Alberto Cavalcanti ( “Christmas Party”, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”)
Charles Crichton (“Golfing Story”)
Basil Dearden (“Hearse Driver”, “Linking Narrative”)
Robert Hamer (“The Haunted Mirror”)
In this masterpiece of classic horror, architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at the home of Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), who has invited him to work on rebuilding. Even though Craig has never been there before he seems at home, aware of the layout and knows everything his host is about to say. There are five other people present, all of whom Craig recognizes, and, now firmly in a deja vu daze, he explains that he’s met them all and been here in his recurring nightmares. As absent sixth person arrives late, just as Craig predicts, as penniless and brunette as she was in his dreams.
The guests easily accept his claim and, amused by the subject of the supernatural, proceed to relate stories that have similarly puzzled and haunted them: tales of near-death and apparitions, superstitions and premonitions that came horribly true, delusions and madness no expert can explain.
“Hearse Driver” is told by Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), the race car driver who, after nearly dying in a wreck, falls in love with his nurse Joyce (Judy Kelly). During his recovery Grainger is plagued by nightmares, but one night he has no time to sleep or dream before he opens the curtains Joyce closed only moments before. Instead of night, he finds himself looking at a bright country day and a parked hearse whose driver beckons him with: “ just room for one inside, sir.” Eventually Grainger runs into that same man saying those same words, this time as a bus driver. The sight freezes Grainger and keeps him from climbing aboard the bus, which crashes as he watches. For those of you who have only seen characters dodge death by heeding strong premonitions in Final Destination (2000), this small moment in Dead of Night manages to capture that whole film’s worth of terror.
From the young lady Sally (Sally Ann Howes) comes the tale of the school “Christmas Party” and its game of hide and seek in a haunted mansion. When one of the boys uses the legend of a murder in that house to flirt with Sally, she plays along for bit, gives him the air and ends up wandering into a secret nursery where she meets a sad, abused little boy Francis and sings him to sleep. When Sally returns to the party she’s told Francis was the child murdered by his sister Constance decades before. This segment was cut from the American release and compared to the others is lighter weight but coming from a schoolgirl, it nicely puts across the lure of forbidden, adult “dangers” and a bracing first experience with the supernatural.
In “The Haunted Mirror” Joan Courtland (Googie Withers) buys her fiance Peter (Ralph Michael) a Chippendale looking glass in which he sees his reflection plus a strange bedroom that pulls him toward some unspeakable evil. With Joan by his side to confront the mirror, those visions temporarily stop, but home alone one night and feeling a twinge of abandonment, the newlywed Peter sees that ornate bedroom again and begins to feel the violently jealous rage of the glass’s previous owner. This tight and tense story does a great job of showing the room and Withers’ struggle to hold her husband in this reality.
The goofy H.G Wells “Golfing Story” features evenly matched buddies (Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne from The Lady Vanishes) whose friendship is tested when they fall in love with the same woman. Her indecision and their deadlock leads them to settle the matter by making her the prize of their next 18 holes. When Radford cheats to win, loser Wayne drowns himself, then returns to haunt Radford’s game with a supernatural case of the yips. Wayne gets stuck with George until he can recall the proper gesture combination needed to make himself invisible again.
That bit of silliness does its job of breaking the tension before the part I remembered best after so many years, the disturbing “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” in which uncannily gifted performer Max Frere (Michael Redgrave) reaches the end of a symbiotic and dysfunctional relationship with his dummy Hugo. Frere’s attachment to the puppet makes for a fascinating stage act, baffles and horrifies those who interact with him behind the scenes, and eventually provokes a paranoid possessive breakdown that drives Frere to attempted murder. Frere’s madness, his loss of self and assumption of Hugo’s powerful personality, the scenes in the mental institution and its pondering doctors, and Frere’s chilling final words strongly resemble elements of Norman Bates’ world and breakdown in Psycho (1960).
Between each episode we return to the Foley house and watch the guests debate the meaning or verity of each tale, with scoffs and “reasonable” psychological explanations provided by skeptic Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), aka “the great debunker,” an egotist who at one point suspects this whole gathering is an elaborate prank on him and a jab at his profession.
The last phase of Craig’s dream is realized when a pair of eyeglasses break, and he commits the murder he predicted, followed by a surreal collapse of all the previous events into each other. The end (spoiler:) sees Craig waking up from it all, getting the same call from Foley, driving up to the same home in the same shuddering daze as he did in the first scene. This ending isn’t just a party trick that cancels out and laughs at the movie that preceded it, it’s a real puzzle that makes you question reality and sanity. Do all the characters, as they speculate at one point, only live in Craig’s dream? Or is Craig stuck in an insane loop, or is somebody else dreaming all of them and us too? (yes, this movie makes your mind go there.)
The cast and crew, a who’s who of Ealing Studios, create a cohesive whole and successful anthology out of these diverse stories. Given the ages, classes and genders of the narrators, it fits that they would vary in aim, tone and impact and the linking narrative glues not only glues it all together but also stands on its own by revealing character, keeping the dread and suspense building and throwing in a statement on “modern” psychology when the Doctor with all the answers gets outnumbered, isolated and killed. It feels delirious from the first sign of Craig’s deja vu, and through the way sound and music drop out and shadows lengthen in the race car driver’s hospital room, the way conversations are too swiftly and unnaturally revealing, the way the flashbacks lead to further flashbacks, like nesting dolls or haunted infinity mirrors.
Dead of Night, though free of blood and gore, says everything about the appeal of horror movies. Most of the these storytellers and the characters in their tales question their sanity, feel shame and discomfort about expressing what scares them and seek some good explanation that never comes, but at the same time they thrill at bringing these secrets out to a receptive audience, and they engage in a spirit of campfire tale competition as they possibly embellish or invent and try to outdo each other. This is what horror movies are all about, the act of articulating horrible things and the safe, vicarious thrill that comes of consuming them in all the ways they can be presented, whether absurd or existentially devastating. For all his psychobabble, the smartest thing the doctor said in this movie applies to the power of facing fears and terrors and the value of telling stories about them: “speak them aloud.”