by Mel Valentin
Released in 1945 by Ealing Studios, "Dead of Night," supernatural horror anthology film is most likely the first of its kind produced for English-language audiences (it was also Ealing Studios only foray into the horror genre). "Dead of Night" consists of five individual episodes, each told by a different narrator (and helmed by a different director), and a wraparound segment that stands on its own with its own beginning, middle, and tragic end. As expected for an anthology film, the episodes are of various length and quality. Some are simply better written or executed than others. Oddly, the producers decided to include a comic skit among the segments (in short, it only works to lighten the otherwise dark, claustrophobic tone). Almost all the episodes, including the wraparound segment, can be seen as inspirations for Rod Serling’s "The Twilight Zone" television series (and the supernatural horror films that, in turn, borrowed ideas from "The Twilight Zone"),In the wraparound, linking episode directed by Basil Dearden, a London-based architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), arrives at the country home of a prospective client, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver). Driving up to the front gates, Craig begins to feel a distinct sense of dread. Not only can he anticipate what Foley will say, he also knows his way around Foley’s home, despite never having Foley’s house in the past. Inside, an unsteady Craig meets several guests, including Mrs. Foley (Mary Merrall), Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), Sally O'Hara (Sally Ann Howes), Joan Cortland (Googie Withers), and Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk). Craig informs the guests that he’s met each of them, not in person, but in a dream, a dream that eventually turns into a nightmare. All express disbelief at his statements, with Dr. van Straaten, a psychoanalyst, taking the lead in debunking Craig’s statements. Events take a turn for the supernatural when Foley’s guests begin to chime in with their own stories of the supernatural.
"A precedent-setting supernatural horror/anthology film."
In the first, brief (and underdeveloped) episode, the “Hearse Driver” (also directed by Dearden), Hugh Grainger, an auto racer hospitalized after a near-fatal racetrack incident, dreams of a hearse driver (Miles Malleson) waiting for him outside the hospital. The hearse driver tells Hugh, “Just room for one inside, sir,” before Hugh wakes from his dream. Shaken by the experience, Hugh obtains the assistance of a doctor, Dr. Albury (Robert Wyndham), while wooing his attentive nurse, Joyce (Judy Kelly). There’s a twist here that comes in the final scene, and it’s likely one anyone familiar with The Twilight Zone will easily guess from an episode featuring the identical premise.
In the equally perfunctory “Christmas Party” segment (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti), Sally O'Hara, has an unexplainable encounter with the supernatural at a large, centuries old manor during a Christmas/costume party. As part of the festivities, the children play games, including one called “sardines” (a variation on hide-and-seek). Sally gets lost in the upper rooms of the manor, finding a bedroom and in the bedroom, a young, crying boy. She comforts the distraught boy, who seems eager for Sally to remain with him. Sally later learns the manor’s grisly history from her host. The twist here is another one borrowed by The Twilight Zone.
In the “Haunted Mirror” episode (directed by Robert Hamer), Joan Cortland gives her fiancé Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), an antique, three-paneled mirror. It seems an odd gift for a woman to give to a man, until Peter is revealed to be overly concerned with his physical appearance. One night, Peter looks into the mirror and sees another room, complete with antique bed and burning fire (his “real” room has neither). Peter becomes obsessed with looking into the mirror, leading Joan to investigate the history of the mirror. The friendly antiques dealer who sold Joan the mirror, Mr. Rutherford (Esme Percy), helps her (and us) out with key exposition. Meanwhile, Peter’s behavior changes for the worse.
In the most lightweight, unremarkable segment, Foley offers his own brush with the supernatural, a “Golfing Story” (directed by Charles Crichton from a story by H.G. Wells). This segment centers on a romantic triangle between two golfing buddies/rivals, George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne). George and Larry fall in love with Mary (Peggy Bryan). She can’t pick between the two men, so they decide to play a round of golf for her hand in marriage. The loser promises to make himself scarce. He does, but returns as a vengeful ghost, when he discovers dubious record keeping by the winner. Another deal is struck between the now former friends, with semi-humorous results. As a side note, actors Radford and Wayne played almost identical characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes in 1938.
In the last and most memorable episode, the “Ventriloquist's Dummy” (also directed by Cavalcanti), Dr. van Straaten recounts the story of Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave), an up-and-coming, popular ventriloquist, engages in a duel for his sanity with his rebellious dummy, Hugo Fitch (voiced by John McGuire). Hugo, it seems, wants to end his partnership with Max and take up with a rival ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). Max’s fragile mental state takes a beating at the idea of Hugo leaving him for another partner. Frere’s deteriorating mental state leads, of course, toward violence (which foreshadows the final scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). The “Ventriloquist's Dummy” served as the inspiration for a Twilight Zone episode with Cliff Robertson as the ventriloquist grappling with a personality disorder and later, as the inspiration for Magic, scripted by William Goldman and featuring Anthony Hopkins as the mentally unstable ventriloquist.As the last episode concludes ominously, "Dead of Night" returns to the wraparound segment, with Craig becoming increasingly distraught as the future, fraught with peril and violence, begins to gain clarity. "Dead of Night" does end, of course, but not in a traditional way. In fact, the resolution of the wraparound segment foreshadows (yet again) another "Twilight Zone" episode. From the right perspective, it's just one more indication that "Dead of Night" wasn't just ahead of its time (it was), but that a single film could be the inspiration for so many tales of the supernatural, beginning with "The Twilight Zone" and continuing with more recent supernatural horror anthologies put on film, including Amicus Studios, which specialized in producing films in this format during the 1960s and 1970s, Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" television series, and a relatively obscure (obscure, that is, among non-horror fans) made-for-TV flick, "Trilogy of Terror."
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originally posted: 10/09/05 23:51:18