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Dead of Night

From the video case: Sir Michael Redgrave stars as the host of a chilling gathering in a remote country house. His guests are strangers, people of whom he has dreamed, people whose lives are intricately bound by forces no one can understand. It’s an unusual and wonderfully frightening tale that cleverly intertwines logical tricks of magic with inexplicable acts from unseen powers.

Mark says: As more often than not, the video case description is not entirely accurate. Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) is the actual host of the gathering (not Redgrave), and it is the guest, Mervyn Johns (The Day of the Triffids) as architect Walter Craig who has dreamed of all the other characters.

Dead of Night is actually an anthology of six stories rolled into one. First is the overall tale which serves as the linking narrative. Within this tale are five other tales told by the various guests. The sequences are based on stories by renowned British authors such as H. G. Wells and E. F. Benson. Each tale has its own director.

I’ll briefly discuss each of the six stories below:

The Overall Story (linking narrative): Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is baffled to find himself among a group of strangers who have been starring in his recurring nightmares. The guests respond to Mr. Craig’s story by relating their own extraordinary experiences.

Frederick Valk plays the skeptic, Dr. Van Straaten, who counters each seemingly paranormal story with a logical explanation. Ironically, it is Dr. Van Straaten who tells the most chilling tale.

Hearse Driver: A wonderful little tale of premonition as told by Mr.Grainger (Anthony Baird). Fits in well with the overall atmosphere and theme of the movie.

Christmas Party: A rather mediocre ghost story as told by the guest Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes). Sally recalls a Christmas party where she encountered the ghost of a young boy. It’s quite predictable, and of all the stories, seems the most dated.

The Haunted Mirror: Ralph Michael (Children of the Damned) plays Peter Cortland, a man who comes to possess a haunted mirror. Eventually, the history of the mirror takes possession of him. Googie Withers plays his wife, Joan. I have to admit, this story spooked me upon first viewing.

Golfing Story: A silly bit of tripe about two friends who play a game of golf to win the hand of a woman they both love. The loser decides to kill himself, but returns to haunt his partner when it is discovered that he cheated. This sequence is used to break the tension, I suppose, but I think the movie would be better without it. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne star as the golfers, and Peggy Bryan plays Mary, the object of their affections.

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy: This is by far the most interesting and chilling tale of the lot. Michael Redgrave (The Innocents) is Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist tormented by his own dummy. The plot seems familiar today (thanks to a famous Twilight Zone episode, and the Child’s Play movies) but was certainly ahead of its time in 1945. Great direction by Alberto Cavalcanti and an astonishing performance by Mr. Redgrave propel this tale head and shoulders above the rest. Does anyone else notice a similarity between Maxwell Frere and and Psycho‘s Norman Bates?

The movie’s finale is a bizarre collage of all the tales mixed together in a nightmarish fashion, as Mr. Craig races helter-skelter to his destiny. Quite avant-garde for the time and genre.

Dead of Night would rank even higher with me except two of the tales (“Christmas Party” and “Golfing Story”) drag the average down a notch. Still, this movie deserves its classic status, and Michael Redgrave’s performance alone makes it worth your time.

Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (“Christmas Party” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”), Charles Crichton (“Golfing Story”), Basil Dearden (“Hearse Driver” and “Linking Narrative”), and Robert Hamer (“The Haunted Mirror”).

Scene to watch for: Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) sits in his cell and works a puppet that’s not there. Very creepy.

Line to listen for: “Just room for one inside, sir.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

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4 Comments

  1. Finally saw this and really enjoyed it. I agree that the golfing story is trite – however it works in context of the whole story as it was told as trite to improve the atmosphere at the gathering.

    Christmas story was a little cliched but had at least a little atmosphere.

    Overall, however, I have to agree that the The Ventriloquist’s Dummy was the highlight – absolutely riveting little story and actually open to some interpretation – whilst I think all viewers accept that it was supernatural, the psychologists explanation could hold true (that wouldn’t explain the dummy biting a hand in the bar however). Brilliantly acted also.

    Great review Mark (though I know it was posted a little time ago)

  2. Brilliant film! Redgrave’s marvellously subtle and understated performance still has the power to send chills up the spine. I think that the Christmas party scene, typical of a simple ghost story narrated by a naive teenager, rings true,and that the golf story served the same purpose as Desdemona’s innocent singing, just prior to being murdered, in Shakeaspeare’s “Othello” . It’s a bridge between one layer of tension, and the next level, which is sheer terror. It enables the assembly, and the audience, to have a light breather, which lulls them into thinking that their fears are, perhaps, groundless. And then….the horror commences….wonderful film, typical of old classics, relying on great directors and actors, rather than overblown special effects to generate reactions in their audiences.

  3. Francoise: I see the Othello element you’ve suggested, though I think the golf story takes too long to unfold to serve the purpose you relate to Desdemona’s singing. For me, anyway, it lessened the tension that was so wonderfully built up thus far. The Christmas party scene did, at least, add a bit of atmosphere. The golf story would have made an amusing little Twilight Zone, but still seems blatantly out of place here. I agree completely, however, how directors and actors were more crucial to the story than the “overblown special effects” that are so heavily relied on today. Furthermore, we both agree this is a wonderful classic.

  4. I’ve caught this on the telly a few times through the decades. My grandfather was the projectionist at our local picture house and I was watching this as a Saturday matinee!
    As you indicated the Maxwell Frere is the standout vignette. His portrayal of descent into split personalities is amazing. I also loved the Hearse Driver story. Great film this.


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