Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

image

Directors: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Writers: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Country: UK

Runtime: 98 mins

Cast: Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Nina), Abigail Hardingham (Holly), Cian Barry (Rob), Elizabeth Elvin (Sally), David Troughton (Dan)

This blood-soaked modern-day Blithe Spirit is a real treat

Nina Forever is a perfectly-realised first full cinema feature by the Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, in which a young couple, Holly and Rob, find theselves haunted by Rob’s deceased former girlfriend, Nina. A rather moving comedy-horror, Nina Forever is like a modern-day rendering of Blithe Spirit. Here, though, Noel Coward’s posh drawing rooms are replaced by a cramped flat on a fog-bound housing estate, the stock room of a supermarket, and a graveyard over which an electricity pylon looms ominously. Oh, and there is lots of blood and sex.

Holly is a trainee paramedic with slightly morbid leanings, who works in the supermarket during the day. There she meets Rob, who is trying to get over the death of his girlfriend Nina, the victim of a car crash. Unfortunately, whenever the two of them try to get it on between the sheets a scarred and bloody Nina appears and makes it clear to “silly little girl” Holly that death is not going to stop her staking a claim to Rob.

It is a credit to the Blaine brothers’ script and Abigail Hardingham’s performance that we are able to engage in a pretty big suspension of disbelief by accepting Holly’s return to Rob after the first alarming bedroom encounter with Nina. Credit must also go to Cian Berry who gets laughs as the bereaved Rob, by playing it completely straight. Fiona O’Shaughnessy revels in the role of Nina, coming on as a wide-eyed (blood-soaked) innocent whilst delivering the bitchiest of comments.

There are some recognisable and delightful everyday observations that add to the comedy, such as when a long-awaited text message turns out to be a special offer from a local pizza parlour, and when a luckless chap on a bus finds himself stuck between a quarrelling Rob and Holly. But beneath the comedy there is a very real recognition of the pain of grief and the difficulty of moving on with life after a loved one dies.

Nina Forever brings a refreshing originality to the comedy-horror genre.

Rating: 4/5

Advertisements

AGWHAN_poster

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Country: Iran / USA

Runtime: 99 min

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains

Judging by the feedback of the London Film Festival audience for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there is a pretty good chance that this first full feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is going to become a cult classic. The story concerns a female vampire (“the girl”) who wanders the streets of an imagined Iranian town, Bad City. Her appearance is striking: she wears a chador open at the front to reveal a striped T-shirt, and her blank, uncomprehending eyes are ringed with dark mascara. In an early scene we get a glimpse of her fearsome power when she kills Saeed (Dominic Rains), a frighteningly thuggish pimp/drug dealer.

Subsequently, the film follows her developing relationship with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), who previously had his luxury car stolen by Saeed as payment for his father’s drug debts. There is a sense that both of them are lost. Arash is a typical young man, trying to forge an identity for himself, but being muscled aside by bigger, more confident men whilst trying to attract girls at a party. The girl encounters him whilst he is lost in the city at night, high on ecstasy. We do not know anything about her past or where she has come from, and she herself seems confused by her own existence. Strangely, though, although she does kill again, she seems only to kill those whose lives she judges to have little or no value.

Although I enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is somewhat flawed. On the positive side, much of the imagery and cinematography is beautiful. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the girl. The first 15 minutes or so are really quite enthralling, with a clearly-identified “good guy” (Arash) coming into conflict with an obvious scary villain (Saeed). However, having established Saeed as a seriously frightening bad guy, he then gets bumped off. The girl, who is also a deeply sinister presence to begin with later becomes a much softer and likeable presence. What starts out as a horror-drama gradually develops into a kind of comedy romance. The change was a little confusing for this viewer, at least.

