Dead Of Night

It is interesting to
revisit this classic
of English
horror. Dead Of
Night is so
influential that
its elements have
become genre
tropes, and at
times the viewer
has to remind
themselves that
they are seeing
them here for the
first time.
The film has a
gentle beginning,
an architect
Walter Craig
(Mervyn Johns)
drives up a
country lane,
halts, and seeing
a cottage shakes
his head in
apparent
bemusement. His
aesthetic sense
has not been
outraged at this
example of
English
vernacular; he
believes he has
been here before.
Welcomed in by
the homeowner
Foley (Roland
Culver), who has
commissioned
him to make
some alterations,
Craig soon
indicates that he
knows his way
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around the
property. And, on
his introduction
to the other
house guests,
reveals that he
believes himself
to have met them
all before in a
recurrent dream,
the details of
which resurface
during his stay,
and lead him to
believe some
tragedy or great
‘evil’ is destined
to engulf him.
A sceptical voice
is raised in the
person of the
psychologist Dr
van Straaten, but
the other guests
believe Craig’s
story, and in his
defence recount
incidents from
their own
experience that
supports the
credo that ‘there
are more things
in heaven and
earth than are
dreamt of in your
philosophy.’ This
then is the
framing narrative
within which a
portmanteau of
stories of
hauntings and
possession are
presented. In the
first story, a
racing driver
recovering from a
crash has an
inexplicable
vision of a hearse
outside of the
room in which he
is convalescent.
The driver of the
hearse, the
character actor
Miles Malleson,
with a jocular
wink indicates
that there is
“Room for one
inside.” On his
release from
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hospital, the
patient is about
to board a bus
when the
conductor,
Malleson again,
tells him there is
“Room for one
inside.”
Shrinking back,
the reluctant
passenger then
watches in horror
as the bus
ploughs through
the parapet of a
bridge and
crashes into the
river.
In the second
story a young
girl, Sally Ann
Howes (Chitty
Chitty Bang
Bang’s ‘Truly
Scrumptious’),
recalls a
Christmas party
in which the
young guests play
the frankly
creepy game of
Sardines. Having
been told that a
ghastly murder
once took place
in the house, and
escaping from an
over-affectionate
young beau, the
girl discovers a
tearful young boy
distraught
because his
bullying elder
sister has
threatened to kill
him. After
comforting the
child and
returning to the
party, the girl
discovers that the
child, Francis
Kent, was the
victim of a
murder that took
place some
decades before.
The child, and his
sister Constance,
were the real
players in a
notorious murder
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case; in fact
Constance Kent
had died in
Australia the year
before Dead Of
Night appeared.
In the third story
Joan (Googie
Withers) buys
her fiancé Peter a
mirror as a
present. Most
men, one would
imagine,
wouldn’t be overenamoured
of
this but the
dandyish Peter is
delighted. Peter
begins to see
another room
reflected in the
mirror, a room
from another era,
in stark contrast
to his modern
minimalist
bedroom. Joan
cannot see the
room, and Peter
cannot see Joan
in the mirror.
The room in the
haunted mirror
begins to terrify
Peter but, with
an effort of will,
and Joan’s help
and support, he
manages to
banish the vision.
While Joan is
away visiting her
mother, Peter
sees the room
again. Returning
to the shop where
she bought the
mirror, Joan is
told that it
belonged to a
man who, when
crippled and
confined to his
bedroom,
became
consumed with
jealousy at his
wife’s imagined
infidelity,
eventually
murdering her.
Returning to
Peter, Joan finds
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him transformed
and accusing of
her of being
unfaithful with
an old admirer.
Almost strangled
by Peter, Joan
only frees him
from his
obsession by
destroying the
mirror.
The next episode,
the ‘golfing
story’, features a
classic double-act
of British cinema,
Naunton Wayne
and Basil
Radford who,
firstly as
Caldicott and
Charters the
cricket-obsessed
duo from
Hitchcock’s The
Lady Vanishes,
featured in a
range of films
throughout the
1940s. Here they
are golfing
buddies who fall
out over a girl.
They decide to
settle the suit by
playing their
favourite game;
the Radford
character cheats,
and his rival
commits suicide
in a particularly
eerie scene by
walking out into
the lake water
hazard.
Subsequently,
Radford finds his
golf plagued by
the ghost of his
rival who, while
invisible to
others, threatens
to haunt him
unless he gives
up the game or
the girl. Having
decided to
sacrifice sex for
the links,
Radford is
dismayed that
Wayne cannot
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remember the
elaborate
contortions
required to
dematerialise,
and the haunting
continues right
up to the night of
the honeymoon.
Attempting to
help his erstwhile
friend and rival
Radford only
succeeds in
vanishing
himself. Left
alone with the
new bride in the
next room,
Wayne ponders
whether “To
pass, or not to
pass,” decides to
play-through and
rushes into the
nuptial chamber.
