Dead of Night stands out from British film of the 1940s, when few horror films were being produced in the country (horror films had been banned from production in Britain during the war), and it had an influence on subsequent British films in the genre. Both of the segments by John Baines were recycled for later films, and the possessed ventriloquist dummy episode was adapted as the audition episode of the long-running CBS radio series Escape.
Dead of Night (1945)
Considered the greatest horror anthology film, the classic British chiller Dead of Night features five stories of supernatural terror from four different directors, yet it ultimately feels like a unified whole. The framing device is simple but unsettling, as a group of strangers find themselves inexplicably gathered at an isolated country estate, uncertain why they have come. The topic of conversation soon turns to the world of dreams and nightmares, and each guest shares a frightening event from his/her own past. Many of these tales have become famous, including Basil Dearden's opening vignette about a ghostly driver with "room for one more" in the back of his hearse. Equally eerie are Robert Hamer's look at a haunted antique mirror that gradually begins to possess its owner's soul, and Alberto Cavalcanti's ghost story about a mysterious young girl during a Christmas party. Legendary Ealing comedy director Charles Crichton lightens the mood with an amusing interlude about the spirit of a deceased golfer haunting his former partner, leaving viewers vulnerable to Cavalcanti's superb and much-imitated closing segment, about a ventriloquist slowly driven mad when his dummy appears to come to life. Deservedly acclaimed and highly influential, Dead of Night's episodic structure inspired an entire genre of lesser imitators.
The story begins with a man (Mr Craig) arriving at a country cottage on a beautiful sunny day, where there's a small gathering of people. He immediately spoils the atmos by banging on about a recurring dream he's been having. Luckily, everyone's very British (apart from the obligatorily Germanic psychiatrist) and they start breezily trying to explain why he's not a nutter and how it's probably all got a perfectly natural explanation, probably involving the drinking of lots of tea. "Well, I must say it's very disappointing not to be one of the leading characters in a sort of supernatural drama after all," says one particularly dotty old dear, without drawing breath or indeed bothering to act. Much talk of seeing the future starts more talk of spooky occurrences that have happened to the assorted members of the gathering, and the terror begins...
Story 1: Hearse Driver
After a particularly nasty car racing accident, our hero wakes up in hospital and within seconds he's fallen in love with his nurse and is calling her "darling". This being the 1940s when men were all tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking Brylcreemed racing drivers and nurses were all called Joyce, she doesn't seem to mind.
It's evening, and he starts to read a book. Then suddenly notices that the clock says 4:15 - and it's daylight outside. Looking through the window, he's shocked to see a hearse parked right outside. The driver looks up, and cheerily comments: "Just room for one inside, sir".
He sits down, and when he looks up the time is back to normal and it's dark outside. "Am I going crackers?" he asks himself, before shrugging it off in a stiff-upper-lipped kind of way.
The next day he's discharged, but as he waits for a bus to take him home, he asks for the time and doesn't like the answer. He likes it even less when the bus conductor looks very familiar...
After the unsettling beginning to the film, this is horror painted with much broader strokes. But it's only an hors d'euvre... Back at the cottage, the Craig's dream is being broken again and again - this time with the arrival of the "penniless brunette" he predicted. All he can say is that his "dream becomes a nightmare" later on... "a nightmare of horror". But he can't remember why.
Story 2: Christmas Party
At a children's Christmas Party, the narrator (Sally) shows how crap she is at sardines2 by being found straight away. She and her finder decide to look for a better place to hide, and start talking about the odd history of the house - which involves hauntings and murder. They get separated and Sally comes across a small boy crying in a bedroom. "She hates me..." the boy tells her. "She said she'd like to kill me."
She tucks him in and goes back to the party, where she's told that the child doesn't exist and "that's where the whole thing happened!"
Such a simple story, but effective, some scenes were repeated in the hugely overrated Sixth Sense. Sally's eventual realization of what she's just seen is genuinely upsetting, and her tears set the viewers up for the next story, what I consider to be one of the most frightening film segments of all time...
Story 3: The Haunted Mirror
Peter (the man who has everything, apparently - including Googie Withers for a missus) gets bought a mirror by his wife. "I thought you'd like to look at yourself," she tells him. "Mmm... handsome couple." But then she notices a troubled look pass over his reflection. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," he replies. "I thought I saw something."
Of course, it's not long before he is definitely seeing something, the reflection of a room that certainly isn't the one he's standing in. What's worse, when Googie stands next to him, he can't see her - just himself, alone, in an ornate gothic bedroom.
"In a queer sort of way it fascinates me," he explains. "I feel that room is trying to claim me... I know there's something waiting for me on the other side..."
As Peter becomes more and more obsessed with the mirror, his wife goes back to the shop where she bought it, and finds out it has a "curious history". A history that's soon to repeat itself, and then it won't just be Peter who sees the ghostly room...
Even if you haven't seen Dead Of Night, this story may seem vaguely familiar, as it was used twice in one film in the 70s. David Warner met a sticky end thanks to his antique mirror, and Ian Ogilvy had a similar problem with a door, in “From Beyond The Grave.”
