Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dead of Night - 1945

Directors:              Alberto Calvacanti - "Christmas Story" and "Ventriloquists' Dummy"
                               Charles Crighton - "Golfing Story"
                               Basil Dearden -  " Hearse Driver" and "Linking Narrative"
                              Robert Hamer -  "The Haunted Mirror"
Screenplay:         John Baines and Angus MacPhail
Writers:                John Baines  -  "Ventriloquists' Dummy" and "The Haunted Mirror"
                              E.F. Benson -  "Hearse Driver" and "Linking Narrative"
                             Angus MacPhail - "Christmas Party"
                              H.G. Wells  -  "Golfing Story"
Original Music:       Georges Auric
Cinematography:   Stanley Pavey and Douglas Slocombe

Walter Craig                Mervyn Johns
Eliot Foley                    Ronald Culver
Mrs. Foley                    Mary Merrall
Joan Cortland              Googie Withers
Dr. Van Straaten         Frederick Valk
Hugh Grainger            Anthony Baird
Sally O'Hara               Sally Ann Howes
Dr. Albury                     Robert Wyndham
Joyce Grainger          Judy Kelly
Hearse Driver            Miles Malleson
Jimmy Watson           Michael Allan
Mrs. O'Hara                Barbara Leake
Peter Cortland           Ralph Michael
Antiques Dealer         Esme Percy
George Parratt          Basil Radford
Larry Potter                 Naunton Wayne
Mary Lee                     Peggy Bryan
Maurice Olcott            Allan Jeayes
Maxwell  Frere            Michael Redgrave
Beulah                         Elizabeth Welch
Sylvester Kee             Hartley Power

Can a movie more than 60 years old still give you the creeps?  A well told story, no matter how old it is, can always send chills up your spine.  In fact, director Martin Scorsese includes "Dead of Night as number five on his list of his favorite horror films.
 This film is an omnibus, four different directors telling five different stories linked together with another to tell a complete tale.  The linking story is strong and fascinating by itself; more than a link, it is the foundation.  Four of the five are genuine ghost stories, with the last being more a tale of possession. The linking story is, well…

Architect Walter Craig has been invited to spend the weekend in the English countryside at the home of Eliot Foley, whom he has never met, in order to design some additions to the house.  As he drives his car up the lane and sees the house for the first time, he shakes his head in confusion and disbelief. 
Mervyn Johns as Walter Craig arriving at the house.

When Foley ushers him into the house he seems to know the exact layout of the rooms, and everything his host is going to say before he says it.  When introduced to the four other guests, he says nothing, but looks enigmatically at each of them. 
Finally, he seems to wake from his trance, and tells them that he has seen this place and all of them in a recurring dream.  He has dreamed of these events, of the house and its occupants, although the details are hazy.   The dream never stays in his head long, he doesn’t remember it until the next time he has it, and he doesn’t know how it all ends.   He is sure of only one thing - that he will be facing death and possibly worse if he stays and sees it through. 

L to R: Anthony Baird, Googie Withers, Ronald Culver, Mervyn Johns, Frederick Valk, Sally Ann Howes, Mary Merrall  
The guests all support him and encourage him to stay, saying they believe him.  To them, it seems like a delightful parlor game - how exciting to be a part of someone else’s dream, over and over!  Each of the guests then shares a supernatural experience of their own.  One of the guests is Dr. Van Straaton, psychiatrist and voice of reason.   He attempts a rational explanation of all of this, but finally admits that he also has had his own brush with the inexplicable.

My own favorite story is “The Haunted Mirror”.  It’s told by Joan Cortland, who relates what happened when she gave her fiancé an antique mirror which last had been owned by a man who went insane, murdered his wife in a jealous rage then cut his own throat.  Her fiancé starts to see the previous owners’ Victorian room in the mirror, instead of his.  He is enthralled by the spell, until he finally accuses Joan of being unfaithful and tries to murder her, recreating the last scene the mirror witnessed.

The story, with its superb musical score, top notch acting, appealing characters, and crisp dialogue draws me in, just as the lovers are drawn into the evil of the mirror.  The music, by Georges Auric, works brilliantly by putting you side by side with  Peter, cuing you to react as he does, making you not an observer but a fellow participant and victim.

Some of the other stories are – a sweetly melancholy tale of a girl who meets the ghost of a long ago murdered little boy.
(L.) unidentified actor as Francis Kent, with Sally Ann Howes as Sally O'Hara

"Hearse Driver" is about a man who has had a premonition of his own death.  The man looks out the window of his hospital room and sees a hearse on the street below.  It is an adaptation of a 1906 story entitled "The Bus Conductor" by E.F. Benson.  Another version was told on the TV series "The Twilight Zone", in the 1961 episode entitled "Twenty Two". 

My least favorite is a bit of comic relief about two golfers who compete to the death on the links and for the woman they both love. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who play the old friends will be familiar to you from the 1938 film, "The Lady Vanishes" where they played the eccenctric cricket fanatics, Charters and Caldicott.  They played variations on the same characters in several films until Radford's death in 1952.
Basil Radford (L) and Naunton Wayne (R)
The final story is the one told by the doctor, about dual personality involving a ventriloquist and his dummy and it is the one many people may find familiar. The dummy is the stronger personality, and eventually takes over the mind of the ventriloquist, leading to murder and madness. Or was it all just in the twisted mind of the ventriloquist all along?

This theme was used in the 1978 movie “Magic”, with Anthony Hopkins, as well as in other movies and television shows. Even “Chucky” probably owes something to it. The last scene is very reminiscent of the final scene in “Psycho”.
Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere.

"Hugo" on the left, with his partner Maxwell Frere played by Michael Redgrave

The ventriloquist’s story is considered the best by many, but it’s not my favorite. As well done as it is, and as extraordinary as Michael Redgrave is in the part, it's a bit too cold for me. Maybe because it is the one being told by the skeptic. I don’t feel the same sympathy with or connection to the characters.

Finally, after the other stories have been told, Craig's reality starts to merge with his dream, turning it into a true nightmare.  Over the end credits we come full circle and see him driving up to the house just as we did at the beginning.  Which is the reality?  Which is the dream?  Maybe the dreamer never wakes, but merely has sunk deeper into the dream.  This makes Craig’s linking story the most chilling of all - a nightmare from which he will never wake up. 

The black and white cinematography has some very interesting noir effects.
This film was made by Britain’s Ealing Studios, which was better known for comedies such as “The Lavender Hill Mob”.   England had a ban on horror movies during the war and this was the first one released after the ban was lifted.   Evidently, the thinking was not to scare a population already under attack.  It seems ironic to me, since horror offers a release from real world tension.  If you’ve lived through the Blitz, how could you be frightened by fiction?

It can be difficult to judge an old movie by the standards and experiences of today, especially when many of the devices used by the writers/directors are tropes that have been used over and over in the years since.  So, looking at the original, it’s easy to think, ‘well, I’ve seen that before, it’s not original’.  But, actually, you ARE looking at the original, not the copies. (The 1924 German silent, "Waxworks", directed by Paul Leni used a similar omnibus format, however I believe "Dead of Night" was the first English language horror movie to employ it.)  It has been used many times since; from “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors”, through “Creepshow”, and others. 

“Dead of Night” may not be terrifying to modern audiences, but it is disturbing.  I highly recommend it, and give it four kisses.  Watch it late at night, alone in the dark, just before you enter your own dream world.   It’s like curling up on a rainy night with a good book of ghost stories.   

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