Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Dead of Night (1945): or, Anthology Films for Dummies

Made in 1945, Dead of Night may be one of the earliest horror anthologies. A British production of Ealing Studios, one immediately obvious difference between DoN and a Hollywood production of the same period are the actors' accents, which are a lot thicker than the smooth-as-velvet English tones you might have heard from Hollywood-based Brit stars of the period--indeed, sometimes so thick as to require close listening for translation.

The movie stands out not only as one of the earliest anthology horror films, but also one of the best. An intriguing frame story finds the architect Walter Craig summoned to a country house in England to discuss a contracting job, building a new barn on the affluent owner's estate. As Craig arrives, he is overcome by a feeling of déjà vu--he's been to this house before, met the owner, Eliot Foley, and had the conversation they engage in.

He soon realizes that he has dreamed all this--lately his sleep has been plagued by a recurring nightmare that he largely forgets shortly after waking, but now he realizes that this house, Lord Foley--it's the same as the dream! Inside the house he meets a group of visitors, all guests of the owner, who also appeared in his dream. He predicts correctly several events in the house before they occur, leading the guests to engage in a conversation about the supernatural and weird happenings without explanation. It seems that each guest has had some such experience or other, and their recounting of these experiences forms the meat of the movie.

There's a race car driver who, after a near-fatal crash, was plagued by dreams of a hearse driver inviting him in. This story has been re-filmed in various versions many times since, notably on the Twilight Zone (the famous "Room for One More" episode), so horror fans know what's coming well before hand--still, it must have been brand new in 1945, and the way it's filmed and the way the suspense is built up are all very masterful and creep-inducing.

After the driver, a young girl tells the story of a game of hide-and-seek at a party she attended, wherein she met a young boy in an abandoned wing of the house who might not have been a guest at the party. This is a serviceable if bland little tale, but the "old dark house" creepiness is in full effect, and the story, while not horrifying, is well told.

Then we get my second favorite story of the lot, told by a beautiful socialite about some strange events that occurred just before her wedding. She buys an antique mirror for her fiance as a wedding gift, but when he starts to see things in the mirror that aren't there, she wonders if he's going insane or if something even more sinister is at work... As someone who has ALWAYS been creeped out by mirrors in the dark (what if something's in there that isn't in the room when I turn around? *shudder*), this one really got to me, though another viewer's mileage may vary.

The next story is the only misstep of the entire flick, a comic relief story told by the estate owner about a pair of golfing buddies who fall in love with the same girl and decide to play a round of golf to decide who should bow out. When one cheats, the other commits suicide and comes back for retribution. It's a stagy, hokey, corny little story, and goes on a bit too long, but might have been passably amusing for 40s British audiences. Still, to a modern viewer, it's simply unfunny.

The final story more than makes up for it, however, as the high mark of the whole film--what is probably the first ever creepy ventriloquist doll story committed to film. Michael Redgrave, patriach of the Famous Acting Redgraves, is fantastic as the tortured and possibly insane ventriloquist. This segment sets the bar for all other such stories that have followed since, with a truly unsettling dummy and some sharp, creepy dialogue. The film would be worth watching for this segment alone, even if the other stories were not excellent in their own right, as all but the golfing story are.

"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"A creepy old dude at the cell door."
"A creepy old dude at the cell door who?"
"...Go fuck yourself."

But the filmmakers are not done yet, as the frame story wraps up in a surreal, bizarre, and truly frightening climax that you might have seen coming, but which still delivers the goods.

The more I think about this movie, the more there is to like. The acting is good across the bar, with the exception of the golf story, which is played as very broad comedy without worrying about credibility.

Not only that, but there are some uses of unusual lighting and off-kilter camera angles in many of the stories that you don't really expect to see in movies of this vintage, when the standard for filming was a mid-range stationary shot. These shots are very effective in conveying visually the otherworldly menace of the themes, and make the movie a treat to watch.

Even in the drawing room frame story, when the characters are talking about their experiences, toward the middle and end of the film the camera starts to do strange things, filming the actors from low angles instead of eye level, giving a visual clue that the world of the supernatural is creeping into the real world and not staying put in the stories. Very nicely done.

The movie is a British film, and an old one, so you mustn't expect anything to jump out and say BOO to make you jump from your seat or scream--that would be rude, and very improper. But if you open your mind and go with the vintage movie conventions, it does provide some very nice gooseflesh-raising scenes, and a frame story that is much more than just a device to get the other stories in--it actually becomes one of the stories, and a good one at that.

2.75 Thumbs. Well worth seeking out, and highly recommended, especially to fans of the classics.

Caveat Emptor: I bought this dvd off the Anchor Bay sale on DeepDiscount.com (on a 2 disc set with Queen of Spades), and I must say the transfer is a bit lacking, particularly in regards to sound. Outdoor dialog scenes were obviously and poorly redubbed later, and both inside and out the music almost always surpasses the dialog by several decibels. This makes viewing rather a trial-and-error process as one is constantly fumbling with the remote to find the appropriate volume level. In the defense of the dvd authors, this was probably the way the sound was engineered from the time of production; still, an audio-remaster would have been nice.

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