DeadOfNight1

In his treatise on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, the great American horror writer Stephen King makes reference to a particular subcategory, the portmanteau horror film. These tell several tales within the running time. King is not, in fact, particularly positive about portmanteau films; he thinks they rarely work well. One notable exception is Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night.

I first encountered this marvellously creepy film on television as a boy, and then spent many years longing to see it again, and wondering why it never seemed to get a mention when people talked about horror movies. About 10 years ago it was shown at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, and it gave me no end of pleasure to sit among people who seemed to appreciate the film like I did. That pleasure was repeated towards the end of 2013 when, as part of its four-month Gothic season, the BFI presented several showings of Dead of Night. Round about the same time various media outlets reported Martin Scorcese’s top 11 scariest films, a list in which Dead of Night appeared in fifth place. How thrilling to find that this little film that I once thought no-one knew about is vaunted by one of the world’s greatest directors! My perception is that this is a film whose reputation has been growing over time. Indeed, reading the reviews on IMDB suggests that this is a film that many people don’t just like but, like me, hold in some affection.

**SPOILERS FROM HEREON IN**

The great thing about Dead of Night is that it is not merely a set of disparate tales, but all of these stories take place within an overarching framework. The film involves architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who has been called out to a country house, Pilgrims Farm, for business reasons. The owner, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), introduces Craig to various other guests who are staying there, but Craig cannot believe his eyes – he has been here before and met all these people in his dreams. One of the guests, Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), attempts to rationalise this away, but increasingly the other guests side with Craig and have their own supernatural tales to tell.

The first story comes from motor racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), who describes a premonition that enabled him to cheat death. The second story is told by Sally (Sally Ann Howes) who once encountered a sad little boy whilst playing sardines at a party; only the little boy turns out to be the ghost of a child who was murdered by his step-sister some years earlier. In the third story, Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of how her husband Peter (Ralph Michael) was haunted by a mirror that she gave him as a present during their engagement. The mirror had once been owned by a man who murdered his wife. At this point there is some light relief. Eliot Foley tells the guests about George and Larry (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), two golfing obsessives who play to win the hand of the woman they both love. The loser commits suicide, but comes back to haunt his friend in comical fashion after learning that he had cheated in order to win. This lighthearted story gives way to a much darker final tale, in which a ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) becomes obsessed with the idea that his dummy is plotting to leave him and set up in business with another ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power).

The haunted mirror and ventriloquist’s dummy stories are widely held to be the scariest of the five. In some ways the Haunted Mirror is a better story, because there is actually a narrative journey involved that has an effect on the couple. By contrast, in The Ventriloquist’s Dummy Maxwell Frere is already on the brink of a mental breakdown at the beginning, so it is a short distance to his breakdown at the end. However, there are a number of things to note about this last story. Firstly, Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of the increasingly unhinged Frere is superb. Second, Frere’s belief that his dummy has a malevolent mind of its own does not appear delusional. We see the dummy move of its own accord and we also witness it apparently biting into Frere’s hand. Third, Frere’s attitude towards his dummy appears to be that of an obsessed but rejected lover. The two are like a bitching gay couple. Is the dummy, in fact, trying to leave because of Frere’s obsession?

One of the things Dead of Night does so effectively is to ramp up the tension between each of the tales. In each interlude Walter Craig, recalling new fragments from his dream, becomes more convinced that something terrible is going to happen. At one point, terrified, he decides that the only way to break the spell is to leave the house. Dr. Van Straaten, who is convinced this is all in Craig’s mind, tells him that this would be a disastrous thing to do, as he would simply be giving in to his own delusion. At this point Eliot Foley manages to manoeuvre Craig into staying, partly by pressing a whisky into his hand and partly by beginning a lighthearted tale. This, of course, is the Golfing Story, which some describe as the weakest story of the five. However, this is to treat that story with more seriousness than it deserves. The whole point of this story is that it is meant to be a lighthearted diversion. On the one hand, it serves to keep Craig at the house. On the other hand, given that the Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist’s Dummy stories are of a similar level of creepiness, inserting the Golfing Story between the two gives The Ventriloquist’s Dummy more power than it might otherwise have.

