Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Jones) arrives at a country farmhouse that he’s seen in a recurring nightmare. He has seen all the other guests in his dream and isn’t sure if they are real or he is stuck in his dream. But Craig knows the dream has a dreadful ending. The others tell their own bizarre tales to try and comfort him.
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REVIEW:Have you ever woken from a disturbing dream and felt its presence hang over you for the rest of the day? What did it mean? What did you see? Can you remember everything you saw or does it fade away as you wake up, but leaves this residue of un-ease. Dead of Night (1945) is a British production from the Ealing Studios and may be one of the earliest horror anthologies. For me it is one of the best horror anthologies.
Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Jones) has been invited to spend the weekend in the country by Eliot Foley (Roland Curver) to discuss a contracting job on the estate. When Craig arrives he is distracted and strange to the host and the other guests staying the weekend. Craig soon reveals to them that he has seen everyone in the room before, even though they haven’t met till that moment. He explains that he’s been plagued by a recurring nightmare that he usually forgets when he wakes up. But now he realizes that the house and all the people in it are from the dream. Craig predicts several events before they occur and this agitates him. He fears the ending of the dream. The other guests share their own stories about the supernatural and strange happenings. This framing devices works well and has been copied endless times. The telling of a ghost story, whether it’s at campfire or an English farmhouse drawing-room, if done well, will generate a response. The stories range from disturbing to eerie to creepy and finally horrifying.
Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), a race car driver tells of the dream he had after a near fatal crash. One night, while still recovering in the hospital, he opens the curtains and sees it’s now day time. He looks down and sees a hearse. The hearse driver says, “Room for one more inside.” This story has been revisited many times. Most notable would be a Twilight Zone episode. The director Basil Dearden builds the suspense and dread by having the camera slowly creeps in on Grainger as the scene builds. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens. It’s more fun that way.
Then young Sally (Sally Ann Howes) tells her story of a ghostly encounter during a Christmas party. During a game of hide and seek she ends up in a part of the old house that the family doesn’t use. There she finds a young boy crying. He tells her things are better now that she came. Sally discovers he wasn’t a guest at the party. I find this segment sweet and eerie. You get a slight chill up the spine at the denouement. The most wonderful aspect of this film is the writing. It’s the simple story- telling. In this segment Jimmy tells Sally about a horrible event that occurred in the house. He told her we didn’t need a re-enactment. The audience is left to invent the story in our own mind. This occurs again in a later segment which is even more powerful.
Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) talks about strange events that happened before she was married. She buys her fiancé Peter (Ralph Michaels), an antique mirror as a wedding gift and he begins to see things in it. He believes he’s going insane. He sees an entire room that looks nothing like his own in the mirror. This story is one of the highlights in the film. It’s beautifully acted and constructed. The mirror is its own deranged character that wants to possess Peter. In a magnificent scene Joan talks to the antique dealer about the mirror. He tells the tale of the man who owned it. Again our imagination runs wild listening to him. The actor Esme Percy, playing Mr. Rutherford, has a wonderfully rich voice. The camera slowly moves in on Joan’s face as the horror sinks in. Robert Hamer does a skillful job directing this segment. Mr. Hamer also directed the delightfully diabolical Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and School for Scoundrels (1960).
Craig at this point grows more uneasy as he and the others argue with Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychiatrist, about these unexplainable events. Eliot tells a story about two golfing buddies to lighten the mood. It works for Craig and the others. But this segment is there for comic relief and not my favorite. Perhaps it went over well with British audiences. The original Golfing Story was written by H.G. Wells.
The final story is told by Dr van Straaten about the strangest case he ever had. The account is about a ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere and his dummy, Hugo Fitch. This is the most powerful of the stories and this segment maybe the first film version of the creepy ventriloquist doll story. Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, is marvelous as the tortured and possibly insane Frere. This segment is horrifying and disturbing and so well done that other that have copied its tale pale in comparison. Hugo Fitch is an unsettling dummy who’ll give you nightmares. Ventriloquist dolls are by nature creepy and writer John Baines, who also wrote The Haunted Mirror segment, is first rate. Redgrave is sympathetic and amazing as his mind unravels before us. His physical performance as in his body language throughout the sequence is astonishing. One scene he’s sitting with his arms behind him in a most uncomfortable and unhinged way. No person would sit that way. He is a revelation.
As Dr van Straaten finishes his story, the film wraps up in a fantastic, surreal and frightening climax. Here the stories are connected for a terrifying effect. Dutch angles, grotesque makeup, lighting effects and strange settings add to Craig’s final nightmare. The mise-en-scene is very cutting edge for British cinema in 1945. Dead of Night is one of the greatest horror films. There is no blood or gore. This film doesn’t need that to frighten you. The writing, direction and cinematography does all of this. The images and stories will stay with you, just like any childhood fears do. Dead of Night hooks into our subconscious and doesn’t let go.