Dead of Night Review
Made in 1945, just after World War II, Dead of Night represents a watershed moment in the history of Ealing Studios, when legendary producer Michael Balcon made a move to break away from naturalistic and documentary wartime content into more fantastical realms. The result was this singular portmanteau horror film, which did not in fact set a new trend – Ealing went onto gain post-war renown as the maker of sophisticated comedies such as Passport to Pimlico and The Man in the White Suit – but instead remained a curious one-off, a film unlike any other; but which nevertheless would later have huge influence on British horror from the 1960s onwards, in particular the output of Amicus Productions.
Loosely based on the E. F. Benson story ‘The Room in the Tower’, Dead of Night begins with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) turning up for working-weekend stay at a country house. From the moment he meets his host, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) there is a sense of oddness about Craig’s behaviour and by the time he’s introduced to the other guests, he feels impelled to make an important revelation. He believes he has met everybody present before in a recurring dream, and he knows what’s going to happen next, and moreover the dream eventually climaxes in some unspeakable horror, a prospect that causes him considerable distress. The other guests are largely sympathetic to Craig’s situation, but one guest, a psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), takes a professional interest, regarding Craig as a ‘case for treatment’ and in so doing sets himself up as the rebutter of any paranormal or supernatural dimension therein. He becomes the voice of reason and scientific rationalism, attempting to talk Craig down from his nightmare trip.
What happens is the other guests effectively gang up on Van Straaten and each one tells a story of personal involvement with the paranormal or supernatural, which are dramatised as individual episodes and use different directors, and therefore show great stylistic latitude. They range from a conventional ghost story to one where a man receives a precognitive warning of doom, to a more sinister tale of an antique mirror haunting its new owner, and eventually to the best-remembered account of a ventriloquist who is taken over by his dummy. Each story is discussed in the linking narrative and its reliability tested, with Van Straaten naturally working to debunk them in turn, so dual explanations manifest, which give the proceedings a strong believability. Did the injured Grainger really receive a message from a celestial hearse driver, or was it merely a hallucination brought on by the trauma of his accident? Was Cortland possessed by the former owner of the antique mirror or was he having a psychotic breakdown with cryptomnesia bolted on for good measure?
Van Straaten holds his own well for a time, but then precognitive elements reported by Craig start to come true – such as the appearance of a ‘penniless brunette’ in the form of Grainger’s wife needing money for a taxi – and Van Straaten concludes he is perhaps being set up. Incidents like this underline the brilliance of Dead of Night, for despite the necessarily episodic structure, there is a strong cohesiveness that binds all the components into a virtually seamless totality, with the normal and paranormal spilling effortlessly from one area to another with mounting unease. Significantly in the progression of both the individual stories and the linking narrative the predominant concern shifts from one of supernatural incursion to one of mental unravelling, for as Craig’s anticipated doom becomes more and more palpable its extreme stress is a reality whatever the cause.
In an attempt to relieve that stress Foley tells his story, which is an obviously silly, spoof supernatural tale of two golfers, friends and rivals, who fall out over a girl and one ends up haunting the other with slapstick consequences. This story has often been criticised for its flippancy and lack of gravitas relative to the others, but it is actually a masterstroke, breaking the tension after the chilling Gothic horror of the ‘Mirror’ story and making way for the film to play its ace of trumps in the form of the final story, told by Van Straaten himself, about his strangest case of all – the sublimation of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) by Hugo Fitch, his dummy. This is the longest and most layered story and by far the best, telling of Frere’s mounting paranoid delusion that Hugo wants to leave him and team up with another ventriloquist, the hapless Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power), with disastrous consequences for all concerned. The ‘dialogues’ between Frere and Hugo are beautifully crafted and their ‘relationship’ works as a graphic reification of the worst of mental illnesses – schizoid states and multiple personality disorder. There’s nothing supernatural about this account…or is there?
