Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
As a horror fan, I’d heard of Dead of Night before today, but had never had an opportunity to see it. Looking at films of this vintage, it’s easy to talk about influence, and Dead of Night certainly has had a great deal of influence on horror movies in general and on horror anthologies in particular that have followed it. For all of its cinematic heft, Dead of Night is probably the only horror movie to ever advance science, however temporarily. The story goes that Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi developed the Steady State idea of the universe as an alternative to the Big Bang model after seeing this film, and specifically due to the ultimate nature of the framing story presented here.
Like any anthology, we start with a framing story that pops in regularly between the stories of the film. There are five internal stories put together smartly—rising tension through the first three, a comedic spin on the fourth and then the hammer drop of scares in the fifth, only to wrap up the frame. Anthology films don’t always work because they don’t give their shorter tales enough room to breathe. Dead of Night solves this by putting most of its effort into both the frame and the fifth and scariest story. The first three tales are appetizers; the fourth is a palate cleanser, while the fifth and the frame are the main course.
In our frame, a man named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) appears at a country farmhouse, but seems disconcerted. He soon reveals that he has had a recurring dream that includes everyone in the room despite having never met any of them. He also makes a couple of predictions about what will happen, and everything he predicts comes true. With this revelation, the other guests begin to reveal their own brushes with the supernatural.
The first two stories are almost throwaways. In the first, race car driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird) tells of an accident he survived which led to a premonition that he believes saved his life. The second, told by young Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes), concerns her encounter with the ghost of a young boy she encountered at a Christmas party. Both of these stories are very short and neither one turns up the scares too much. The goal of these, more or less, is to set the stage for what is to come.
The third story ramps up the scares a little bit more. It comes from the perspective of a woman named Mrs. Cortland (Googie Withers) but concerns her husband (Ralph Michael). She tells the story of a mirror she purchased in which he sees not a reflection of the room he is in but a completely different room. Through investigation, she discovers the mirror’s strange and ugly history, a history that appears to be repeating itself in the form of her husband.
The fourth story, one I’m calling a palate cleanser, is a comic tale about a pair of golfers fighting over a woman. Essentially, they determine that the only way to determine who gets the woman is a golf match, with the loser “leaving the picture.” As it happens, the winner cheats to get the victory and the loser, rather than simply leaving, drowns himself and then comes back to haunt his rival for cheating him. This is a purely comic story, not scary in the least, and it works extremely well to set up the final tale.
It’s this fifth tale that is the real centerpiece of Dead of Night. One of the running themes through the framing story is that one of the guests, a psychiatrist named van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is a skeptic of these tales of ghosts. However, he spins a story of a man named Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) who is a talented ventriloquist, but also seems to be possessed by the dummy, which may have a real personality and life of its own. The psychiatrist finishes his tale with a rational explanation, of course, as in keeping with his character, but this is still the most interesting and disturbing of the five stories, and is highlighted by a truly great performance from Redgrave.
What’s really interesting about Dead of Night is the way the framing story works at the end. While the actual ending of the film is one that may come across as a bit trite these days, the reason for that is that it has been copied, augmented and duplicated by so many other films that it feels like a cliché. Dead of Night did it first, though, and does it beautifully, running end credits over the last sequence of film in a way that is surprisingly chilling.
I get it; this is a film that has earned its reputation as a solid horror movie. It doesn’t go for the gore for even a second and doesn’t really go too hard for the scares. It creates a very nice atmosphere and uses the short stories to build up beautifully through the piece, with the slow build of tension in the framing story throughout. The ending is magnificent when viewed through the perspective of the time in which this film was made.
If you can track this one down, do so. It won’t keep you up at night, but if you’re even remotely a fan of horror and thriller films, you’ll be very pleased that you spent time with this one.
Why to watch Dead of Night: A horror anthology that works.
Why not to watch: Only two of the stories really get to the point of scary.