After Saeed’s death the film drifts along a little, and there are some longeurs, but somehow it gets by on charm. Part of the charm comes from Vand’s lost and lonely vampire, who I just wanted to give a big hug, but much of it comes from Arash’s pet cat. Yes, you heard that right – a cat. Just as some suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis was an ironic comment on Blake Snyder’s screenwriting classic “Save The Cat”, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour seems to have unironically implemented the entire cat concept in this film. It does make for enjoyable viewing, but ultimately I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed the film rather more than it really deserved.

Rating: 6/10

Shown at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Hungerford (1)

UK / Canada 2014

Director: Drew Casson

Writers: Drew Casson & Jess Cleverly

Runtime: 79 mins

When Hungerford was introduced to the audience at Sci-Fi-London, the festival organiser Louis Savy joked that there was a lot of love in the room for this film but a lot of hate outside; the reason being that other directors would be sick at the attention being garnered for a first time feature by a 19 year old director who has not been to film school.

Hungerford is a low budget feature, produced by start-up film funders Wildseed Studios, but by any standards it is a hugely enjoyable and accomplished film. It pulls off the neat trick of being considerably more than the sum of its parts. Firstly, it is a found footage movie, which is a technique you might have thought had run out of steam. Secondly, whether consciously or unconsciously the writers would appear to have been heavily influenced by Shaun of the Dead (with maybe a pinch of Hot Fuzz and 28 Days Later added for good measure). Third, this is more or less a zombie film, which is itself a genre that has rather been done to, er, death, in recent years.

Plotwise, the story is straight out of Shaun of the Dead: A young man without much direction in his life has to rally his only semi-responsible friends when the people in their town become zombies (actually possessed by alien entities). This includes making a trip to rescue the girl with whom he has a rather on-off relationship and who takes a rather dim view of his own friends. What makes this so much more than a merely derivative film, however, is the sheer verve with which the story is told, the convincing performances of the actors and especially the excellent chemistry between them.

The film begins with young Cowen speaking to camera, having just woken up with a hangover, and explaining how this is the first day of the video diary he is making for his BTEC media course. He stumbles around the house introducing us to his friends – eager-to-please Philippa (Georgia Bradley), nerdy Kipper (Sam Carter), and the slightly dodgy Adam (Tom Scarlett). Adam is the kind of blokey bloke who might be fun to have around until the point where he fails to spot the borderline between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Adam is on probation, for what reason we don’t know, and when Cowen wakes him from his slumber he rolls over to reveal a black eye.

As Cowen is filming his diary the town is rocked by an almighty explosion. Comical copper Terry (Nigel Morgan) arrives on the scene to explain that a factory on the outskirts has been struck by lightning. However, following this dramatic event the townfolk start to behave strangely, and in due course we have a full-on zombie onslaught – although they are not zombies in the strictest sense; rather, people are being possessed by alien creatures that resemble giant cockroaches.

Hungerford is exciting and funny in all the right places, but whereas Shaun of the Dead finished on a joke that tied up its bromance theme director Drew Casson leaves us with a rather more serious ending that provides the scope for a possible sequel. I just hope that Cowen passed his BTEC.

Rating: 9/10

The_Quiet_Ones_2014

If you could cure all mankind by killing just one person, would it be justifiable to do so? This is the moral conundrum that Professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) likes to present to his Class of 1975 at Oxford University. Coupland himself has enlisted help from a group of students to run an ethically dubious experiment on Jane (Olivia Cooke), a girl who has apparently caused strange phenomena to occur at the various foster homes she has been placed in. She appears to be possessed by Evey, a malevolent spirit. The Professor rejects supernatural explanations, but thinks she has some negative energy within her that can be drawn out and trapped. In order to do this the Professor subjects her to a series of increasingly intense provocations, resulting in alarming responses from “Evey” that cause harm to Jane, and then begin to put the Professor and his students at risk.