This self-contained drama is so assured in its creepiness, dominated by a bravura performance from Redgrave as a man coming apart, who really makes you believe in Hugo as an autonomous entity, that it would seem difficult to top. But back at Foley’s house another of Craig’s premonitions comes true and the relative safety of the linking narrative is critically breached. In true nightmare there is no safe ground; everywhere is quicksand and all sense of normality collapses as the film heads for its masterfully surreal climax, where all the stories coalesce and the ultimate horror can no longer be held at bay. Considering the era when Dead of Night was made, and with no reliance on special effects, the climax achieves an authentically nightmarish and totally satisfying quality. And then it is topped off by one the best twist endings ever, not entirely unfamiliar but in this context perfect, rendering Dead of Night the Sixth Sense of its day.
Obviously for a film that’s nearly seventy years old some elements do seem dated, but the underlying premise and the way it’s executed still hold up very well by contemporary standards. This can be credited to Michael Balcon’s leadership in assembling such a top class ensemble of writers, directors, actors and technicians and getting them to work together so harmoniously. First and foremost Dead of Night is such a well-written film – considering its multiple sources and five writers credited, it all hangs together superbly. The screenplay was written by John Baines and Angus MacPhail – MacPhail also adapted Hitchcock’s Spellbound in the same year – with additional dialogue from T.E.B. Clarke. The ideas for the linking narrative and the ‘Hearse Driver’ story came from E. F. Benson’s work; the ‘Christmas’ ghost story was developed by MacPhail from the real-life case of Constance Kent, who at the age of sixteen supposedly murdered her younger brother Francis (later used in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher); the golfing story was derived from H.G. Well’s ‘The Inexperienced Ghost’; and the ‘Mirror’ and ‘Ventriloquist’ stories were both original creations of John Baines.
As has often been remarked, there is such a strong thematic unity and sense of linkage between the pieces that they seem not to be separate but aspects of a whole – one which adds up to more than the sum of its parts. In each story the protagonist encounters a kind of nemesis or doppelganger – for Grainger it is the hearse driver; for Sally it is the ghost of Francis Kent; for Cortland it is Etherington, the mirror’s former owner; for the golfers it is each other; and for Maxwell Frere it is, of course, Hugo, the dummy which has become imbued with a life of its own. This is very much reflected in the linking narrative, in Craig’s ‘analysis’ with Van Straaten, where the two are locked in a kind of benign conflict with a make-or-break outcome. So the whole of Dead of Night becomes an enchanting hall of mirrors or kaleidoscope, with impressions bouncing around the various threads, repeating and amplifying before finally all joining together into a perilous vortex. Ultimately nothing is resolved; the loose ends of the disturbed psyche are not neatly tied up (unlike in Spellbound); out of chaos comes order, and, unfortunately out of order comes chaos.
Another notable aspect of Dead of Night’s production is the use of four different directors, with Alberto Cavalcanti very much the veteran of the ensemble and Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer near the beginning of their careers. Again the combination, the blend of styles, works superbly well. Cavalcanti brings a lot of atmosphere and impending dread to the country house setting of the ‘Christmas’ story and his noir aplomb in handling the ‘Ventriloquist’ piece, with its alternate glittery showbiz and dour prison cell settings, makes it stand out as exceptional. Similarly Dearden’s pacing of the linking narrative is most assured, driving the film onwards, and the gradation from naturalistic beginnings to a more expressionistic conclusion fits the writing perfectly. Dearden also directed the ‘Hearse Driver’ episode, building tension with carefully elongated silences, and Hamer’s ‘Mirror’ piece shows a sure feel for horror and suspense. Crichton took charge of comedy in the ‘Golfing’ story and went onto make it his speciality, helming The Lavender Hill Mob and other Ealing classics and eventually A Fish Called Wanda. Much of the future of Ealing Studios can be glimpsed in embryonic form in Dead of Night. Legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s contribution – in particular his heightened use of light and shadow for a variety of menacing effects throughout – is also hugely important.