As someone comments to the now-silenced room: "Well, how's the great debunker going to debunk that?"
Luckily, we're in for a bit of comic relief, thanks to Charters and Caldicott from The Lady Vanishes, and their shared fascination for golf and a strumpet called Mary...
Story 4: Golfing Story
It's bizarre. I can't see any modern woman being happy to be the prize in a game of golf, but that was the 40s for you, I suppose. Parrot and Potter are great golfing mates, but both of them love Mary. All three are thoroughly miserable: "I wish you were dead, old man," until they hit on the bright idea of playing for Mary's hand in a game of golf. Of course, Parrot cheats and Potter loses and walks into a nearby lake, never to be seen again.
Of course, once dead he discovers the truth and is soon back to haunt Parrot: "Cheat! Cad! Twister! May the Lord have mercy on your handicap!"
Parrot is happy enough to give up Mary to make amends, but refuses Potter's request to lay down his clubs forever: "You can't punish me like this! I should have nothing left to live for!"
They agree that as a punishment for something as trivial as murder, giving up golf would be a bit excessive, but then Potter realizes he's forgotten how to vanish, and he can't stray more than six feet away from his hauntee - ever. What's worse, it's Parrot's wedding night...
"Just because a chap becomes a ghost," Parrot splutters, "it surely doesn't mean he ceases to be a gentleman!"
This segment, coming as it does between the scariest moments of British cinema, has been unfairly maligned. Yes, it's lighthearted and amusing and therefore jars slightly, but in the context of the film it's supposed to. It's a story told in an attempt to lighten the mood by a skeptical member of the group, and it's not supposed to be true. In a way its insertion into a bona fide horror film works quite well - the viewer is so unprepared for a bit of whimsy that Potter's botched attempts at haunting are still unsettling.
It's also taken from an H.G. Wells short story (which had very little to do with golf originally), which, once you're aware of this nugget of information, lends the whole thing a certain gravitas. And the two leads are fantastic. Perhaps the audience has been lulled into a false sense of security by tales of golf and gentle courtship? If so, they're in for a shock...
Story 5: The Ventriloquist's Dummy
The police are investigating an attempted murder, only to be told by their suspect: "Hugo's the only one who can help me. He's more to blame for all this than I am."
But, as we find out in flashback, "Hugo" is a ventriloquist's dummy. A very scary ventriloquist's dummy (even by ventriloquist dummy standards). He's operated by Maxwell Frere, but their latest performance is cut short when Hugo appears to be more interested in discussing job prospects with Sylvester, a rival ventriloquist from America.
Seemingly incensed, Maxwell slaps the dummy, only to be told: "You'll pay for that later."
"Yes..." he replies, wearily. "I will."
Sylvester is very keen to find out exactly how Maxwell has got his dummy to act so realistically - even, it appears, when he's not there. And even after being told: "You don't know what Hugo's capable of..."
Weeks later, Sylvester saves Maxwell from getting a kicking after Hugo starts a fight, but drunken Maxwell finds Hugo in Sylvester's room and shoots him. Locked up in jail, he's visited by a psychiatrist, who decides the best way to treat him for his mental illness is to bring Hugo to him...
Hugo Fitch is a terrifying creation, and he's undoubtedly the star of the segment. But the whole story hinges on Michael Redgrave's stunning performance as Maxwell - if that last scene doesn't stick in your head for days after you first see it, then there's something wrong with you.
"Why... hallo... Sylvester... I've been waiting for you..."
But the horror's not over yet. Back at the cottage, Craig has remembered how his "nightmare of horror" ends, and it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As he's besieged by visions from the stories he's just heard (including a fully mobile Hugo) he wakes up, only for the whole thing to start again...
1. An anthology film (also known as an omnibus film, package film, or portmanteau film) is a feature film consisting of several different short films, often tied together by only a single theme, premise, or brief interlocking event (often a turning point). Sometimes each one is directed by a different director. These differ from "revue films" such as Paramount on Parade (1930)—which were common in Hollywood in the early sound film era to show off their stars and related vaudeville-style acts—composite films, and compilation films.
Sometimes there is a theme, such as a place (e.g. New York Stories, Paris, je t'aime), a person (e.g. Four Rooms), or a thing (e.g. Twenty Bucks, Coffee and Cigarettes), that is present in each story and serves to bind them together. Two of the earliest films to use the form were Edmund Goulding's Grand Hotel (1932), released by MGM with an all-star cast; and Paramount's If I Had a Million (also 1932), featuring segments helmed by a number of directors.
2. Hide-and-seek or hide-and-go-seek is a children's game in which a number of players conceal themselves in the environment, to be found by one or more seekers. The game is played by one player chosen at random (designated as being "it") counting to a predetermined number while the other players hide. After reaching the number, the player who is "it" attempts to locate all concealed players. The game is an example of an oral tradition, as it is commonly passed down by children to younger children.