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DEAD OF NIGHT is considered a horror classic. The anthology film is made up of a series of small stories that have become tropes of the genre. Unlike other classics the stories have since been improved upon imitated, stolen and butchered so many times over the years that they have become cliché. You can see it’s influence on shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and movies like MAGIC. One could say that its influence has lasted longer than its impact. However, the one element that hasn’t been improved upon is how compelling the framework story is.
The framing story is simple — an architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns, A CHRISTMAS CAROL) is called out to a country home on a job. When he arrives the house seems so familiar to him and when he meets the people inside he is struck with the fear that he has been dreaming this situation for years. His fears spur others to share their tales of encounters with the supernatural. Craig is convinced that during the course of the evening he will be driven mad. However, one of the guests is Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk, BAD BLONDE), a skeptical psychiatrist, who sets up the battle of wits to convince Craig that there are not demons lurking in the shadows.
The first tale comes from Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird, THE IPCRESS FILE), a racecar driver, and his experience of foreboding that changed the course of his life. However, what’s important is the role that this story plays in the framing story. Details in Grainger’s story play out to fulfill the prophecy in Craig’s tale. The second tale comes from a teen girl, Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG), who tells of her spooky experience at a Christmas costume party. The story is so familiar that one can see how the structure has influenced many episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
While the first two tales are more foreboding than scary, the third tale begins to set up the psychological terror that plays across the entire film. The wealthy woman, Joan Cortland (Googie Withers, THE LADY VANISHES), buys an ornate mirror for her husband, Peter (Ralph Michaels, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER). When he looks in the mirror he sees himself as a different person in a totally different room and over time the experience makes him go insane. This is the tale that most closely mirrors the psychological terror of the framing story. The fourth tale is highly anticipated because it is set up in the framing story as an important part of Craig’s reoccurring dream. Eliot Foley (Roland Culver, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP) tells a tale of male rivalry, suicide, ghosts and golf. The humorous tale actually puts a twist on what was set up in the framing story, which helps put doubt in Craig’s tale. The final and scariest tale actually comes from Dr. Van Straaten, who tells of a patient named Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave, THE LADY VANISHES), who believed his ventriloquist dummy was really talking to him.
The various details build the creepiness as Craig’s mental state begins to unravel. For the conclusion of the framing story, the narrative moves in a surreal direction. In the final moments, dream and reality cross and I believe it is this conclusion that keeps this film on many best horror films of all time lists.
Like many horror films of the 1940s DEAD OF NIGHT suffers a bit from the change in sensibility over the past 70 years. Advances in editing, sound design and visual effects have increased the intensity in the horror genre. Simply put what makes someone jump out of their seat has changed. Unlike classic horror films like CAT PEOPLE and THE UNINVITED, which have a single story with characters we care about, this anthology film has less going for it to make up for the change in style.
Looking at this film with a modern lens, one can see parts of it as slow and obvious. For better or worse the anthology framework is what sets this 1940s horror film apart from its contemporaries. Whether it’s the 1940s or today, the framing story serves as a driving factor for the overall film which stands up as one of the best I’ve ever seen. Since its debut it has inspired other storytellers to borrow elements and expand on them and change them and make them even scarier. It’s exciting to see the inspiration in it and inventiveness that is sprinkled across the film. There’s a good reason why ventriloquist’s dummies at horror stables — Chucky’s got nothing on Hugo.