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March 2014

Dead Of Night

cast: Mervyn Johns, Sally Ann Howes, Googie Withers, Michael Redgrave, and Roland Culver

directors: Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, and Robert Hamer

102 minutes (PG) 1945
Studio Canal blu-ray region B

RATING: 8/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Dead Of Night

It is interesting to revisit this classic of English horror. Dead Of Night is so influential that its elements have become genre tropes, and at times the viewer has to remind themselves that they are seeing them here for the first time.

The film has a gentle beginning, an architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) drives up a country lane, halts, and seeing a cottage shakes his head in apparent bemusement. His aesthetic sense has not been outraged at this example of English vernacular; he believes he has been here before. Welcomed in by the homeowner Foley (Roland Culver), who has commissioned him to make some alterations, Craig soon indicates that he knows his way around the property. And, on his introduction to the other house guests, reveals that he believes himself to have met them all before in a recurrent dream, the details of which resurface during his stay, and lead him to believe some tragedy or great 'evil' is destined to engulf him.

A sceptical voice is raised in the person of the psychologist Dr van Straaten, but the other guests believe Craig's story, and in his defence recount incidents from their own experience that supports the credo that 'there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' This then is the framing narrative within which a portmanteau of stories of hauntings and possession are presented. In the first story, a racing driver recovering from a crash has an inexplicable vision of a hearse outside of the room in which he is convalescent. The driver of the hearse, the character actor Miles Malleson, with a jocular wink indicates that there is "Room for one inside." On his release from hospital, the patient is about to board a bus when the conductor, Malleson again, tells him there is "Room for one inside." Shrinking back, the reluctant passenger then watches in horror as the bus ploughs through the parapet of a bridge and crashes into the river.

In the second story a young girl, Sally Ann Howes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's 'Truly Scrumptious'), recalls a Christmas party in which the young guests play the frankly creepy game of Sardines. Having been told that a ghastly murder once took place in the house, and escaping from an over-affectionate young beau, the girl discovers a tearful young boy distraught because his bullying elder sister has threatened to kill him. After comforting the child and returning to the party, the girl discovers that the child, Francis Kent, was the victim of a murder that took place some decades before. The child, and his sister Constance, were the real players in a notorious murder case; in fact Constance Kent had died in Australia the year before Dead Of Night appeared.

In the third story Joan (Googie Withers) buys her fiancé Peter a mirror as a present. Most men, one would imagine, wouldn't be over-enamoured of this but the dandyish Peter is delighted. Peter begins to see another room reflected in the mirror, a room from another era, in stark contrast to his modern minimalist bedroom. Joan cannot see the room, and Peter cannot see Joan in the mirror. The room in the haunted mirror begins to terrify Peter but, with an effort of will, and Joan's help and support, he manages to banish the vision. While Joan is away visiting her mother, Peter sees the room again. Returning to the shop where she bought the mirror, Joan is told that it belonged to a man who, when crippled and confined to his bedroom, became consumed with jealousy at his wife's imagined infidelity, eventually murdering her. Returning to Peter, Joan finds him transformed and accusing of her of being unfaithful with an old admirer. Almost strangled by Peter, Joan only frees him from his obsession by destroying the mirror.

The next episode, the 'golfing story', features a classic double-act of British cinema, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford who, firstly as Caldicott and Charters the cricket-obsessed duo from Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, featured in a range of films throughout the 1940s. Here they are golfing buddies who fall out over a girl. They decide to settle the suit by playing their favourite game; the Radford character cheats, and his rival commits suicide in a particularly eerie scene by walking out into the lake water hazard. Subsequently, Radford finds his golf plagued by the ghost of his rival who, while invisible to others, threatens to haunt him unless he gives up the game or the girl. Having decided to sacrifice sex for the links, Radford is dismayed that Wayne cannot remember the elaborate contortions required to dematerialise, and the haunting continues right up to the night of the honeymoon. Attempting to help his erstwhile friend and rival Radford only succeeds in vanishing himself. Left alone with the new bride in the next room, Wayne ponders whether "To pass, or not to pass," decides to play-through and rushes into the nuptial chamber.

