Originally Posted: October 28, 2019
It wouldn’t be the Halloween season without discussing one of the many horror anthologies that exist. Recently released by Kino Lorber on a glittering Blu-Ray, Dead of Night has inspired numerous horror anthologies and series, from the Twilight Zone to Trick ‘r Treat. Short of outright scares but high on atmospheres, Dead of Night is a horror feature you’ll come back to again and again (and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll understand that’s a joke).
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) has arrived at an English cottage with the belief that he’s been there before and met all its inhabitants. Intrigued by Walter’s presumed flirtation with the paranormal, each tells a story that seems to prove they were all brought there for a reason.
Dead of Night is a film that’s content to focus on atmosphere and the existential fears associated with death more than monsters and murderers. The idea of a character walking into an environment he feels oddly familiar with is well-known, but it remains an effective introduction to a series of interconnected stories that go down some unexpected paths. It’d be easy to see this as another movie where the end result is everyone is dead, but Dead of Night doesn’t work that, instead of leaving everything ambiguous until Walter’s final interaction with the characters and leaving the audience to decide what it all means.
The framing device is interesting depending on how you interpret Dead of Night’s overall story. The film was released in England just a week after the end of WWII and yet it feels like a direct comment on that. Walter goes to a house where regardless of everyone’s individual story, they’re all connected. They’re all in the same fight for answers in a landscape that feels familiar yet different, separate. Want a more overt connection to the war? Walter butts heads with German psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), who constantly reminds him that what he’s feeling is irrational and non-existent.
But you aren’t watching Dead of Night for its deeper subtext and as a horror movie it’s incredibly effective though your mileage will vary on each story. The movie is most famous for the film’s final tale of the ventriloquist, played by Michael Redgrave, and the dummy in his act that he believes to be autonomous and capable of murder. Maybe because this the idea of a murderous dummy has been done in so many different areas since this movie that the premise isn’t unique, but this has always been my least favorite story. Michael Redgrave is fantastic, aiding the audience in truly believing that he finds this dummy to be in control of his life.
The first story of the film, vaguely entitled “The Hearse Driver” is also familiar and suffers from being a bit too short, but it sets off the creepy tone. A racecar driver (Anthony Baird) survives a terrible wreck and while convalescing in the hospital sees a hearse driver outside his window telling him “just room for one inside.” The whole concept is disturbing and seems to imply a recurring theme, wherein the driver will see the hearse wherever he goes. Unfortunately, this story is over in a flash before the tension can be truly ramped up.
The same goes for “The Christmas Party,” one of two stories initially cut from the movie when it debuted in the States. Sally Ann Howes plays a young girl attending a Christmas party, only to have a ghostly encounter. This one feels so acutely like a quintessential ghost story – “they’d been dead for 20 years!!” – that it never fails to unsettle me, especially as the genteel atmosphere perfectly blends with the ghostly situation.
The other cut story is that of two golfers, one of whom dies and decides to haunt his friend. This is the movie’s lighter side and it certainly tempers the more nihilistic and frightening versions of death. There’s an air of comfort between the two men, knowing that they’re always together even in death. What feels like the longest story involves veteran British actress Googie Withers as a woman whose husband finds himself lured in by a mirror that corrupts his mind. This feels like the most fully fleshed out story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
Dead of Night is a classic for a reason. Beautiful and atmospheric it’s a quiet, contemplative film about life and death, the cyclical nature of fate, and the reconciling of a world changed by war. Kino’s new Blu-ray is absolutely gorgeous and worth a purchase for your next spooky evening.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.