Dead of Night, produced by the famous Ealing Studios, is a very highly regarded 1945 British horror film which impressed me enormously the first time I saw it, some years ago. It still stands up pretty well despite a few weaknesses.
The perennial problem with a portmanteau film is to find a way to give the movie a unified feel. When the segments are by different writers based on stories by different writers, with different directors, it’s even more of a challenge. In such a case much depends on the framing story. Dead of Night scores highly in that area since the framing story is very strong.
Architect Walter Craig (Melvyn Johns) accepts an invitation to spend a weekend at a country house. The owner wants to do some major renovations and he wants Craig’s opinion.
Craig has never been to Kent but as soon as he walks through the door he realises he knows this house. And these people. They’re from his dream. A dream he’s been having regularly. He can never remember the details of the dream afterwards but he knows something terrible always happens.
Eliot Foley and his house guests try to reassure the worried architect. Luckily, or possibly unluckily, one of the guests is a distinguished psychiatrist, Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk). The doctor dismisses Craig’s fears as groundless but as it happens all of the guests have had at least one disturbing experience with the supernatural, which they each recount.
The first three stories are not startlingly original but they’re well executed. The first deals with precognition, the second is a ghost story which gains added creepiness from being associated with a children’s game, the third is the ever-popular evil mirror opening onto the past story. The fourth story is an attempt at comic relief, a golfing ghost story. The idea that some comic relief was needed to relieve the tension in horror movies was all-pervasive in the 30s and 40s but it was never a good idea and this one seems very out of place.
The fifth story redeems all the weaknesses of the first four. It’s an absolute corker. The evil ventriloquist’s dummy has long been a staple of horror but this is the finest ever example of the breed. Michael Redgrave gives a career-best performance as ventriloquist Maxwell Frere.
The framing story is genuinely quite chilling. The ending creeped me out in a big way the first time I saw it and it’s still effective the second time around.
The original stories were by H. G. Wells, E. F. Benson, John Baines and Angus MacPhail. The directors were Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden and Alberto Cavalcanti. Dearden’s and Cavalcanti’s contributions are the most atmospheric and the most effective.
Redgrave’s unforgettable performance is certainly the highlight of the movie but the acting from the entire cast is generally excellent.
This is the first time I’ve seen the movie on DVD and the Region 4 release is quite impressive although lacking in extras.