Last night I happened to catch on TV a movie that I now absolutely love, Dead of Night. Unfortunately, right afterwards I set out to find a way to watch it again and discovered it it’s a fairly rare classic film, not available on Netflix or to stream through Hulu. You can watch it in 10 minute segments on Youtube, but otherwise, if you want to see it, you’ll have to shell out $10-20 to buy it. Amazon will let you download it for $10 or buy it on disc for $20, and tcm.com sells it on DVD for $15. I don’t know if a lot of people are going to pay that much for a film they haven’t heard of. If you can find it, or happen to see it on your TV schedule, I’d highly recommend you watch it.
I have to say that Dead of Night is definitely my kind of movie. It’s a black and white horror film produced by Ealing Studios in Britain in 1945, using several different directors who worked for the company at the time, such as Robert Hamer, who directed the wonderful dark comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. It was way ahead of its time, unlike any 40s horror film I’ve ever seen, and unlike any film I’ve seen period.
The premise is a tricky one. It begins with a man waking up and going to an old mansion where he has been hired to refurbish a farmhouse. Once he arrives at the mansion, he meets several other guests and starts to get a peculiar sense of deja vu. He explains to everyone that he’s seen them before, but not on the streets or at other parties or in newspapers–no, he says he has seen them in a dream, a dream that exactly resembles his day so far. At first, they stare at him with disbelief, until he starts to predict the future, based on previous dreams he’s had. For instance, he says that an attractive brunette woman is going to show up late to the party, and sure enough, a few minutes later one does.
In a very English way, a majority of the guests say they believe him, but in a chatty manner, acting as if it’s all droll and fun, not all that disturbed by the strange event. The only one who disbelieves him is a Jungian psychologist, who insists all of it is explainable. Then, each guest recounts an event where something supernatural happened to them, and the film turns into a series of stories with linking segments in between. It’s not your average anthology film, by any means. Between each segment, the story of the guests at the party advances, getting stranger and stranger.
The segments are all pretty bizarre, and most are excellent. One story involves a young couple engaged to be married who purchase an antique mirror for their new home. When the man looks into the mirror, instead of seeing a drab middle-class bedroom, he sees a lavish and plush room from more than a century ago. He becomes transfixed by the mirror, and yet when the wife looks in it, she sees nothing out of the ordinary. From that Twilight Zone kind of concept, it becomes pretty scary.
Out of the five stories, the one that’s going to stay with the audience the longest I’m sure is a story involving a ventriloquist and his dummy. The ventriloquist is played by the classic British actor Michael Redgrave, whom you might recognize from the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes. He puts on a nightclub act where he entertains patrons with witty repartee between himself and his wise-cracking dummy, until one night, a fellow ventriloquist comes to see his act, and things get ugly. It turns into a dark tale of obsession and madness.*
It’s not an entirely dark film though. Much of it is rather whimsical, including a segment based on an H.G. Wells story about two golfers who fall for the same woman. Interestingly, the actors who portray the golfers, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, are the same pair that usually played Charters and Caldicott, two comical Englishmen who were written into several films including The Lady Vanishes and the Carol Reed classic Night Train to Munich. Here, their not called Charters and Caldicott, but their characters are essentially the same.
While the movie’s not scary throughout, I was genuinely pretty freaked out in a couple of the scenes. Usually, I’m not the least bit frightened by old horror films, but this one got to me. If you’re squeamish, don’t worry, there’s no gore and very little violence. Instead, the film provides a more cerebral sort of horror,** with stories set up in a way that’ll make you question reality or make you wonder about how the mind really works. Also, the climax of the film is just amazing.
Oh, by the way, make sure you don’t accidentally order the 1977 film Dead of Night or the new movie Dylan Dog: Dead of Night by mistake. This is the 1945 version I’m writing about.
*Spoiler: Am I alone in reading into the ventriloquist story a vague sense of sexual tension between Redgrave and the rival ventriloquist? My theory is that the segment implies Redgrave’s character is attracted to the other ventriloquist (in an unspoken way, like in Strangers on a Train), but represses his feelings because such a thing was condemned at the time. All of his repressed feelings though are acted out through the dummy, who even finds his way into the other ventriloquist’s bedroom. The repression of his feelings is what leads Redgrave’s character first to drink, then to violence.
** If there’s any fans of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series reading this, I’d highly recommend you watch Dead of Night. The structure of the film as well as the themes greatly resembles Gaiman’s epic series, specifically the graphic novel The Wake, where travellers meet together under similar circumstances and tell stories to each other.
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If you happen to have the channel TCM on your TV, Dead of Night is going to be shown again on October 10th. It’s worth marking your calendar for.