With its storyline of a rationalist professor battling supernatural forces, The Quiet Ones harkens back to earlier gothic classics Night of the Demon and Night of the Eagle. However, whereas those films involved a gradual build up of tension before the final climax, The Quiet Ones quickly reaches into the horror movie grab-bag of false alarm scares, loud bangs and thumps, and shaky camera work (one of the characters is filming events, so we get a lot of through-the-viewfinder footage, too). Jared Harris is excellent as the rather ambiguous Professor Coupland, but you’d have to be of a particularly nervous disposition to be frightened by the events shown here, and anyone who’s reasonably familiar with the horror genre will see the ending coming a mile away.

Rating: 6/10

Running time: 98 minutes.

Lost Time (1)

Kicking off this year’s Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, Lost Time is described in the programme notes thus: “A psychological sci-fi thriller with horror overtones, it doesn’t always go where you expect it to”. This is a very accurate description, but unfortunately the places the story goes are sometimes places it probably shouldn’t have.

The story concerns a cancer patient, Valerie (Rochelle Vallese), who has just been told that her condition is terminal. On the way home with her sister Melissa (Jenni Blong) a bizarre and traumatic event occurs in which the latter mysteriously disappears. Has she been abducted by aliens? Four months later Valerie’s cancer has vanished, but she is still risking her health trudging the mean streets of the city trying to find Melissa. Lurking in the background is cop boyfriend Carter (Luke Goss), who is somewhat frustrated that Valerie feels unable to resume normal relations until her quest has achieved its goal. Valerie seeks out author Dr Xavier Reed (Robert Davi), who insists that the answers lie within her and that he can help her find them. However, his treatment turns out to be distinctly unconventional.

The basic story is rather good and there are one or two nice twists, but there are also some slightly risible ones and the dialogue at times is distinctly creaky. There were a few places where laughter was unintentionally elicited from the audience around me. There is also some rather obvious padding, with an overuse of dialogue-free scenes where the images are set to music, but which do not move the story along.

I assume that Lost Time is a low-budget labour of love, as actors Vallese, Goss, and Davi appear variously among the credits for writing, production, and music supervision. Director Christian Sesma also has credits for writing and production. However, it is in the writing and direction that weaknesses are most apparent. On the positive side, Rochelle Vallese really rises above the material to give an excellent performance as Valerie. She is definitely the star of the show, even more so than Robert Davi, who has appeared in major movies such as Die Hard and License to Kill. Davi is adequate enough here, but much of his oddness relies on the theatricality of wearing a coat, hat, and scarf indoors. Former Bros singer Luke Goss certainly looks the part of a tough cop, being all stubbly and shaven-headed, and kicking bad guys’ asses in his first scene. However, he fails to shine in his role, which is unsurprising as most of his lines seem to consist of uninspiring phrases such as “Come on, baby” and “Stick with me, baby”.

Despite a few good moments, by the end of the film I felt that the title pretty much summed up my experience.

Rating: 5/10

Berberian_Sound_Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is the second directorial outing for Peter Strickland, who also wrote the screenplay. It is interesting and entertaining, what I guess could be considered a postmodern horror movie. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound engineer, who arrives at an Italian film studio believing they are making a film about equestrianism, though in fact they are making a giallo – a pulpish horror movie. Gilderoy, who is short, drably dressed, rather meek, and lives with his mother, finds himself being pushed around by two tall sharply-dressed Italians, Francesco the producer (Cosimo Fusco) and Giancarlo Santini the director (Antonio Mancino).

The film they are making is supposedly an historical drama about the mistreatment of women who were believed to be witches, but Gilderoy is uncomfortable with the scenes that he is creating the sound effects for. Nonetheless he gets on with it, and we get to see the mechanics of sound production for this kind of film. There are intricate sound maps, indicating the sounds that are required at particular times, and for which scenes. Microphones are positioned and swapped, dials are turned and buttons pressed. All manner of fruits and vegetables are recruited for the purpose of creating the sound accompaniment to torture and gore. We see blades slicing through melons and being twisted in marrows, roots being pulled from radishes, and some sort of red-coloured item being pulped in a blender (the sound of a chainsaw). At no time, however, do we see any of the actual visuals for the film.