It is also far from clear that the Golfing Story is even meant to be a true tale. Not only does Foley indicate that he told it to lighten the mood, but the story has internal contradictions that mean it cannot be real. When Larry comes back as a ghost he tells George that he is the only person who can see him. Therefore, when George vanishes at the end and Larry saunters in the direction of Mary’s (Peggy Bryan) bedroom, there should be no point in his appearing triumphant as she would not be able to see him. Likewise, how could Eliot Foley have even come to know the story? Realising that this is just a shaggy dog story makes it easier to swallow the preposterous idea that young Mary would be remotely interested in a couple of middle-aged bores like George and Larry, or that she would be willing to marry the victor because he had won a game of golf (even in 1945 these ideas must surely have seemed ridiculous).

Following The Ventriloquist’s Dummy story Craig asks to be left alone with Dr. Van Straaten and the others leave the room. Craig is now driven by forces beyond his control and murders the psychiatrist, after which we see Craig in a bizarre surreal sequence. At this point we see Craig in bed waking from a nightmare, just as his wife arrives with breakfast. It was all a dream! Except… then the phone rings, and the caller – one Eliot Foley – invites Craig out to his country house on business. As the credits begin to roll we see the opening sequence again, in which Craig drives down a country road towards the farmhouse.

Whenever I watch Dead of Night I seem to notice something new. Most recently I realised that I had never before picked up on the opening exchange of words between Craig and Foley. As Craig gets out of his car Foley is there to greet him, but the first words come from Craig. He doesn’t say “Are you Eliot Foley?” or “I’m Walter Craig. And you must be…?” He emphatically says “You’re Eliot Foley!” (and I think there is an exclamation mark there), to which Foley says “Yes, that’s right”.

In the Hearse Driver sequence, I didn’t originally spot how the time changes on the face of the clock just before Grainger pulls open the curtains. At first, the hands are showing quarter-to-ten (at night). When the background noise vanishes and Grainger checks the clock again, it shows quarter-past-four (which turns out to be daytime). Both the long hand and the small hand are now in exactly the opposite place on the clockface (I’m not saying that has any significance, but it’s a nice kind of symmetry, if that’s the right term to use).

One aspect of Dead of Night that I have rarely, if ever, seen commented on is how well the music complements the story (or stories) throughout. The music was written by Georges Auric and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In some horror movies, such as Night of the Eagle, the score can be over-emphatic which, to modern ears at least, is somewhat distracting. In this case, the music that plays over the opening credits is quite ominous, creating a mood of tension right at the start, but as soon as we see the opening shot of Walter Craig driving along a country road the music becomes quite jaunty. These shifts between light and dark recur throughout the film and never feel forced. The music is perhaps at its most effective during The Haunted Mirror. When Peter sees the wrong room in the mirror the music becomes heavy and dark, but the moment we switch back to the real room then the music is light again.

I think the framing story for the five individual tales is a brilliant device. Although people like to discuss which of the five tales is the creepiest, the thing that really puts a shiver up my spine is the final sequence as the end credits are rolling, watching Craig driving up to the house, and realising that this is all going to happen again, and perhaps go on happening forever. In the cinema I feel a vague sense of annoyance at people who are getting up out of their seats at this point. They should be savouring a sense of dread at the eternal terror that is unfolding before them!

Finally, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this was the only horror film that Ealing Studios ever made and was released over a decade before such British chillers as Night of the Eagle and Night of the Demon. There is also a lesser-known companion piece of sorts, released one year before in 1944. This film, The Halfway House, was directed by Basil Deardon and Alberto Cavalcanti, who both directed parts of Dead of Night. It also stars Mervyn Johns and Sally Ann Howes (both in Dead of Night too). The Halfway House is a ghost story, but it is not horrific; it is really a morality tale with an element of wartime propaganda. It isn’t in the same class as Dead of Night, but it does create quite an effective atmosphere and is a watchable curiosity.

Rating 9/10

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