Horror anthologies are hard to pull off. All it needs is one insipid story to lose viewers’ interest and the whole framework would look like a charade. Apart from Amicus horror anthologies (“Tales from the Crypt”, “Vault of Horror”, “Asylum”) and George Romero’s “Creepshow” there hasn’t been many good horror anthologies with the ability to sustain a sense of dread from first to last. Recently, interlocking tales of highway terror “Southbound” (a little Twilight Zone-esque) turned out a better, cohesive narrative. But, I think this sub-genre’s one and only masterpiece is the British movie “Dead of Night” (1945), made by the famous Ealing Studios. Its format of compilation was also unique for its time as four different directors (Alberto Calvacanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, and Robert Hamer) were employed for different segments. Each segment stands as a testament to the film-maker’s strengths, who later went on to make many British classics. Although the stories may seem out-dated (one or two is weak) the directors’ visual approach (diffusing atmosphere of chaos & fear) to create haunting mood may serve as fine lesson for young film-makers.
Ealing Studios is one of the great production houses in the history of cinema. The studio introduced many influential British directors (or at least gave an elevated platform for the great British film-makers) and made plenty of meaningful entertainment movies, unlike the humongous Hollywood studios of the era. During the World War II, Ealing studios made quite a lot propaganda films, but decided to break the routine when Britsh Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted its ban on horror films. The real world horror was slowly reaching for a threshold point that the board allowed to produce harrowing movies. Ealing Studios gathered around some of the excellent British actors of the time – Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Basil Radford – along with four good directors. Of the four, Robert Hamer made his directorial debut with “Haunted Mirror” segment. Hamer went on to director some excellent works like “It Always Rains on Sunday”, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, “School for Scoundrels”, etc.
Unlike many horror/supernatural anthologies, “Dead of Night” (1945) had a good linking narrative rather than be a simple, hollow framing device. The film opens with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arriving to a beautiful country cottage in Kent. He has a sense of deja vu, the minute he takes a turn in the road and sees the house in full view. Craig is guided inside by host Elliott Foley (Roland Culver) and meets other different types of British inhabitants in the cottage: Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychoanalyst who approaches everything with rationality; Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), a race driver; cheery 14 year old Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes); an independent woman Joan Cortland (Googie Withers); and Foley’s mother (Mary Merall). Walter watches every one of them with a bemused look which is easily adjudged by DR. Van Straaten. Walter says that he had been to this cottage and met every one of them in his recurring dream, although he had never heard about or seen these people in his reality.
At first he couldn’t recall what happened in his dream, but gradually it comes to him. He predicts some women will come to the house asking for money. Every one laughs at this, but Grainger’s wife (Jude Kelly) enters the narrative asking him for change. Later, Walter also states that this dream will fully turn into a nightmare (a violent one), but the reason for it he doesn’t know. While, other guests brood over Walter’s deja vu and claims, Dr. Van Straaten stands firm and attests there must be some rational explanation. One by one from Grainger, the guests start to relate their own encounter with supernatural presence. The man of science is sidelined despite his usage of psychiatric terms. At last the doctor too narrates his own bizarre experience from a non-paranormal perspective, and it is perhaps the most haunting tale of the series. The dark tales eventually lead to well-designed hallucinogenic trip and a fine twist.
No titles are embedded to divulge the title of the stories, but they have been called as: Hearse Driver (narrated by Grainger), Christmas Story (Sally O’Hara), The Haunted Mirror (Cortland), The Golfing Story (Foley) and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy (Doctor). The basic framing story of Walter Craig is skillfully directed by Basil Dearden (“Sapphire”, “Victim”) drawing in the audience to a unique, intriguing situation. The wraparound segment also got to be one of the best nightmare sequences in cinema. Dearden also directed the first story ‘Hearse Driver’, which sets the perfect uncanny, haunting atmosphere. Based on E.F. Benson’s short story, the ‘Hearse Driver’ is a nice precursor to the ‘Final Destination' films. The second story narrated by 14 year old looks slight and as many complains ‘weak’. Nevertheless, it is delicately shot (by Calvacanti) with expressionistic images of shadows, to further the macabre atmosphere. The third story about upper-class English couple and their mirror was directed by debutant Robert Hamer, which must have influenced numerous horror stories in creating fear through multiple reflections. Foley narrates the 4th story stating it’s about his two golfer friends. Directed by Charles Crichton (“The Lavender Hill Mob”, “Hue and Cry”, etc), this story is considered to be the weakest link, since it is a supernatural comedy. While the other three guests before Foley narrate events that have created a everlasting impact on them, Foley just wants to cast off the dark mood by coming up with totally unreal tale of risque comedy. Horror movie aficionados may dismiss this story, but Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne combo provides a good comic relief. It also sets up stage for Dr. Van Straaten to come out of his firm beliefs and narrates the most memorable episode of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere. Directed by Alberto Calvacanti and elevated by Redgrave’s stupendous performance, this final tale has provided many visual references and inspirations to later generations of film-makers (the end image of the tale may have cast a spell on Hitchcock while making “Psycho”).
Each of the stories are written and directed by different people, but they all marvelously conjoin to not make us feel it as collection of disparate tales. To put it simply, these tales may have its lowest points but they never make us tired. Thematically, all the stories (including Craig’s linking story) talk about some kind of repression and fear of psychological imbalance. The accident, haunted room, mirror and dummy seems to be a representation of emotional repression (some are sexual in nature). The unraveling of fractured realities in each story may really have a rational explanation. All the four craftsmen in the film, not only create the unnerving atmosphere, but also have distinctly handled these recurring themes. The distressing, obscure ending still possesses the ability to incite debates. There might not be single production sheen added to the picture, but the knowledgeable performers keep it engrossing enough (also it is important to judge the performance and its production value, considering the obvious fact that it was made in 1945).
“Dead of Night” (103 minutes) is a highly influential and entertaining horror anthology picture. It contains one of the greatest single episodes in any horror anthology. And, each vignette stands on its own and is perfectly entwined to the main thread.