Santini tries to convince Gilderoy of the serious intent of the movie, emphasising that the horrific scenes are necessary for historical accuracy. However, the concern about the historical mistreatment of women seems to be at odds with the way that Francesco and – especially – Santini treat the female voiceover artists. There are perhaps two events that represent a significant turning point in the narrative. Firstly, Gilderoy balks when asked to create the sound effect of a red hot poker being inserted into a woman’s vagina. Secondly, after being given the runaround over his expenses one of the voiceover artists, Claudia (Eugenia Caruso), tells him that being rude and aggressive is the only way to get what you want at the studio.

From this point on the narrative becomes increasingly disorienting and the barriers between fiction and reality start to dissolve. There is a definite influence of David Lynch in the way things develop, and I was also reminded a little bit of the Ealing classic Dead of Night. As is appropriate for a story about a sound engineer, sound is used effectively throughout. At various places, whilst Gilderoy is trying to sort out his expenses, or whilst we are contemplating the sound maps on the wall, the audio accompaniment makes these mundanities seem like the background to something mysterious and terrible.

For all its accomplishments, Berberian Sound Studio does not pack the punch of a David Lynch movie, but it is enjoyable enough and a fun deconstruction of the unseen elements of a horror movie. Toby Jones is excellent as Gilderoy and has been justly rewarded at several film festivals.

Rating: 8/10

Strange Colour (1)

Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps

Director: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Screenplay: Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet 

102 minutes

 

I so much wanted to like this film, having read in advance about how it harks back to the Italian giallo cinema of the 1970s. Sadly, I ended up resenting the fact that I had actually spent money to watch it. The opening scenes are promising, delivering both visual style and intrigue. We see a white man, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) waking from his sleep as his plane comes in to land. In his hand he holds a book of matches showing a woman’s legs and the words “Table Dancing”. Later, in his taxi he looks out of the window at what appears (out of focus) to be a woman in a red window display. These images are intercut with some black and white sequences showing a black woman, dressed in black leather, engaged in some kind of bondage activity involving a knife. Whether these images are flashback, dream, or real-time activity happening somewhere else is never made clear.

The woman in these sequences is apparently Kristensen’s wife, Edwige. When he arrives home she is not there, but the chain on the inside has been put in the locked position. We learn that Kristensen has been phoning his wife during his absence on a business trip, but she has not been responding. Kristensen has a smoke and a drink (or a few), then goes searching for his wife. From this point onwards, the film gradually takes on the appearance of some hallucinatory trip. Kristensen follows some mysterious man out of the building, and then starts ringing the bells of all the occupants.  He takes tea with the woman upstairs, all dressed in black, but whose face we cannot see, who tells a strange story of her husband’s disappearance in the same building. He meets a detective who also recounts a story, which appears to involve keeping one of the inhabitants under surveillance. These stories are told in flashback.

I very much enjoyed the opening scenes of the film, simply because of the promise they seemed to offer. The mid-section, where Kristensen talks with the woman upstairs and with the detective also held some interest but with diminishing returns. Increasingly, there is a nagging suspicion that the directors are too much in love with the visual style of their movie and that the story is never going to make any sense. Unfortunately, this turns out to be exactly the case. By the time we get to the final third of the film Kristensen is ripping away the walls of his apartment (there is some bit of nonsense about a possible intruder using hidden passages), chasing his own doppelgangers around, and there is a gratuitous and equally baffling slasher sequence.

