For even the most passionate movie lover, there are aspects of cinema which are capable of striking terror into the heart. Such as (speaking for myself) the title card “based on a true story” or the credit “directed by Michael Bay”.
Or portmanteau films.
Portmanteau films, one the whole, aren’t very good. Pick any of the Amicus crop from the ’70s: average. Or the ill-advised Tarantino/Rodriguez/Anders/Rockwell collaboration ‘Four Rooms’ from 1995: a better framing device than most, but still a heinous waste of talent. Even ‘Three Extremes’, by those masters of the offbeat Fruit Chan, Takeshi Miike and Chanwook Park, worked better when its most accomplished segment, ‘Dumplings’, was expanded to feature length.
It’s almost doing ‘Dead of Night’ a disservice to describe it as the best portmanteau film ever made. That’s akin to saying it’s the least awful of a generally bad lot. But ‘Dead of Night’ deserves more than a backhanded compliment. More than just an excellent portmanteau film or an excellent horror film, it deserves to be freed from genre pigeonholes – it’s a great film, period.
Produced by Ealing Studios in 1945 (and proving, alongside gritty dramas like ‘Went the Day Well?’ and ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’, that they didn’t just make comedies), ‘Dead of Night’ brought together four directors on the cusp of immense commercial success and popularity: Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer.
Cavalanti had already directed ‘Went the Day Well?’ and went onto helm ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’; Dearden had a string of hits over the next two and half decades, including ‘The Blue Lamp’ and ‘Victim’; Crichton called the shots on perennial Ealing faves ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ and would prove that he’d lost none of his flair for comedy when he made ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ in 1988 (44 years after his directorial debut); and Hamer, whose death from pneumonia in 1963 cut short his career, made one of the best of all Ealing films ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ as well as the ever-popular Terry-Thomas starrer ‘School for Scoundrels’.
‘Dead of Night’ opens with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arriving at a Suffolk cottage where he’s been invited to spend the weekend with prospective client Eliot Foley (Roland Culver). Threading his way down the country lanes, his first glimpse of the property imbues him with a troubling sense of déjà vu. Inside, the realisation clicks: the cottage has featured in a recurring dream – a nightmare – that’s been plaguing him for weeks.
He’s introduced to Foley’s other guests, including psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk), and his disorientation worsens. Asked what’s wrong, he haltingly explains that not only does the house feature in his dreams, but all of them play their part. Increasingly agitated, Craig comes to feel that he should leave as soon as possible, otherwise something terrible will occur. Dr van Straaten reasons with him, urging him to stay and thereby overcome his neuroses.
The stage is set for five tales of the supernatural (based on works by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, Angus MacPhail and John Baines) as the guests give individual accounts of some brush with the unexplained, some encounter with the ethereal, while Dr van Straaten insists on keeping everything rooted in reality by pursuing a logical, scientific discourse.
Racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird) recounts his near-death experience on the track; convalescing afterwards, he hallucinates a hearse outside his hospital window, the driver (Miles Malleson) lugubriously looking up and saying “Room for one more inside.” Discharged shortly afterwards, he encounters the same man, this time in a bus driver’s uniform. “Room for one more inside,” he urges as Grainger hesitates. The briefest story in the anthology, as well as the most obvious in its set-up and denouement, it’s still a decent curtain-raiser and played straight enough to come across as a simple tale of coincidence.
A ghost story in the English tradition follows, and what could be more traditional than a Christmas setting? Teenager Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) recounts a festive game of hide and seek in a big old house. Escaping the tactile attentions of would-be suitor Jimmy (Michael Allan), who’s been trying to creep her out with a story of filial murder in the upper rooms a hundred years ago, Sally comes upon a long corridor which leads her to another part of the house and the realisation that Jimmy’s story might have a little more truth to it than she imagined.
The past also impinges on the present in the next story. Bride-to-be Joan (Googie Withers) buys an antique mirror for her betrothed, Peter (Ralph Michael), only for its reflection to change whenever he looks in it. Peter finds himself in another room – a room, he’s certain, where something nasty has happened. Or is going to happen. Joan worries for his health (all she sees in the mirror is the reflection of their bland fitted bedroom) and then, when his moods turn ugly, for her safety.
In penultimate place – and the least of the film’s offerings – is the shaggy dog story of rival golfers George Parratt (Basil Radford), Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne) and the woman, Mary (Peggy Bryan), who comes between them. A gentlemen’s wager involving eighteen holes, the hand of the delectable Mary for the winner and the loser to “vanish from the scene”. Unfortunately, the winner cheats and the loser takes his forfeit literally, wading out into the water hazard and drowning himself. So far, so dark and twisted. Things quickly become farcical, though, all pratfalls and “humorous” misunderstandings. First time I saw ‘Dead of Night’ this section annoyed me: the shift in tone seemed awkward; it was the odd one out in a quintet of stories that grew progressively more sinister.
On reflection, though, I think the golfing sequence (from one of H.G. Wells’s lesser short stories) is needed – it’s a cleansing of the palate before the film’s piece de resistance. Introduced by Dr van Straaten as the “one case that really made me wonder”, Michael Redgrave stars in a career-best performance as Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist controlled by his wheedling, temperamental dummy Hugo. Atmospherically directed by Cavalcanti, the sweltering lights and dingy dressing rooms of the venues Frere and Hugo play are brought evocatively to life. Frere’s nervy descent into paranoia is thrown into sharp relief by the calm rationalism of fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power), whom Frere comes to suspect of having designs on Hugo.
And then there’s Hugo himself. Smiling, goading, waspish, sarcastic Hugo. One of British cinema’s greatest villains, period. Hugo, whom Dr van Straaten thinks he can use to probe Frere’s condition. A mistake on the good doctor’s part, but not as a great a mistake as his insistence that Craig stays in the cottage as each facet of the evening draws together the strands of his nightmare.
The framing narrative climaxes with an act of brutality and a dizzying lurch into surrealism, coda becoming prologue as ‘Dead of Night’ twists itself into an ouroboros.