Middle-aged architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) drives to a country home in Kent where he’s been summoned to consult on a renovation job. The place feels oddly familiar, although he’s never been there before. And it gets stranger from there—his host, Elliot Foley (Roland Culver), also seems familiar, Craig knows just where the coat closet is located in the Foley home, and the Foley living room is full of people that also seem familiar, although none of them know him and he doesn’t know them. Mr. Craig hasn’t wandered into the Twilight Zone—he’s trapped in the frame story of Ealing Studio’s 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night, which preceded Rod Serling’s series by 14 years.
Also present in the living room are Foley’s mother (Mary Merral) and a few guests who have come for tea: racecar driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), psychiatrist Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk), the glamorous Joan Cortland (Googie Withers), and schoolgirl Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes). As the day progresses, Craig starts to remember why they all seem familiar—they’re characters in a recurring dream he suffers from—and his conviction in this interpretation is strengthened when he correctly predicts the late arrival of Grainger’s wife Joyce (Judy Kelly). These revelations lead to a discussion on the supernatural, and each guest shares a story of something they’ve experienced that can’t be explained through reason alone.
Granger, recovering in the hospital after an accident, had a waking dream that led to him to the fortunate decision to not get on a particular bus. Sally tells a tale that draws on the real-life story of Constance Kent and her brother Francis. Joan relates a story about a mirror that seemed to possess her husband (Ralph Michael). Foley tells light-hearted tale about two golfers (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) and the consequences of cheating. Dr. van Straaten relates the most famous story of the film, starring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who struggles with his dummy for dominance (the gay subtext in this one fairly screams at you once you start to notice it). After each story, the film returns to the living room and the developing story of Craig’s dream, which soon shades into nightmare. Each individual sequence in Dead of Night is enjoyable, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the filmmakers manage to tie it all up in a concluding sequence that draws on all of the themes that have come before.
Dead of Night was created by a distinguished crew of writers and directors. Basil Dearden directed the framing sequence (Craig’s dream) and Granger’s story, Alberto Cavalcanti directed Sally’s and van Straaten’s stories, Robert Hamer directed Joan’s tale, and Charles Crichton directed Foley’s golf story. The writers (including source material) are equally distinguished, including E. F. Benson, Angus MacPhail, John Baines, and H.G. Welles.
Horror anthology films are common today: Cat’s Eye, Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, and Twilight Zone: The Movie come immediately to mind, although there are many more. They didn’t come from nowhere, and Dead of Night is the granddaddy of them all—plus it goes most of them one better by being built around a frame story that’s the equal of any of the stories-within-a-story that are the main appeal of most horror anthologies. Dead of Night also offers the predictable pleasures of British studio films of the 1940s, including accomplished actors, outstanding technical work, and a determination to make an effective film while using the fairly simple means available (in other words, without Hollywood-style budgets). Seriously—you could learn a lot about blocking and lighting from this film, whose action mostly takes place in a single room. And you needn’t take my word for it, either—Martin Scorsese and Stephen King are both fans of Dead of Night, and it’s deservedly acquired a cult status over the years among fans of psychological horror.
Dead of Night is presented in this release in a 4K restoration, and the picture generally looks quite good, particularly in the indoor scenes that comprise most of the film. However, the sound still leaves a lot to be desired, particularly when there’s music on the soundtrack. To be fair, the physical materials of Dead of Night have really been through the wars—the original camera negative was destroyed in a fire, and for years this film was mainly available in low-quality prints—so perhaps this version is the best it was possible to produce. That said, the film itself is so good that the experience of watching it more than outweighs the necessity to listen through sometimes less than ideal sound. | Sarah Boslaugh
Dead of Night is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an insightful talking-heads documentary, “Remembering Dead of Night,” about the film (75 min.), an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, and trailers for five films.