Dead of Night
(SPOILERS) The classic British horror film, made before there really were British horror films, Dead of Night is something of an anomaly. It has been hugely influential, both in the legacy of portmanteau horror that came after and in terms of specific sequences (most notably The Ventriloquist’s Dummy) but it has few obvious predecessors. It arrived fully formed from a studio that hadn’t before, and wouldn’t again, make a picture that could be classified as horror (not that it was at the time). Also curiously, Dead of Night was released two days after the end of World War II, yet makes no mention of it at all, even obliquely. Perhaps it is this that ensures it exists in an unspecified, timeless state, emphasising the nightmarish perpetual loop of its main protagonist.
Dead of Night’s genesis appears in part to be a result of the innovation brought in under Michael Balcon’s stewardship of Ealing, which began some seven years earlier. It’s Ealing’s comedies that have lived on, but the studio had always dabbled in different genres. Post-war, the comedies came to define it. Hue and Cry kicked off that cycle in 1947; pre-war and during, comedies were loosely characterised by star vehicles featuring the likes of George Formby and Will Hay.
The war period saw a variety of Ealing output, much of it of a straightforward propaganda nature, and occasionally with a visceral charge that still packs a punch (Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?) There was also the occasional distinctive storytelling approach, such as the supernaturally-tinged The Halfway House, in which a group of strangers contending with different dilemmas gather at the titular house that isn’t quite what it seems (to that extent, this is a precursor to Dead of Night, and also directed by Basil Dearden, but one fundamentally derived from the wartime experience).
Balcon assembled four directors for Dead of Night, the most experienced by far being Cavalcanti, who had joined the studio in 1940. Prior to this he had worked as a set designer for avant-garde filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier in France and as a documentary maker for the General Post Office. Dearden had been working for Ealing for a similar time, pictures including several for Formby and a couple of Hay’s best (The Black Sheep of Whitehall, The Goose Steps Out). Charles Crichton (later The Lavender Hill Mob, and exhumed by John Cleese to call the shots on A Fish Called Wanda) and Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps the classic British comedy) were just starting out. The results are fairly seamless. There’s little in the way of overt clash of styles, only really of tone (the comedy golfing episode), and even this doesn’t actually jar. The screenplay came from John Baines (responsible for the two best stories) and Angus McPhall, although two of the segments were based on existing short stories.
Thespians included Mervyn Johns, who had become an unexpected star during the war period (he’s probably best recognised today as Bob Cratchit in the Alistair Sim Scrooge), Googie Withers (she of the fantastically memorable stage name, Withers also worked with Hitchcock and Michael Powell) and Michael Redgrave (probably best known today as the title character in the 1952 The Importance of Being Earnest). And, of course, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, returning as Charters and Caldicott in all but name for the golfing story (they had first united on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes).
Directed by Basil Dearden
If many of the devices and tropes of Dead of Night are now familiar, it’s because others have copied from the master template. Walter Craig (Johns) arrives as a guest at a country house in a state of some trepidation. He is evidently gripped by foreknowledge, déjà vu right down to locations of coat hooks and utilities (“There’s central heating and every modern convenience”). His initial comments (“So it isn’t a dream this time”) will pay off during the end credits in the most pointed of manners.
The gathered coterie are hosted Eliot Foley (Ronald Culver). While there are seven other guests, the ones inspired to tell their own strange tale are Hugh Granger (Anthony Baird), Sally O’Hara (Sally Anne Knowles), Joan Cortland (Withers) Eliot, and Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk).
Dr van Straaten: In fact, there’s no evidence that you ever dreamed this dream at all, is there?
If there’s a symptom of wartime leanings here, it’s that almost everyone is entirely credulous of the possibility that Walter’s premonition is real. There is good mortal reason to countenance the beyond and the unknown. If the war is unmentioned, it is surely no coincidence that the voice of scepticism comes from Dr van Straaten, a killjoy intent on finding a rational explanation at every turn (ironically, he delivers the most palpably haunting story).
Disavowal of the scientific (crediting psychology as a science, for the sake of argument) is nothing new, although it’s worth noting that Angus MacPhail, one of the main credit screenplay writers (the other being John Baines), contributed the pro-cod psychology Spellbound for Hitchcock in the same year (magnificent dream sequence aside, a bit of a damp squib). Dr van Straaten is not only German, so his trustworthiness is instantly suspect, but he is also spewing a lot of nonsense about the inexplicable being rationally explicable. So much so that he even admits to his own fallible perspective and perhaps surprisingly doesn’t edit the story to emphasise room for doubt.
