Dead of Night

Dead of Night cover

The odd sense of déjà vu, the familiarity of events which have not yet happened, the mind convinced “I have been here before” as J B Priestley put it in his play of 1937, even though the evidence is to the contrary; arriving at a country house he has been asked to visit and assess for renovation, architect Walter Craig immediately but inexplicably knows not only the property but the people he finds inside.

A gathering of guests he has never met yet who have featured in his dreams, they do not doubt or mock him, polite and interested as they encourage him to tell more and then, inspired by his arrival, each begin to tell their own stories of strange occurrences which have either heard of from trusted friends or experienced personally, an escape from near death by a racing car driver, a ghostly encounter at a Christmas party, a mirror which reflects another time and place…

Dead of Night; gathered for tea in an English country farmhouse.

Released in September 1945, Dead of Night was an unusual film, an anthology of supernatural tales, of premonitions and ghosts and possessions set within a framing story featuring many of the same characters, what would become known as a portmanteau film when the form was revived by horror specialist studio Amicus two decades later with such films as Dr Terror’s House of Horror and Vault of Horror.

What sets Dead of Night apart is that it was developed by Ealing, now most associated with comedy, and that it was the product of multiple directors, the framing story and first segment The Hearse Driver by Basil Dearden, The Christmas Party by Alberto Cavalcanti, The Haunted Mirror by Robert Hamer, The Golfer’s Story by Charles Crichton and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy again by Cavalcanti.

Dead of Night; Sally O'Hara (Sally Ann Howes) at the Christmas party.

The script by John Baines and Angus MacPhail, they also drew on the published works of E F Benson and H G Wells, The Bus-Conductor and The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost, creating a particularly British interpretation of the genre, set in modern times and outwardly safe and respectable, without any of the trappings associated with horror, no castles, dungeons or thunderstorms, although many of the stories have the past hanging over them in some way.

The presence of psychiatrist Doctor van Straaten (Frederick Valk) within the house serving to reassure the troubled Mister Craig (Mervyn Johns), explaining and debunking the stories, the two characters represent the audience’s predilections for scepticism and credulity, drawing the contrary viewpoints together even as the shadows gather, the most overly tragic episode leavened by it being the only one played as comedy but followed by the most horrific.

Dead of Night; Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael) gazes through the mirror to another place.

Each story told efficiently with some only a few minutes long, Dead of Night wastes no time to get going, and while some of the plots are familiar from the echoes they have left behind, either through later adaptations of the same source material or what could kindly be termed “homage,” whether conscious or not, the whole has come to be regarded as an influential classic of British cinema with many famous fans, among them Martin Scorsese and John Landis.

Given a pristine restoration by StudioCanal as part of their Vintage Classics range, their recent edition of Dead of Night carries an extended appreciation by a number of aficionados who for over an hour and a quarter share their impressions, insights and occasionally suggest some extreme interpretations of the subtext, though all agree the house and the characters represent facets of Britain fresh from a war never once referenced in the film, exploring instead more personal fears.

Dead of Night is one of the titles in StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range which recently celebrated its one hundredth release

Dead of Night; Hugo and Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave).



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