Not only is this
story a bit more
lightweight, it
features definite
supernatural
activity as
opposed to the
ambiguity of the
other stories, and
ultimately it is
revealed, in the
linking frame
narrative, to be a
bit of ribbing by
its narrator
(Culver). It is a
piece of
humorous ‘timeout’
before the
heavy business of
the most famous
sequence, the
ventriloquist’s
dummy starring
Michael
Redgrave and the
repulsive Hugo.
Dr van Straaten
tells a story
concerning his
own experience
of the uncanny.
He is brought in
to assess the
mental state of a
ventriloquist
accused of the
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attempted
murder of a
showbiz
colleague.
American
ventriloquist
Maurice Olcott
visits the night
club run by
Beulah (famous
singing star
Elisabeth Welch)
to take in the act
of Maxwell Frere.
Using his own
‘vent’ ability,
Olcott interacts
with Frere’s
dummy Hugo,
upsetting Frere
and causing the
act to stutter to a
bit of a shambolic
close. Hugo
invites Olcott to
visit backstage.
Hugo seems to be
the dominant
partner in the act
with Frere often
sidelined;
amused Olcott
addresses his
remarks to the
dummy but is
surprised when
Frere intervenes
as if he is not in
control of Hugo’s
remarks. When
Frere jams his
hand over Hugo’s
mouth to prevent
some outburst,
the dummy
appears to bite
his owner. Frere
turns down work
and Olcott
encounters him
in a bar in a state
of inebriation.
When a young
woman asks to
handle the
dummy Hugo
insults her and
her boyfriend
punches Frere
out. Olcott helps
Frere and Hugo
to their room, but
Frere seems
convinced that
Olcott has plans
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to take Hugo for
himself.
Later, Frere
bursts into
Olcott’s room
accusing him of
stealing the
dummy, when he
finds Hugo in the
room he shoots
Olcott who
miraculously
survives. In an
attempt to break
through to Frere,
van Straaten asks
for Hugo to be
placed in the
former’s cell.
Frere suffers a
trauma and
pounds the
dummy’s head
under his foot.
Frere relapses
into a catatonic
state which van
Straaten
attempts to
relieve by
confronting him
with Olcott who
has made a
partial recovery.
The plan works
but Frere has
suffered an
alarming
transformation.
All through the
telling of the tales
Walter Craig has
predicted events
in the cottage,
the arrival or
departure of
some of the
guests, Dr van
Straaten
breaking his
glasses, a powercut.
He is fearful
of the evil climax
suggested by his
recurrent
nightmare, and
now, left alone
with van
Straaten, he
succumbs,
strangling the
Doctor and then,
attempting to
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escape,
stumbling into a
maelstrom of
scenes revisiting
the tales told by
the other guests.
Finally, finding
himself in Frere’s
cell, with the
guests baying
through the bars
of the prison, he
has a fatal
confrontation
with Hugo the
ventriloquist’s
dummy. The film
ends with Walter
Craig waking
after his
nightmare, only
to receive a call
from Foley,
Culver’s
character, asking
him down to his
country cottage
to discuss a
proposed
renovation. Craig
thinks he has
heard the name
before but cannot
place it; the film
ends with him
driving up in his
car, halting and
gazing at the
cottage in
bemused
recognition. The
horror begins
again.
The
ventriloquist’s
dummy is
justifiably the
most famous
sequence in the
film and has
spawned its
imitators.
Redgrave’s
performance is
astonishing, and
it’s true, the eyes
have it. Matthew
Sweet suggests
that his
performance may
have had
something to do
with his anxiety
over his personal
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life, as he had
three children by
that point and
work was
impinging on
family life. As is
pointed out, the
dummy story has
clear homoerotic
overtones, with a
bizarre love
triangle between
Frere, Hugo, and
the potential
usurper Olcott,
so it seems more
likely that
Redgrave’s
absorption in the
role sprang from
his own
misgivings about
his bisexuality
and the double
life that
engendered.
The portmanteau
film became a
staple of British
horror with
Amicus
Productions,
some good, some
bad. My own
favourite is Dr
Terror’s House
Of Horrors
(1965), in which
DJ-turned-actor
Alan ‘Fluff’
Freeman,
terrorised by a
murderous
sentient shrub,
utters the
immortal line
“I’m no stranger
to garden tools.”
The blu-ray
restoration of
this film is
excellent and a
comparison of
footage is
provided as part
of the extras. A
75-minute
consideration of
the film’s themes,
history, and
influence is
provided by a
team of
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commentators
including the
ubiquitous Kim
Newman, actor
and writer Reece
Shearsmith, and
director John
Landis. The
circular conceit
of Dead Of Night
is revealed to
have inspired
Fred Hoyle’s
theory of a steady
state universe.
The analysts are
so thorough in
their
consideration of
the film I can
hardly dissect it
myself with any
originality; I
would rather
watch informed
and informative
talking heads like
these than have
to wade through
outtakes,
makings-of, and
blooper reels.