Not only is this story a bit more lightweight, it features definite supernatural activity as opposed to the ambiguity of the other stories, and ultimately it is revealed, in the linking frame narrative, to be a bit of ribbing by its narrator (Culver). It is a piece of humorous 'time-out' before the heavy business of the most famous sequence, the ventriloquist's dummy starring Michael Redgrave and the repulsive Hugo.

Dr van Straaten tells a story concerning his own experience of the uncanny. He is brought in to assess the mental state of a ventriloquist accused of the attempted murder of a showbiz colleague. American ventriloquist Maurice Olcott visits the night club run by Beulah (famous singing star Elisabeth Welch) to take in the act of Maxwell Frere. Using his own 'vent' ability, Olcott interacts with Frere's dummy Hugo, upsetting Frere and causing the act to stutter to a bit of a shambolic close. Hugo invites Olcott to visit backstage. Hugo seems to be the dominant partner in the act with Frere often sidelined; amused Olcott addresses his remarks to the dummy but is surprised when Frere intervenes as if he is not in control of Hugo's remarks. When Frere jams his hand over Hugo's mouth to prevent some outburst, the dummy appears to bite his owner. Frere turns down work and Olcott encounters him in a bar in a state of inebriation. When a young woman asks to handle the dummy Hugo insults her and her boyfriend punches Frere out. Olcott helps Frere and Hugo to their room, but Frere seems convinced that Olcott has plans to take Hugo for himself.

Later, Frere bursts into Olcott's room accusing him of stealing the dummy, when he finds Hugo in the room he shoots Olcott who miraculously survives. In an attempt to break through to Frere, van Straaten asks for Hugo to be placed in the former's cell. Frere suffers a trauma and pounds the dummy's head under his foot. Frere relapses into a catatonic state which van Straaten attempts to relieve by confronting him with Olcott who has made a partial recovery. The plan works but Frere has suffered an alarming transformation.

All through the telling of the tales Walter Craig has predicted events in the cottage, the arrival or departure of some of the guests, Dr van Straaten breaking his glasses, a power-cut. He is fearful of the evil climax suggested by his recurrent nightmare, and now, left alone with van Straaten, he succumbs, strangling the Doctor and then, attempting to escape, stumbling into a maelstrom of scenes revisiting the tales told by the other guests. Finally, finding himself in Frere's cell, with the guests baying through the bars of the prison, he has a fatal confrontation with Hugo the ventriloquist's dummy. The film ends with Walter Craig waking after his nightmare, only to receive a call from Foley, Culver's character, asking him down to his country cottage to discuss a proposed renovation. Craig thinks he has heard the name before but cannot place it; the film ends with him driving up in his car, halting and gazing at the cottage in bemused recognition. The horror begins again.

The ventriloquist's dummy is justifiably the most famous sequence in the film and has spawned its imitators. Redgrave's performance is astonishing, and it's true, the eyes have it. Matthew Sweet suggests that his performance may have had something to do with his anxiety over his personal life, as he had three children by that point and work was impinging on family life. As is pointed out, the dummy story has clear homoerotic overtones, with a bizarre love triangle between Frere, Hugo, and the potential usurper Olcott, so it seems more likely that Redgrave's absorption in the role sprang from his own misgivings about his bisexuality and the double life that engendered.

The portmanteau film became a staple of British horror with Amicus Productions, some good, some bad. My own favourite is Dr Terror's House Of Horrors (1965), in which DJ-turned-actor Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, terrorised by a murderous sentient shrub, utters the immortal line "I'm no stranger to garden tools."

The blu-ray restoration of this film is excellent and a comparison of footage is provided as part of the extras. A 75-minute consideration of the film's themes, history, and influence is provided by a team of commentators including the ubiquitous Kim Newman, actor and writer Reece Shearsmith, and director John Landis. The circular conceit of Dead Of Night is revealed to have inspired Fred Hoyle's theory of a steady state universe. The analysts are so thorough in their consideration of the film I can hardly dissect it myself with any originality; I would rather watch informed and informative talking heads like these than have to wade through outtakes, makings-of, and blooper reels.



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