If only the directors could have attached their visuals to a narrative that even remotely made sense, then this could have been a very enjoyable film. They clearly do have a sense of style; in fact, the musical soundtrack is brilliant and works well with the visuals. But in the end it is all style and no substance, resulting in the kind of dismal self-indulgence that gives “art house” a bad name. I watched this on my computer via Curzon Home Cinema. On the first viewing, I fell asleep several times and, by the end, had no idea what I had just seen. Feeling a bit guilty that perhaps I had been too tired to watch, I viewed it again a day later, this time buoyed by some strong tea. On this occasion the film made just as little sense as on first viewing. We never really know if there is a real “story” at the heart of the movie or whether the whole thing is just some dream, psychotic delusion, or hallucinatory trip. It would not surprise me if the film has a future as cult viewing among students who have just discovered mind-altering substances, but I can’t imagine who else could possibly enjoy this.

Rating: 2/10

The-shout-poster

UK 1978

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

86 minutes

 

Based on a short story by Robert Graves, The Shout is a very atmospheric horror picture full of striking sounds and images. The opening scenes occur at a psychiatric hospital, where various people are organising a game of cricket in the grounds. Quite who are the patients and who are the staff is never entirely clear. Inside the scorekeepers’ hut, Crossley (Alan Bates) begins to tell Robert Graves (Tim Curry) an extraordinary “true” story. But is this story really true or is it the delusion of a mental patient (Crossley himself admits to occasionally modifying his tale, so as to keep it fresh in the telling)?

At any rate, the film shifts to the countryside where Crossley accosts Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) following a church service, claiming to be a traveller who has been walking for two days. That Hurt is about to have his life turned upside down is strongly hinted by the fact that he has been engaging in a little philandering whilst his wife Rachel (Susannah York) waits at home. Crossley invites himself in for lunch, during which he claims to have spent 18 years among the Aborigines in Australia. He says that the Aborigines permit the killing of their newly-born children, and that he himself has killed two of his own. Not exactly ideal dinner table talk at the best of times, this particularly upsets Rachel as, we learn, she and Anthony have not managed to have any children together. Apparently overcome by a migraine, Crossley is given a bed to rest on, at Rachel’s insistence. Thereafter, he becomes difficult to budge and starts to come between Anthony and Rachel. At one point he tells Anthony that he has learned Aboriginal magic, and has spent 18 years developing a shout so powerful that it can kill. Anthony scoffs at this and Crossley gets angry. He tells Anthony that he will demonstrate the shout for him, but that he had better stuff up his ears with cotton wool or wax. The next morning, they set out for the beach together where Crossley does indeed give his demonstration…

The Shout could be seen as a bit of a shaggy dog story were it not for the excellent performances from all involved. In particular, Alan Bates is absolutely outstanding as Crossley. From the moment he makes contact with Anthony he is a dark, brooding, and dangerous presence. Nonetheless, director Jerzy Skolimowski teases the audience throughout by switching between this horrifying tale and the ongoing cricket match at the psychiatric hospital (in one scene a patient is heard muttering Shakespeare’s words “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”). Skolimowski also makes great use of sound and image to build the atmosphere. As the opening credits role we see a grainy shot of a dark figure walking down a hill. The accompanying music is largely subsumed beneath the sound of the harsh wind. Anthony himself is a musician, who we see experimenting with sounds in his recording studio (at one point he places a microphone inside a jam jar, around which a fly is buzzing). Then there is the shout itself where, in addition to the supernatural sound produced, we see Crossley prepare himself by stretching out his arms and leaning backwards at an impossible angle. It is a really striking shot, and once the shout begins the camera focuses in on Crossley’s mouth. I won’t spoil things by describing the aftermath of the shout, but it is a scene well worth seeing.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Shout is currently showing at the British Film Institute as part of the Made In Britain: Jeremy Thomas season. The next showings are 6th April (21:00) and 15th April (18:30).

 

Image

USA 1932

Director: Todd Browning

64 minutes

The historical elements of the following review were written with the help of the BFI (British Film Institute) programme notes

Currently showing as part of the BFI’s season Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censor, Todd Browning’s Freaks is one of the most controversial movies ever made. Based on Tod Robbins’ short story Spurs (1923), Freaks concerns a sideshow midget who falls for a beautiful trapeze artist, except that she is only interested in his money. Browning, who had worked in a travelling circus, sold MGM the idea of filming the story using real people with deformities. Keen to get into the growing horror market, the studio bought into the idea.

