Wednesday 3 December 2008

Dead of Night (1945)

One of the earliest classic horror anthologies, this film has a pretty solid reputation. It's an Ealing film, far from their traditional comedies, but just as literate and well constructed as you'd expect, with the linking story being the key rather than just a loose afterthought. It's also full of names: four directors, four writers and eight featured stars, along with many others. They're not minor names either: just to mention a couple of each, there's Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer; H G Wells and E F Benson; and Mervyn Johns and Michael Redgrave.

Johns is the first person we meet. He's Walter Craig, an architect visiting an farmhouse in the country that's in need of an expansion. He's never been there before or anywhere near it, but he knows the place well and all the people who meet him there: all six of them, even though one hasn't even arrived yet. He knows it all from a recurring dream, which becomes a nightmare, something that doesn't bode well for the evening. He lets the others know, of course, and they're fascinated. Most of them believe him, but one of the other guests is a psychiatrist who wants to rationalise it away.

Gradually the things he mentions that haven't happened yet come to pass, without any easy explanation, firming up everyone else's belief in Craig's story. And they tell their own stories, all with a touch of the supernatural, to back up why they believe. Some are simple, like Hugh Grainger's story of a near death experience that follows a near death experience or young Sally O'Hara's ghost story at a party. Others have more depth, like Joan and Peter Cortland's experiences with a haunted mirror.

This segment is a peach, well set up and well executed, growing in intensity joyously with excellent performances from Ralph Michael and the delightful Googie Withers. The only real surprise is that this isn't the Wells story, but then next one fits Wells even more. It's Eliot Foley's story, a surreal haunting tale that is in its way a very British comedy of manners, decidedly Victorian and decidedly delightful. It sees two best friends, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (in many way reprising their roles from The Lady Vanishes), who are addicted both to the game of golf and to the same woman. They decide to play a round for her, with the winner winning her hand and the loser going away for ever, but naturally things don't turn out quite as you'd expect.

All the stories are good, up to the last and strangest, which is Dr van Straaten's own story that has to do with a ventriloquist's dummy. It's Michael Redgrave that takes this role and he does a solid job, ending with a highly memorable few fractured words in a padded cell. And then comes the nightmarish finale, which wraps everything up neatly in the framing story. It really is the defining framework story because while offhand I can't think of another that had any depth at all, here it's the entire point. In fact the way it's set up inspired cosmologists including Fred Hoyle to develop the steady state theory of the universe. Talk about influence.

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