Dead of Night (1945)
Dir. Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
Written by John Baines, Angus McPhail
Starring Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Michael Redgrave
|"A Thriller... THE CRITICS HUGGED IT!" .....wut?|
This one turns out to be a very early anthology horror film, I had assumed maybe the very first one but apparently the tradition goes back at least to 1919, with Richard Oswald’s EERIE TALES that year and Paul Leni’s classic WAXWORKS in 1924. No problem, it doesn’t have to be a pioneer to be a classic, it just has to be good. And this one surely fits that bill. If the concept of a horror anthology was already old hat by 1945, well, that just serves to make this one more ambitious, incorporating a clever framing story which both informs the segments and focuses the whole affair. Four directors tackling different segments might sound like a recipe for inconsistency and tonal swings --and indeed, it is-- but somehow everything still manages to feel fluid and well-paced. Yup, this one is pretty great.
The story begins with milquetoast architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns, Bob Cratchit in the Alistair Slim 1951 SCROOGE) arriving at a country house party, where he insists he’s familiar with the guests (despite having never met them before) due to a prophetic dream he’s been having over and over. The guests, led by skeptical Teutonic psychologist (is there any other kind?) van Straaten (Frederick Valk), attempt to test his story by asking for his predictions and by sharing their own tales of the supernatural. OK, that doesn’t sound like the most surefire thriller plot (British people in sitting rooms talking about dreams? How does this not have a sequel yet?!), but Johns’ harried and paranoid performance helps carry it past the somewhat repetitive and chatty structure while we wait for things to get good.
|The Scooby Gang|
And they do get good, but you’ve gotta wait a bit. The first segment, based on an E.F. Benson short story and directed by Basil Dearden (KHARTOUM, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF), has a serviceable atmosphere but is over rather abruptly before it has time to do much building. The second tale, by Brazilian director (Alberto) Cavalcanti is worse, a meandering anticlimax with an irritating performance from a very young Sally Anne Howes (CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG). But things start to get better with Robert Hamer’s (KING OF HEARTS AND CORONETS) haunted mirror sequence. The sublimely named Googie Withers (“let me Googie that for you,” you’d say in a much happier world) holds the thing together, and the fairly standard possessed possession story is treated seriously, with a surprisingly intense build. It’s pure Twilight Zone, of course, but in what world is that a bad thing? A slow, classy setup with a light dusting of clever effects followed by an ironic payoff will never get old, especially when it’s packed into a slim but effective 10 minutes or so.
But all that is merely prelude to the final two sequences. The first, directed by Charles Crichton (A FISH CALLED WANDA!?) is an unexpectedly hilarious story about two golfing obsessives (Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne) who decide that the winner of a golf match should get to marry the girl they both fancy (she’s so content in her role as an agency-free object that she cheerfully accepts this arrangement). When one golfer loses and obligingly drowns himself in the water hazard, his friend thinks he has it made… until the spirit, realizing he’s been cheated, comes back to fuck with his only true achilles heel: his golf handicap. Radford and Wayne are a hilarious mismatched duo --Radford is all bluster and gut, While Wayne’s slight frame and hangdog mug makes him the perfect victim-- and the segment is packed with goofy slapstick and fun concepts. Ordinarily, one would think a broad comic segment in the middle of an otherwise quite seriously ominous horror film would derail everything (TUSK, looking at you) but somehow it doesn’t; the humor here is so delightful that in fact it energizes the film and sets us up beautifully for the capstone segment. Horror and humor are not always the most comfortable bedfellows, but maybe this segment is cause to reconsider if there’s a fundamental reason for this apparent conflict or if it’s simply that horror directors usually aren’t this good at (intentional) comedy, and so their attempts don’t work as well.
