Dead of Night Review
Whilst not the first British horror film, that honour goes to 1898’s Faust and Mephistopheles, Dead of Night is arguably the first British classic of the genre. Following the lifting of a ban by the BBFC on horror films during World War II (the reality of war being far more harrowing), Ealing Studios made a break from the propaganda films they had been producing at the time and collected an assembly of some of the finest British actors of the day, from Mervyn Johns and Googie Withers to Naunton Wayne and Michael Redgrave, as well as four great directors (including Robert Hamer in his first credited stint behind the camera).
Dead of Night follows the portmanteau structure that would later also be used by Ealing with Train of Events and Gainsborough Studios for their W. Somerset Maugham adaptations, as well as Amicus in the late sixties and seventies for a number of horror tales. The difference here is that each individual story is integral to the linking narrative and, moreover, this framing device is never used to simply introduce the separate tales. The film begins with Mervyn Johns visiting a farmhouse in Kent where, upon entering, he gets a terrific sense of deja vu. Relating this to the guests, including a psychoanalyst (Frederick Valk), each of them tells a story of their experiences with the supernatural. Whilst no titles are given on-screen, in the intervening years each tale has been entitled the following: Hearse Driver, Christmas Story, The Haunted Mirror, Golfing Story and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.
As the film progresses each episode gains in length: Basil Dearden’s Hearse Driver is simple tale of a man cheating death twice, and also an obvious pre-cursor to the Final Destination films; Alberto Cavalcanti’s Christmas Story relates the meeting a young girl has with the ghost of a murdered child whilst playing a game of sardines; Robert Hamer’s The Haunted Mirror follows a man’s possession by the eponymous mirror’s previous owner who murdered his wife and committed suicide; Charles Crichton’s Golfing Story is a much lighter affair involving ghosts and a game of golf; and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy (also directed by Cavalcanti) presents Michael Redgrave as a schizophrenic who plays out his dual personalities using his puppet.
As with any film dealing with a number of separate stories, the viewer is invited to compare each against the other. Moreover, when each is written and directed by different personnel this invitation is even stronger. What’s interesting in the case of Dead of Night is the fact that the film doesn’t seem to be a collection of disparate episodes, but a distinct whole. As the framing device is so tight, and each narrative has a separate narrator, the different elements seem strangely appropriate. Of course, some episodes are better than others (The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, for example, would have made a fantastic short, or even feature), though this never comes into question.
Moreover, the presence of the narrator (who, in all but one, also plays a major role in their tale) never allows the viewer to forget the principle narrative. Indeed, the guests then discuss each tale afterwards as Frederick Valk (or “the great debunker” as one of the characters puts it) offers his explanations, primarily to ease Mervyn Johns’ nerves.
It’s also interesting to look at the way each narrative relates to the bigger picture. As said, the tales gradually gain in length throughout the film, but they also serve to build the tension. From the small scale Hearse Driver to the more complex narrative of The Haunted Mirror, Dead of Night parallels the main story by offering slightly more sinister episodes as Mervyn Johns slowly recalls the dreams which have provoked his feelings of deja vu. The film then switches to a much lighter tale in the form of Golfing Story to somewhat ease the tension (both for Johns and the viewer).
The general critical consensus suggests that Golfing Story is the major flaw of the picture. Certainly when contrasted to the Hamer episode, or Cavalcanti’s second piece, the tale can be seen to be lacking, yet as said the film works so intrinsically as a whole that comparisons are unnecessary. Moreover, this segment features one of British cinema’s finest double acts, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, in the fifth of eleven collaborations (the most notable being Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes), that it can’t help but be hugely enjoyable. The reason for the criticism of Golfing Story is primarily owing to its comic nature. Certainly, the piece is directed by Charles Crichton after all, who would later work on The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda, yet the easing of tension that it allows for helps immeasurably in favour of the final segment: The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.
Following the brief change of pace, The Ventriloquist’s Dummy allows Frederick Valk to narrate his story, and as “the great debunker” the assembled guests (as well as the viewer) expect this to be the most interesting tale related thus far. And of course, as this is to be the last episode, expectations are unsurprisingly even higher. Relegated to a supporting role in the tale, Valk allows centre stage to devoted to the eponymous ventriloquist, played by Michael Redgrave. In stark contrast to his previous roles in the likes of The Lady Vanishes, Carol Reed’s Kipps and the sadly underrated Thunder Rock, Redgrave’s performance as Maxwell Frere is terrifically unhinged. To offer a comparison, place his performance alongside those of Anthony Hopkins in Magic and Bryant Halliday in Lindsay Shonteff’s 1964 picture Devil Doll. Whilst both these films have their merits, neither actor would be able to pull of the scene where Frere drunkenly berates a woman in a bar or helplessly bites himself with his own dummy. Indeed, Redgrave’s outstanding performance would seriously unbalance the picture (even more so than many claim Golfing Story does) if the Dead of Night’s finale wasn’t so assured.
Of course, discussion of the film’s ending would be impossible without providing a number of spoilers. Needless to say, the finale successfully collates all that has appeared throughout and also provides one of cinema’s great shock moments (for this reviewer it ranks alongside that scene in Hideo Nakata’s Ring), all the more surprising considering the film was made in 1945. Indeed, despite Dead of Night’s age, its collection of tales proves just as potent today.
Sadly, for such a great film, Warner Bros have provided no extras whatsoever to accompany this release. More dispiriting, however, is the quality of the print. Whilst the disc itself provides no problems, the picture is poorly scratched and remains so throughout the film's running length. The sound fares slightly better, being presented in its original mono (spread over the two front speakers), though occasionally suffers from audio dropouts and the odd bit of hiss. By all accounts the R1 release, which paired the film with Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades, is far superior despite not being perfect. A sad state of affairs considering Dead of Night is a true British classic.
This disc is only available as part of the Ealing Classics DVD Collection box set. The other titles featured are Nicholas Nickleby, Scott of the Antarctic and Went the Day Well?.