The conversation goes back and forth between the stories, with narrow variants on the theme of each tale being proof of the irrational and the doctor countering it with a possible solution; “What Doctor van Straaten wants is genuine first hand evidence. The kind that would satisfy judge and jury and neither of us have been able to provide that yet”. At one point, Walter accuses the guests, when the doctor is gaining an audience, of being “ridiculously weak-minded” and it’s implicit that succumbing to the babble of a “trick-cyclist” makes the individual little better than a fool. When van Straaten explains crypto-amnesia (following the mirror story) he is asked, “You wouldn’t like to start again, would you, very slowly and in words one syllable?” Hamlet is even invoked, as the final word in the doctor’s rationalist self-delusion.
While certain of Walter’s dream substance comes true (the breaking of van Straaten’s glasses, fomenting the picture’s most hysterical line; “And that’s when my dream becomes a nightmare, a nightmare of horror”), others do not (Walter never does hit Sally “savagely, viciously”, although it leads to the amusedly disinterested line from Sally’s mother, “Oh well, I’m sure he can hit someone else instead”). Walter’s fretting continually leads to a build up of tension, whereby he wants to leave the house before his dream comes true. This is diffused periodically, by the pleas of the doctor and by the “bit of nonsense” invented by Eliot.
There’s a sense that, apart from Walter’s nervy state, the relaxed tone of the gathering is indulged to catch the audience napping. Once van Straaten has told his ventriloquist’s dummy tale (which he explains as the “dummy” part of the ventriloquist’s mind dominating the fugal half), Walter requests to be alone with the doctor. It’s at this point the framing story takes on the aspect of the dream Walter fears so much.
Dream logic applies, such that mild-mannered Walter – the last person we would suspect of such a thing – has no self-control, no will of his own. He is ruled by the dream “compelled to kill someone”. He strangles the doctor and pitches headlong into a compendium of the different tales where he now features as a protagonist. It’s a swirling phantasmagoria house of horror, one that culminates in the already creepy dummy taking on alarming new dimensions as Hugo (the dummy) comes alive and strangles Walter in a prison cell that recedes into infinity.
Mrs Craig: That’s just what you need darling. It will help you get rid of those horrible nightmares.
Walter awaking, the whole experience at the house revealed as a dream, may well elicit an instant groan from a modern viewer. The ultimate cop-out. But the picture doesn’t stop there. Walter then receives a call from Elliot Foley inviting him to a stay in the country and ponders whether to except.
The last we see, over the end credits, is the opening sequence of the picture, as Walter pulls up in his car outside Foley’s house in a state of disquiet. The film reveals itself as a dazzlingly inventive recursive loop. There is no possibility of Walter escaping. This device has been used since, many times (Children of the Stones is one example, In the Mouth of Madness another), but there’s a particular finesse here. The idea that concrete reality could be a playful, insidious joke crawls under the skin as the credits crawl up the screen. It lingers in the mind as effectively as the more visceral shock of Hugo coming to life.
Kim Newman has suggested the final sequence represents a break with the dream state since, unlike the rest of the film, the shot of Elliot calling Walter is not from Walter’s point of view. It’s an intriguing possibility, that this time he will commit the murder for real (and perhaps hit Sally violently?) Others have alleged the credit roll came at a late stage and wasn’t initially planned. It certainly elevates the framing narrative into five star territory, any memory of the slightly samey between tales exchanges expunged.
The Hearse Driver
(from a short story by E.F. Benson)
Directed by Basil Dearden
The first two stories are so brief as to be almost anecdotes. The Hearse Driver is an apocryphal tale of death foretold and avoided, in which Hugh recounts a dream in which he arises from his hospital bed, pulls back the curtains and sees a funeral hearse outside. The driver (Ealing regular Miles Malleson) beckons, announcing “Just room for one inside, sir”.
Out in the real world, Hugh is about to climb aboard a bus when he recognises the conductor as the driver from his dream, uttering the exact same phrase. Hugh opts out, and the bus promptly dives off the road in a terrible accident (rendered by a rather obvious model shot).
It’s a fairly standard, recognisable premonitory tale – and is reinforced by the reveal of the framing device – but The Hearse Driver is convincingly told, and there’s a nerve jangling moment when Hugh gets up (apparently from reading a book) at 4.15am. The pulled curtains before him present the ominous unknown. There’s something behind them, but what? The actual reveal is no hideous monster, but broad daylight, the sort of thing that obeys the unfettered rules of the dreamscape.
The Christmas Party
Directed by Albert Cavalcanti
The second tale, featuring Sally, is also of familiar design. In this case, however, all that really sets it apart is that it announces itself as based on an actual murder case. Constance Kent confessed to murdering her stepbrother Frances in 1860 (she died the year before Dead of Night was released).