On the acting front, Michael Redgrave’s unhinged Frere is so compellingly convincing as to make the flesh creep in time-honoured fashion. The final scene where he talks in Hugo’s voice is a tour de force that few others could even get near. Redgrave was already a big star in 1945 and this was a minor part for him; but he chose wisely and over time it has become one of his most memorable screen moments. Praise must also go to Mervyn Johns, an actor of far lesser standing, but who here, given the chance, really excels. The sustained anguish and metaphysical dread that go into his performance form the backbone of the movie, and his perhaps unprepossessing appearance – a middle-aged everyman figure – works more appropriately than if say a handsome ‘film star’ were cast in the role. As the narrator of the ‘Mirror’ tale and a champion of the supernatural, Googie Withers does well as a strong, dominant female; and character actor Miles Malleson’s turn as the hearse/bus driver, delivering three times over that celebrated line: ‘Just room for one inside, sir,’ remains unforgettable. The sometimes maligned ‘Golfing’ story has the benefit of the then famous double act Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as the golfing pair. They first worked together on The Lady Vanishes in 1938, and their excellent comic repartee makes a marvellous counterpoint to the film’s prevailing horror.
Fully restored and released by Studiocanal, Dead of Night is Region B and presented correctly in Academy ratio, 1.37:1. Naturally enough, the restoration work and the benefit of high definition make this an enormous improvement on the old DVD releases, which suffered from a range of faults due to poor print quality. Here the contrast is nicely enhanced so that the blacks are deep, the highlights sparkle and the former ‘milkiness’ is dispelled. A lot of work has gone into cleaning up the print, so that surface dirt and damage are largely eliminated. The result is a clearer, crisper far more satisfactory viewing experience that yields many benefits, some unexpected. For example, when Cortland describes the Victorian bedroom reflected in the mirror, we can easily make out the intertwined vine leaves and bunches of grapes carved into the bedposts, as well as much other hitherto murky background detail throughout the film. But one downside of better definition is that the bus crash sequence seems much more tinny and obviously artificial – you can’t have it both ways. The mono soundtrack is improved too, though not so noticeably as the video, and some minor sync slippage and sound level fluctuations still remain, particularly in the ‘Golfing’ story.
Another great bonus of this release is that at last we have some proper extras to go with the movie. There is the customary stills gallery and a restoration comparison piece with ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of several excerpts, together with wipes travelling across the screen to clearly illustrate the difference. It shows how dirt and damage to emulsion and celluloid have been removed and repaired, tramlines filled in and the image quality spruced up. Despite the restoration, occasional tramlines do remain and there are times when graininess is apparent, but this to be expected and overall it is a job well done.
The centrepiece of the extras is a truly excellent 75 minute featurette, ‘Remembering Dead of Night’, which is properly crafted piece and not the usual combination of moribund sound bites that often gets added to a package to make up the weight. It contains clips and in-depth interviews with a range of academics, critics and luminaries who bring both expertise and obvious deep affection and fandom for the movie to the table – Keith M. Johnston, Danny Leigh, Kim Newman, Matthew Sweet, Reece Shearsmith, Jonathan Romney and John Landis. Together they go through most every aspect of Dead of Night, starting with its social history, its landmark status in the then inchoate British horror tradition and its later spawning of other more lowbrow anthology pieces such as Asylum and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. The individual stories are chewed over in turn, unearthing intriguing insights, including the linking of supernatural and sexual elements, such as Sally’s kiss before encountering the ghost, Cortland receiving a rush of aberrant testosterone through the mirror, the racy ‘wife-swapping’ between the golfers and the ‘homo-erotic love triangle’ made up by Frere, Hugo and Kee.
There is also a terrific discussion about the renowned twist ending, with some fascinating facts emerging – apparently it wasn’t scripted and the whole thing came about by one of those fortuitous accidents. Kim Newman makes an observation which he attributes to Ivan Butler about the subjective/objective handling of the final scenes that casts another light on the possible interpretation – a subtlety that has crossed my mind before but not become fully developed. And Matthew Sweet tells of how the ending momentarily altered the face of theoretical physics, inspiring Fred Hoyle to dream up the cosmological Steady State Theory, which later became superseded by the current Big Bang Theory. Similar concepts can be found in Eastern mysticism and in Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence, and James Joyce used the same idea in Finnegans Wake. Quite deep stuff for a horror film – but Dead of Night isn’t just a horror film, it’s a one-off masterpiece, undimmed by its antiquity.