Written by: H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, Angus MacPhail, and T.E.B. Clarke,
Directed by: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Reardon, and Robert Hamer
Starring: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave and Roland Culver
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Oh, Mr Craig. Now that you've met us, I sure that you wouldn't dream of dreaming about us again."
Dead of Night is a landmark film, not only because itís the first proper horror anthology, but because it also succeeds where so many of its successors have failed in spinning a thoroughly compelling yarn that weaves through its frame story rather than being simply spun out of it. For so many anthologies, the frame is a hastily constructed excuse to deliver an assortment of various tales, and, if youíre lucky, itíll wrap up in some clever way. However, even in most cases, the frame typically disappears into the background; not so in Dead of Night, a dreamy masterwork thatís constantly circling towards something ominous.
When Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is summoned to a country house, he canít shake a feeling of dťjŗ vu; itís as if heís dreamed of being there before, and he even recognizes some of the other guests. Not only that, but heís able to predict events that will happen as the evening unfolds; in the meantime everyone discusses their own brushes with the supernatural in an attempt to convince the resident skeptical doctor (Frederick Valt) of its existence. Whatís neat is that it actually feels like a bit of a conversation at first--sort of a casual ďoh by the wayĒ aside that soon turns into something of a competition as the anecdotes get more outrageous.
Basil Deardon directs the first sequence (along with the frame narrative), wherein a race-car driver (Anthony Baird) has a near-death experience and ends up having an ominous vision of a hearse-drive connected to his actual demise. An extremely short opening volley, this tale nevertheless sets the appropriate tone given the premonitory subject matter; on one level, Dead of Night is about our preternatural sense of doom, and itís interesting that this first story is an attempt to resist that. The man telling the story obviously has lived to tell the tale, and itís almost a quaint precursor to the likes of Final Destination, only death doesnít keep recurring (at least not immediately).
The second tale, helmed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is similarly tidy. An eerie little holiday fable delivered by a young girl (Sally Ann Howes) who finds herself caught up in a ghost story, this segment is similarly breezy but coolly effective. Perhaps vaguely reminiscent of Lewtonís Curse of the Cat People, thereís still a dreamy sense of innocence here that reacts against the dark nature of the story. At this point in the conversation within the overarching frame, itís even delivered casually, with its own narrator sort of laughing it off. You donít quite feel the noose tightening around us yet, even though some of the events presaged by our main character have started to come true. He insists early on that a woman will eventually arrive in need of money, and, sure enough, she does.
An icier grip begins to take hold with the third tale, directed by Robert Hamer; the first in the collection to feel fully fleshed out into a decent length, it concerns a coupleís purchase of a vanity mirror. The husband of the pair (Ralph Michael) begins to see a different room reflected in the mirror, and he can feel some force attempting to take hold of him. Michaelís performance in this limited role terrifically realizes a man under siege from within as he quickly loses his hold on himself. A sordid little tale with some dark stakes, this segment is the first to delve deeply into the shadowy side of mankindís psyche. You can feel Dead of Night slowly getting more serious as it roves into this territory; if the first two tales are attempts at jocular comfort, then this one is a bit more disquieting.
Which perhaps explains the placement of the filmís oddball segment about a couple of guys (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) who fall in love with the same girl and proceed to battle for her affections over a game of golf. The loser, so love-stricken and heartbroken, decides to calmly trudge into the lake and drown himself, only to return as a ghost to comically haunt his former friend. Charles Crichton directs this screwball tale that perhaps represents the sore thumb of Dead of Night until you consider it as countermelody; as the frame story becomes more ominously shaded by the previous tale, this quirky intrusion acts as a resistance. Its humor is admittedly antiquated, but its lightness still hits the right note at this point in the story. Laughs are often invoked to balance horror, and this is that notion writ large.
Cavalcanti returns to right the ship, so to speak, in the final tale, which is oddly delivered by the skeptical doctor. Itís the granddaddy of all killer doll stories, as Dr. Van Straaten once found himself at the center of a murder case involving a couple of rival ventriloquists. Max Frere is a bit of a virtuoso, aided by his dummy named Hugo, and the rivalry takes a dark turn when it becomes implied that Hugo is actually alive. What follows is an awesome psychodrama; Dead of Nightís influence is far reaching, and you can see the seeds of Psycho being planted here in the form of dual identities and overcompensating egos. Of all the segments, this one feels the most like a horror film, as Calvalcanti dispenses the hazy dream logic and goes full-on nightmare. Hugo himself is the obvious icon here--everything from the Twilight Zoneís killer dolls to Chucky owe a lot to him--and his wooden faÁade is penetratingly eerie.
With the exception of the final sequence, Dead of Nightís individual tales feel admittedly light. Unbeknownst to viewers, however, theyíre all rolling into a ball thatís a weightier sum of its parts. And that ball creeps up on you until it rolls right over your face as these preludes end up blending into a nightmarish cacophony. Few films of this era brilliantly capture delirium as well as Dead of Night does, and itís interesting how it turns our perception of the anthology inside-out. Instead of the frame providing the base for its segments, the inverse here is true: the segments are the bricks and mortar that support the filmís beautifully layered exploration of dreams and their elusiveness. Walter Craig frequently comments on his inability to pin down his dream--bits and pieces have unfolded before him, but it isnít until the end that he realizes what his mind is attempting to do. Dead of Night indeed unfolds like a dream that makes sense at first before becoming increasingly illogical; the kernel here involves premonitions and visions, and the opening segment at least complies before the rest of them spiral into more nonsensical directions.
A lot of older, revered films are perhaps more appreciated for their innovations, and Dead of Night can certainly claim to have established a pattern that Amicus especially would follow two decades later. However, Dead of Night is legitimately fucking awesome; itís not only a first step--itís the whole damn dance, right down to the final shot that reveals the horror of a constantly spinning web. The human mind is arguably the most fascinating trap, and Dead of Night presents one haunted by an inescapable madness; it takes a turn thatís often eye-rollingly clichť, but it perfectly coalesces the filmís feedback loop take on madness. Nearly 80 years after its release, youíll be hard-pressed to find an anthology thatís so masterfully blended and constructed; while itís the work of four different directors, itís hardly noticeable, and, all told, there are no dead spots to be found here. This is a rare anthology where everything comes together despite its Neapolitan offerings, and allowing it to sneak up on you is a joy. I canít recommend enough that you do: Dead of Night is, appropriately enough, the alpha and omega of horror anthologies, a film whose ending is a sinister inversion of its beginning.
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