Sally recounts how, at a Christmas party, the gathered children attempted to scare each other with ghost stories. She is informed that the house they are in is haunted. When she hears crying, she enters a room and to find a boy sat by a fire. He tells her his sister would like to kill him. Called back to the party, she mentions her encounter and is told this was the murdered boy, who haunts the house. “I’m not frightened, I’m not frightened,” repeats Sally.
There’s little really to make this one stand out, although it would doubtless have an added frisson if one were aware (as audiences probably were) of the Kent case.
The Haunted Mirror
Directed by Robert Hamer
Hamer directs an effective, creepy full-blown episode, second only to the dummy tale. It’s pretty much a two-hander between Joan and he husband Peter (Ralph Michael), barring the exposition-friendly intervention of an antiques dealer.
Mirrors have always held active potential as a means of eliciting fear. That ‘something’ glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, or the notion that they represent a portal to a disturbing or unknown realm (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Dust Devil). Peter is afflicted by visions of another room reflected in this mirror; “it becomes the real room, and my own bedroom becomes imaginary”. There’s potent dread when Peter announces “And I know there’s something waiting for me on the other side of the mirror. Something evil, monstrous evil”.
This episode consciously plays with the psychological explanations thrown about in the framing narrative (“The trouble’s not in the mirror, it’s in my mind. It must be”) and simple material values (“A mirror’s just wood and glass”). Gradually, the “mind” of the mirror takes hold of Peter, simultaneously that Joan (luckily!) is given an explanation of how its previous owner (a century earlier, as with the Christmas party story), jealously obsessed, strangled his wife and then sat down and cut his own throat (“What a horrible story!”)
When Joan returns to tell Peter, he is having none of it (“There’s nothing wrong with the mirror. I look in it often”) and attempts to strangle her. In a classic moment, mid-strangulation, she sees the other room reflected just as he has, and smashes it, breaking the spell (Peter subsequently has no memory of his afflicted state).
One are that stands out about this tale is the role reversals. The husband is a weak, malleable figure. Googie being Googie is plucky and commanding, able to rescue her husband. Michael’s performance emphasises this, his manner on the fey side (this may be overacting, so as to add weight to his possessed male aggression, but it serves to underline the gender switch).
There’s a strong undercurrent of male sexual insecurity throughout. It is Joan who gives Peter the mirror, to whom it becomes the symbol of unease over a physically fulfilled relationship. He attempts to back out (“Let’s get the wedding over and then we can start making divorce arrangements afterwards”) before succumbing to his own possessive, destructive nature. Only when Joan reassures him, banishing his fears, is he safe (he stops seeing the vision in the mirror when she takes his hand). Later, when he she leaves him alone, his feelings flood back. Joan is required to take decisive measures (destroying the mirror, and his abating his performance anxiety) to convince him he is the only one.
All three tales thus far have emphasised the conviction of the beholder. It is this one where the doctor accuses Joan of experiencing crypto-amnesia, with the transmission of Peter’s illusion to her. As depicted, however, the silly German gets it backwards. It is Joan who pulls Peter back from the precipice.
The Golfing Story
(from a short story by H.G. Wells)
Directed by Charles Crichton
The light-hearted interlude, and the overtly made-up account, this one is “Totally incredible and decidedly improper”. George Parratt (Radford) and Larry Potter (Wayne; had JK Rowling seen this?) are competitive golfers and best pals who fall for the same gal (Peggy Bryan). They opt to resolve their dispute on the course; winner takes Mary Lee. George wins, but he does so by cheating. Larry, who has drowned himself in abject defeat, returns from the grave to haunt him.
It’s all very jolly, though. Larry ruins George’s game, and then gives his demands if he is to leave George in peace. He must promise to break it off with Mary Lee, and never venture forth with a golf club again. This goes awry when George pleads with Larry to show his better nature, but Larry finds he’s forgotten the means to return to the other side.
Compelled to remain within six feet of George, he is the unwanted companion in their forthcoming nuptials. Come the wedding night, he’s still there, but at the crucial moment it is George, rather than Larry who gets the sequence correct and disappears. Larry is left with the bride.
George Parratt: Because a chap becomes a ghost, it surely doesn’t mean he ceases to be a gentleman.
Quite what he’s going to do with her, as a ghost, is unclear (“Do I make passes? Or do I make passes?”), but the whole thing is rather risqué. As such, the undercurrent of performance crisis carries over from The Haunted Mirror. Larry and George’s bromance prioritises life on the course over the marital bed. While George is vilified as a cheat and a liar, Larry’s morals are also suspect. He’s willing to play for her in the first place, then quite ready to (somehow) take the place of his chum in bedding the bride.
The Golfing Story is an amiable, but ever-so-slight piece. There are the usual ghost gags (a golf ball doing tricks of its own free will, a golf club that resists being swung, George ordering two large whiskys; “A quadruple?” responds the mystified barman), but the most lingering moment is the one comes when Larry walks into the lake, leaving only a hat floating on the surface where he has submerged.