The first sign of trouble came after a disastrous preview, whereupon some retakes were shot and 30 minutes were cut from the film. Upon release the film was a major flop. Whilst people were quite happy to accept monsters based on make-up, they had trouble dealing with real “freaks”. MGM fiddled about with the film further, adding a ludicrous prologue in the form of a scroll, which was apparently intended to educate the viewing public into understanding the plight of the people they were about to see. They also added an epilogue so that the film would have a “happy ending” (some current versions of the film show this but others don’t). Despite this, for a long time Freaks was considered beyond the pale by many people. Some countries – including Britain – banned it altogether. Eventually, following a 1962 screening at Cannes and the film’s rediscovery by the counter-culture Freaks began to be reappraised and critically accepted.

Image

 

** SPOILER WARNING**

In the opening scene of Freaks a sideshow barker is preparing a crowd for the deformed people they are about to see, simultaneously reminding them that they are deserving of our sympathy whilst also hyping up the prospect of something horrific. As the crowd gathers round an exhibit a woman screams, and at this point we flashback to an earlier period at the circus. We are introduced to Hans and Frieda (Harry and Daisy Earles), a couple of circus midgets (to use the terminology of those times) who are engaged to be married. Unfortunately for Frieda, Hans appears to be smitten with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist more than twice his size. Cleopatra humours him, but when she learns that he is in possession of a considerable inheritance then she really begins to lead Hans on, and the little man leaves Frieda. Meanwhile, Cleopatra has actually begun an affair with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor). Eventually, Hans and Cleopatra marry. There is a celebration with lots of drinking, and the assembled freaks announce their acceptance of Cleopatra as one of their number, chanting “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble”. Cleopatra is suddenly horrified, and when she is handed a goblet of wine she tosses it over one of the little people.

Shortly after, Hans becomes ill, but Cleopatra is found to be poisoning him with the connivance of Hercules. During a stormy night the various freaks exact their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules. The latter is last seen lying in wet mud, with a knife in his side, as the rain pours down and various small and deformed people come writhing through the dirt towards him. Then we cut back to the present time and the sideshow barker is telling the audience that no-one knows exactly what happened to Cleopatra to make her the way she now is, at which point the camera pans down to show her as a grotesque: no legs, and with her lower half tarred and feathered to look like a duck.

Image

In all honesty, some of the acting in Freaks is not of the highest quality – one consequence of casting around for non-actors to play the deformed circus people. Nonetheless, there is a raw honesty in the way Browning portrays them. They are shown sympathetically, but not in a patronising way. There is one particular scene that takes place outdoors, where a group of performers encounter two strangers, one of whom is horribly prejudiced but one of whom behaves in a kindly way. Fortunately, the latter prevails. Elsewhere, we see the performers going about their daily business, alternately squabbling and laughing, just like anybody else might.

In essence, it is Cleopatra and Hercules that are the monsters in this film. In fact, in some ways it is perhaps unfair to label this as a “horror” film, as – viewed through modern sensibilities – the term is unkind to those people who, through a quirk of fate, happen to be physically different from the majority. Maybe Freaks is really a film-noir with a cast of differently-abled people. But before I veer off too far into politically correct reflections, it should be noted that the culmination of the revenge scene is quite consciously horrific. The sight of the strongman Hercules, lying wounded in the mud at night, as the storm rages, with an army of misshapen people writhing towards him with hate in their eyes, is extremely powerful and not easily forgotten (in fact, in the uncut version of the film, probably lost forever, Hercules is castrated and later seen singing in falsetto).

It is hard to imagine that Freaks could ever be remade and, as such, it is a unique contribution to the history of cinema.

Rating: 7/10

Showing at the BFI on 3rd April (20.50) and 21st April (20.50)

 

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