Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Deardon, Robert Hamer, 1945
Starring: Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Frederick Valk, Roland Culver
One of the first horror anthology films, Dead of Night inspired a decade of beloved horror anthology films from Britain, such as Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and The House That Dripped Blood, as well as later American films like Creepshow and the Tales from the Crypt TV series. Though it may seem dated to some horror fans, it is certainly one of the most enjoyable entries in this subgenre, though I’m undoubtedly biased as I love horror anthology films and television shows.
Made by Ealing Studios, who were primarily known for their comedies, Dead of Night was the first true horror film produced in Britain after the anti-genre boycott in place during WWII. Ealing used a handful of their regular directors, writers, and cinematographers to weave together five horror tales within one central framing narrative. Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti (Nicholas Nickleby) was responsible for segments "Christmas Party" and "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda) made the comedic “Golfing Story,” Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets) directed “The Haunted Mirror,” and Basil Dearden (The Captive Hearts, Khartoum) was responsible for the opening story, “Hearse Driver,” and the rest of the framing story.
An architect, Mr. Craig, arrives at a cottage in the English countryside and meets a room full of other people. He tells them that he has been having reoccurring dreams about all of them. The other guests encourage him to tell his story. They tell supernatural themed tales and treat the whole thing as a game -- all except the serious and rational Dr. Van Straaton, a psychiatrist, though he eventually has a story to tell.
The first story, “Hearse Driver,” is abut a race car drive involved in a crash. While recuperating in the hospital, he sees a hearse pull up outside. The driver tells him, “Room for one more inside, sir.” Later, after he is out of the hospital, he prepares to get on a bus, but the bus driver tells him the same thing. Spooked, he misses the bus, which crashes moments later. This is based on E.F. Benson’s story “The Bus Conductor” and was adapted several times, namely for a Twilight Zone episode. Though this opening tale sets the tone, it is unfortunately the dullest entry.
“Christmas Party,” the second story, is told by the young Sally. It concerns a holiday party she attended with a number of other children. During a game of hide and seek she got lost and came across an upset little boy, who she consoled and put to bed. It turns out that the boy was a ghost, killed years earlier by his insane sister. This is a fairly utilitarian story, but is well told and entertaining. Based on a real life murder case, where 16-year-old Constance Kent brutally murdered her younger brother Frances in 1860, the same story also allegedly inspired Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone, an early British horror classic.
The third, “The Haunted Mirror,” is one of the two best. A woman buys her fiancé a mirror that turns out to be haunted. At first, he begins to see a Victorian style room behind him every time he looks in the mirror. Soon he falls ill and becomes paranoid that she is having an affair. It turns out the mirror was last owned by a paralyzed man who killed his wife when he thought she was cheating on him. A similar plot was used in the Amicus anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1974).
The fourth entry is the comical “Golfing Story,” about two men fighting over the same woman. During a golfing game, they compete to the death for the woman they love and the loser is forced to commit suicide. He winds up coming back as a ghost and following his friend around, very much like An American Werewolf in London. This is a delightful story, though it feels a little out of place, and stars comic team Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who essentially played the same characters in The Lady Vanishes and other films throughout the ‘40s.
Finally there is the excellent “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” the most famous segment of the film, which stars Michael Redgrave as a man accused of murder. His secret is that his dummy, Hugo, has a mind of its own. A version of this tale has been filmed many times since -- for everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Knock on Wood (1954), and Magic (1978) -- and the ending will not come as a surprise to modern viewers, but it is still effectively creepy. Redgrave, as always, is fantastic and I wish he had been in more genre films. There is a wonderful twist ending that implies Craig will never be able to leave his nightmare, something borrowed for later horror anthology films.
Overall, this comes highly recommended. It’s biggest flaw is that what was clever and horrifying in 1945 has been done to death since then, so there won’t be a lot of surprises for well versed genre fans. There is a two disc, restored version from Anchor Bay, which also includes another British horror film from this period, Queen of Spades (1949). It is sadly out of print, but if you search hard enough online, you will definitely be able to find it. Strangely, this was Ealing Studios only major contribution to the horror genre, but it's one of the strongest genre films of the '40s and represents a solid start for British horror cinema. Watch it on a dark and stormy night, or, as in the British tradition, at Christmas time.