Kino Lorber, 2019. Region A.
Feature: Black and white, 103 mins. Aspect ratio 1.37:1.
Anthology horror films, otherwise known as portmanteau, contain several short films linked by a narrative framing device. It is a popular format for horror cinema that can be traced back to the days of silent cinema. Back in 1945, the highly influential portmanteau Dead of Night was the first major film to popularize the anthology structure for the horror film.
Though British horror films are well known among horror fans, the sceptered isle was not always recognised for its horror cinema. After some early chillers like The Ghoul (1933) and Dark Eyes of London (1939), there were no horror films produced in Britain during World War II. In his Pictorial History of Horror Films, Dennis Gifford claims this was due to some official policy of the British censor. Post-World War II, British cinema became known for four fairly conventional types of films: polished adaptations of literary classics; smartly crafted contemporary dramas; satirical comedies, many produced by Ealing Studios; and vivid, colourful spectacles produced by Powell-Pressburger. All these types were characterized by understatement, skilled acting, and tight narrative construction. Dead of Night is a rare genre example of the second kind, the contemporary drama.
The film has one of the best framing stories of any portmanteau. Directed by Basil Dearden, this involves architect Walter Craig arriving at a Kent farmhouse to scope out a remodelling project and recognizing the building and the people from a recurring dream. Each of the guests at the farmhouse recounts a story of the supernatural, which form the bulk of the film. In its circularity the framing story is said to have influenced astronomer Fred Hoyle for his steady state model of the universe. Interestingly, the idea of the past and the future being interchangeable is sprinkled in the ghost stories of E.F. Benson, being articulated particularly well in the story The Bed by the Window (1929). Another of Benson’s stories served as the source for one of the narrative segments of Dead of Night.
Written by John Baines and Angus MacPhail, the four stories that make up the substance of the movie are:
The Hearse Driver – Directed by Basil Dearden. A motor racer recovering in hospital after a bad crash has a disturbing, time/space-warping vision involving a hearse. Using tight editing this slight tale manages to conjure up a convincing sense of dislocation. Based on the short story The Bus-Conductor (1906) by E.F. Benson. In 1961 this story was adapted by Rod Serling for the second season of The Twilight Zone.
Christmas Party – Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. This is a traditional English ghost story set in a sprawling country house, where a young woman at a Christmas game of hide-and-seek has an encounter with the supernatural. Fairly conventional, but features an effective use of shadows and set design and decoration.
The Haunted Mirror – Directed by Robert Hamer. In arguably the best segment, an antique mirror’s reflection gradually reveals the shades of past trauma and begins to possess the living. The sense of creeping menace is effectively built up and the interactions between the two protagonists reveal a subtle commentary on male-female dynamics post-WWII.
Golfing Story – Directed by Charles Crichton. Well-known as the mood-killer of the quintet, this is a tiresome, comical ghost story loosely based on the H.G. Wells short story The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost. Played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, the two main characters are copies of comedy duo Charters and Caldicott, created for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy – Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. In the most famous segment, a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) is dominated by Hugo, his dummy, which appears to be alive. Redgrave’s convincingly frayed performance and the uncanny, amoral presence of the doll make for a supremely unsettling experience. Subsequent films inspired by this episode include The Devil Doll (1964) and Magic (1978), as well as The Dummy (1962), an episode of Season 3 of The Twilight Zone.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the reference to psychology that crops up throughout. The character of Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) doesn’t accept the supernatural and attempts to rationally explain the events recounted in the stories using human psychology. “The trouble’s not in the mirror, it’s in my mind,” says the male protagonist in The Haunted Mirror. And The Ventriloquist’s Dummy is deliberately ambiguous as to the ultimate explanation being psychological or supernatural with its final moments anticipating those in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Dead of Night was produced by Ealing Studios under head of production Michael Balcon, who led the studio in what is considered its golden era. Ealing, famous for comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), never journeyed again into horror after this film, and Dead of Night failed to initiate a trend of British horror films. A couple of decades on, in the 1960s and early 1970s, UK studio Amicus made its name with anthology horror with vivid tales of terror like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Tales from the Crypt (1972), sometimes adapted from EC horror comics. Horror anthologies continued on in popularity, with notable examples being Black Sabbath (Italy, 1963), Kwaidan (Japan, 1964), Creepshow (USA, 1982), Three Extremes (China/Korea/Japan, 2004), and Trick ‘r Treat (USA, 2007).
Dead of Night is an anomaly in British horror cinema, but it is still one of the best chillers produced in the UK and was highly influential on future anthology films, a sub-genre in which it remains a notable example of understated excellence. It is arguably the most important British horror film until Hammer Films reanimated the genre in the late 1950s with Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.
The transfer is a 4K restoration which results in a finely-detailed picture with deep blacks. There are occasional speckles and blemishes but this is by far the best it has looked thus far on home video, far surpassing the murky picture on the Anchor Bay DVD (on which it was paired with Queen of Hearts).
Audio commentary by Tim Lucas – As with all of film critic and historian Lucas’ commentaries, this is a minutely detailed and richly informative track. There are very few dead spots in the commentary, with Lucas exploring cinematic and literary connections to the film.
Remembering Dead of Night (75 mins.) – An appreciation of the film delivered through talking head snippets with various film critics and lecturers, including Kim Newman (director John Landis also makes an appearance). The format of interviewees talking against a flat black background is fairly dull, but the comments are interesting enough. At almost feature length, though, this is overlong and does wear out its welcome.
The disc also includes a selection of trailers for The Spiral Staircase, The Lodger, The Undying Monster, and two anthology horrors, Tales of Terror and Twice-Told Tales.
Light on extras but featuring superlative picture quality, this is a worthy disc of a key British horror film and a very welcome upgrade to previous home video versions. An easily recommended purchase for any classic horror fan.