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy
Directed by Albert Cavalcanti
Dr van Staaten: Well, there was one occasion in my professional career that made me wonder, made me wonder quite a lot.
If one wishes to run with the theme of sexual unease, the final sequence provides ripe fruit as two rival ventriloquists’ attraction toward each other is expressed through the object of a wooden dummy. Dr van Staaten would have lapped up such a reading, but the resonance of this tale is more elemental; the threat of the loss of one’s mind, or its possession.
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy has its own framing device, as we learn ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Redgrave) has been charged with the attempted murder of another of his profession, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). Again, the threat of wrong-thinking psychologists is voiced (“A brain specialist?”; Max considers he will be dissected like a pig), and the account comes via van Staaten’s own encounter with Max and the witness statement of Kee.
It becomes clear that Max’s dummy, Hugo, has a mind of its own. Hugo considers himself the star of the act, and fancies leaving Max for Sylvester. Max, increasingly unhinged and drinking heavily, discovers Hugo in Sylvester’s hotel room (he’s having an affair with another man!) and in a rage shoots Sylvester repeatedly.
Often a reading with this kind of story is that it is all in the mind, which is how van Staaten sees it. In such terms, it becomes a tale of Max’s passion for Sylvester (even if that isn’t the doctor’s interpretation). Sylvester’s statement protests against this. When Sylvester visits Max in his hotel room, prior to the shooting, Max puts his hand over Hugo’s mouth and pulls it away in pain. There are bite marks, and blood has been drawn.
We might say Sylvester, in his agitated state, imagined this, or that Max could have bitten himself and concealed it, but it seems clear the makers aren’t angling for the psychological interpretation. It goes against the tenor of Dead of Night as a whole, as is underlined by the subsequent scene in prison and the persistence of the framing device in which, whatever Walter does, he cannot escape the untameable beyond.
Van Staaten allows Max to be reunited with Hugo, who warns him against proclaiming the dummy made him do it (“They’ll put you in the madhouse”). Enraged, Max suffocates the dummy with a pillow before stamping its face into a powder. The doctor rushes in, wholly forgetting this is “just” a conversation a man is having with himself. Clearly the doctor’s analysis cannot be trusted because, when it comes down to it, he is as uncritical in the moment as anyone else.
The final scene is particularly disturbing. The fellow ventriloquist visits Max in his cell. Max’s face is rictus, his eyes wide and staring. “Hello Sylvester, I’ve been waiting for you,” he announces, in the tone of Hugo, his mouth out of synch with his words. Hitchcock would deliver a similar staged send-off to Norman Bates 15 years later; introduced through the bafflegab of a psychologist, sitting in a cell, the personality of another having taken over his mind.
There isn’t a duff moment in this one (although you wonder for a minute if we’re going to see Elizabeth Welch’s Beulah perform her whole song routine), and Redgrave’s performance is grippingly unhinged. The opening show in Paris, as Hugo interrupts the usual act by trying to make inroads with Sylvester, is riveting; we slowly become aware that this isn’t a bit of fun and malarkey. When Max pleads, “You don’t know what he is capable of!” we believe him.
Hugo is an enormously sinister, malevolent, little beast (quite why Max has a frame photo of him is anyone's guess, but it's an appealingly twisted little touch), and Cavalcanti achieves economically what Richard Attenborough would more laboriously take 107 minutes over in Magic (for a more recent, very funny take on the puppet possession see The Puppet Show, the standout episode in the otherwise so-so first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
I first saw Dead of Night in 1990, as part of the third season of BBC2’s Moviedrome (still at its best then, when idiosyncratic Alex Cox was presenting). Cox commented that, despite its age, “if you’re young, or sensitive, and watching the film for the first time, prepare to be genuinely frightened”. Kim Newman also observed that, watching the film in a cinema with an audience, it continued to work in all the right places. That’s a testament to its classic status and enduring appeal, where the majority of anthologies are remembered for a section here or there rather than as a whole. Ineptly, the US release excised The Golfing Story and The Christmas Party, so Walter’s final head spin became plain confusing (It has been suggested the former section might have been excised due to its risqué content).
If Dead of Night probably influenced Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (four of the stories have a similar premise in Twilight Zone episodes, although that might be argued as a simple fact of this kind of tale), it most definitely caught Fred Hoyle’s imagination. He developed his since largely dismissed (in favour of The Big Bang) Steady State model of the circular, continuously created nature of the universe from Dead of Night’s wrap around device. But who knows, perhaps he will come back round again? While Dead of Night isn’t perfect in its pieces, its framing device ensures it is more than the sum of its parts, a resounding masterpiece that continues to exert an creepy hold 70 years later.