at this time and has proved itself to be of huge influence in shaping modern cinematic horror stories. It even inspired Fred Hoyle’s Steady State Theory.

Hope you enjoyed the movie as much as I did.




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