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Published Monday, October 11, 2021
Did you know the British film industry banned horror movies during World War II? I didn't, but that was just one of several Wikipedia rabbit holes Dead of Night sent me down.
Made in 1945 by Ealing Studios,Dead of Night is quite an oddity. First, the war was winding down but was still going on, and it's effective as a horror film so I can't imagine that it went completely unnoticed by the British censors. Second, Ealing Studios was synonymous with comedies for most of the 20th century; horror movies—especially good ones—were not really part of their repertoire.
Dead of Night is an anthology film and a collaboration between four different directors, neither of which was a popular way to make movies at the time. The film opens with Walter Craig, an architect, driving through the English countryside. He comes to a hotel of sorts, and speaks with the owner who has hired Craig for some renovations. In the sitting room, Craig meets the other guests, and tells them that though they've never met, he knows each of them intimately. He explains that he has a recurring dream about this exact moment, and indeed, he is able to predict small events over the course of the conversation before they happen. The night will end in tragedy, he says, and he's never been able to stop it. He always forgets his dream upon waking, as well, so he's never been able to do anything about it.
The other guests soon fall to discussing Craig's particular predicament, and only the psychologist, Dr. van Straaten, is completely unconvinced that anything unusual is happening here. The conversation turns to supernatural experiences, and each character's story is told by a different director.
The first two stories are nothing particularly exciting—a racecar driver thwarts a couple of brushes with death, and a partygoer believes she's spoken with a ghost. The third story, about a mirror that reflects a different room, is where things get going; it's effectively the moment where somebody takes control of the conversation by saying "you wanna hear something really scary?" Up next, a bit of comic relief as two golfers share a rivalry that continues beyond the grave, based on "The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost" by H.G. Wells. Dr. van Straaten is on hand to poke holes in each episode, but his own story about a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy is the best of the bunch.
At the end of the evening, everyone goes to bed, and a tragedy does, indeed, occur. Elements of each story bleed into real life, and Craig wakes up just as things begin to reach fever pitch. As always, he has no recollection of the dream. Anyway, he has more important matters to attend to; the owner of a certain hotel in the country would like to consult with him…
I don't know many of the actors or directors involved with Dead of Night because it's not American and was made on the other side of 1950. I guess that represents a big hole in my cinematic knowledge. Mervyn Johns (Walter Craig) looks awfully familiar, and I've seen him in other things (notably the 1963 Bill Castle remake of The Old Dark House). The two comic-relief golfers played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are named George Parratt and Larry Potter, and also appeared with different names (Charters and Caldicott) in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. Audiences liked the duo so much that they reprised the roles in other films, on stage, and on the radio. Nice work if you can get it, I guess!
Wikipedia says that Dead of Night's cyclical nature inspired the (largely dismissed) steady-state model of the universe. Myself, I once dismissed the inspiration to make a Twinkie wiener sandwich after watching UHF.