Dead of Night (1945) – Ealing does Horror…

Automatonophobics may want to avoid this 1945 horror anthology.  Four supernatural stories build towards the tale Dead of Night is justly famous for – the murderous relationship between a ventriloquist and his dummy.

The anthology film is a difficult one to pull off successfully.  The movie often feels disjointed, because of the need to drop in and out of different stories.  The segments are often helmed by guest directors, so they are usually of different pace, tone and hue.

The stories are unlikely to be of equal quality.  The weakest efforts can seem peripheral, and could make room for the strongest tales, which feel like they could be expanded into a full feature.  I always get a sense of disappointment, wishing the really good story was much longer.

Case in point – Twilight Zone: The Movie.  Despite a scary and deviously funny framing device, and featuring segments directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and Joe Dante, it is all pretty forgettable stuff until George Miller’s demented take on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet kicks in.

Ealing Studio’s Dead of Night, adapted from a story by H.G. Wells, suffers many of the shortcomings of the anthology, although manages them better.

It starts with a mild-mannered architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arriving at a country house for a party.  He hasn’t been there before or met any of the guests, but seems to know his way around, and instantly recognizes the others from a recurring dream.  He has a deep sense of foreboding, as the other guests tell their own spooky tales.

The first two are fairly innocuous: a race car driver, recovering from a near fatal crash, looks out of his window to see a horse-drawn hearse and beckoning driver.  His vision eventually saves his life.

The second story involves a game of hide and seek at an old country house.  One girl, looking for a great hiding place, finds a hidden room in the attic, and comforts a crying child.  Needless to say, the house has a terrible tragedy in its past.

Things pick up with the third tale, of a haunted mirror and its murderous effect on its owner.  The fourth is a comic interlude between the two scariest stories.

Directed by Charles Crichton, best known for Ealing’s beloved The Lavender Hill Mob, introduces two golfers, best friends in the club house but fierce rivals on the links.

When a girl comes between them, the two buddies agree to play 18 holes to claim her heart.  One contestant cheats, and the other walks off into a water hazard, clubs and all, and never returns.  At least, not alive.  He soon pops back to haunt his old friend.

The final and best story is a vivid, expressionistic, darkly comic tale about a brittle minded ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and his fraying relationship with his dummy, Hugo.

One night during the act, Hugo begins openly soliciting another ventriloquist in the audience, apparently without Frere’s input.  Hugo’s greed and hatred for his owner, and Frere’s jealousy spiral murderously out of control.

Redgrave’s performance is fantastic.  Twitching, frightened and sweaty, his lips and throat move subtly – he’s voicing Hugo even when his eyes are far away.  Of all the tales, this is the most ambiguous – is Hugo actually possessed, or is Frere having a complete mental breakdown?

Fiendishly directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, who also worked in Europe and Brazil, brings a little European glamour to offset the tweedy Englishness of Dead of Night.

Dead of Night avoids the usual pitfalls of the anthology primarily because the framing device, Craig’s premonition of murder and madness, is unsettling and intriguing, driving the story forward.  The final sequence brings all the stories together in a few moments of nightmarishly helter-skelter imagery, which makes the film feel coherent as a whole.

The feeling of dread escalates as the day wears on.  Initially unconcerned, the party goers stand around in the living room, smoking and trading ghoulish stories.  Later, as night falls and the lights go on, the angles and lighting are lower as the tales grow scarier and doom approaches.

Dead of Night might seem very old fashioned and dated for some.  Apart from the ventriloquist story, it hasn’t aged well compared to other films in the Ealing canon, or other contemporaries in British film, such as A Matter of Life and Death.

It deserves its reputation as one of the best horror anthologies, and mainly thanks to the efforts of Michael Redgrave and the malevolent Hugo, its place as one of the best British horror movies.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 24/06/2012, in D, Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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