|Finally, a movie that understands that no human concept is as terrifying as golf.|
The final sequence is the most famous one, with Michael Redgrave (classy shit) and Hartley Powell (ROMAN HOLIDAY) as two famed ventriloquists, caught between the affections of a sociopathic dummy. This segment --interestingly directed by Cavalcanti, who also did the worst sequence here-- is an unmitigated classic, a sweaty, uncomfortable descent into insecurity, madness and violence. Even an unlooked-for musical sequence (I guess a studio requirement in those days) can’t derail what turns out to be a tense tale of a dummy who is getting a little too aggressive for everyone’s good. In many ways, this segment is an obvious template followed by every subsequent evil doll movie, most obviously the excellent 1978 MAGIC with Anthony Hopkins, but also pretty much everything from The Twilight Zone to Goosebumps to Batman (the evil ventriloquist mobster Scarface is a logical extension of Redgrave’s disturbed pupeteer) to PSYCHO, whose slim, mildly mannered (protagonist?) has quite a lot in common with Redgrave here.
Obviously, this had to be absolutely brain-meltingly terrifying to audiences seeing it for the first time in 1945, but even with the better part of a century of ripoffs and boundary-pushing between us and DEAD OF NIGHT, this story is still startlingly intense. Director Cavalcanti drapes everything in harsh film noir bright lights and deep blacks, and always seems to find an angle to turn the grimy, claustrophobic sets into something alien and unsettling. But it’s really Redgrave as ventriloquist Maxwell Frere who walks away with this one; his sweaty desperation and ratcheting panic are so palpable that you can’t help but buy into his crazy worldview. Juxtaposing him with self-assured, masculine American Powell (as visiting ventriloquist Sylvester Kee) is equally a stroke of genius: Kee is a friendly, utterly confident guy, he genuinely has no reason or desire to compete with effete, insecure Frere. But in a way that may be the problem; he feels pity for the poor man instead of fear, and it may be a mistake that will cost him dearly. And am I wrong to see a subterranean sexual element here? Frere’s self-hatred is projected through his dummy, but what’s the deal with his intense fixation on Kee? Is it mere coincidence that the dummy turns up in his bed? Actor Redgrave certainly struggled with concealing his bisexuality during his own life, and I can’t help but feel a little of his own self-disgust and horror at his lack of self-control simmering beneath the surface here.
|Once, just once, I'd like to see a movie with a Ventriloquist that ISN'T evil, he's just helpful and well-balanced and has a unique talent that he enjoys sharing. Wouldn't that blow your mind?|
The Dummy sequence is the film’s high point, but it’s not quite the end: Most of these anthology films have framing stories which end with a clever twist or a bit of irony to tie things up, but here the ambition is a little stronger. You see, the quiet tension that’s been almost imperceptibly building from Johns’ certainty that he’s seen all this before and knows something bad will come from it finally erupts to the surface at the end. The long low-key ambiguity of the framing story is suddenly shattered by an absolutely nightmarish finale, a surreal hellscape populated by cameos from all the preceding segments but tied together in a fever dream of persecution and terror. This end segment is simply stunning, and obviously an influence on every subsequent work of psychedelic horror, where a director finally abandons all logic in favor of a mishmash of frightening imagery, finally bypassing any reason and hitting you right in your subconscious. But again, it’s not just that this is influential -- it’s that this is good. Way better, for example, than the end of Rob Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM which is obviously trying for the same thing (but with more masturbating baghead bishops, something I did not notice in DEAD OF NIGHT for whatever reason).
When all’s said and done, the movie even manages a nifty little coda which suggests something else about the possibly cyclic nature of the storyline. After all the terror, the only thing that could make it worse is to remind us of the awful inevitability of it all. It adds up to a movie that Martin Scorsese called one of the 11 scariest movies of all time* and I gotta say, I was really fuckin' impressed by. Obviously a huge influence on other horror movies which followed it, this still really stands the test of time as a imaginative and scary movie in its own right. Curiously, none of the directors who worked on it seem to have done any other horror movies that I can find; they weren’t genre directors, just talented Ealing studios regulars who did this one masterpiece and then moved on to other stuff. Apparently during the war years in England horror films were actually banned, and it wasn’t until the late 50’s when Hammer began its classic run that the genre would really come back into style. But at least here, for a brisk 102 minutes, English horror reach a genuine high-water mark.
*of course, he also directed SHUTTER ISLAND, so what does he know?