Dead of Night was something of an aberration when it was produced by Michael Balcon for the Ealing Studios in 1945. Not only was it one of the few horror films produced by British studios in the 1940s, but it was also what is known as a portmanteau or anthology movie.
It was , however, an aberration that would have a lasting legacy, even though it was one which would not truly be felt until around 15 years later.
Dead of Night begins with the arrival of Walter Craig at Pilgrim’s House, a country manor where he has been invited to join an otherwise unknown to him group of people for… well, it’s never really made clear why this diverse group of people have been gathered together, but that hardly matters in the larger scheme of the movie. What does matter is that upon his arrival Craig immediately realizes that he has seen this group of people, and this setting, before, in a constantly recurring nightmare.
Though at first the only the people present and the place seem familiar to Craig, who is unable to remember many of the details of the dream, over the course of the movie he begins to remember and reveal more details all of which seem to point to dire events to come not only during the course of the night, but in the future lives of the attendees. Interspersed with these recollections are tales which each of the people at the party tell, either of their own dreams or with their own encounters with seemingly unexplainable and possibly supernatural events. It is these stories, each of them written and directed by different people, which make up the bulk of the movie, as it weaves between the individual segments and the larger framing story.
The stories which make up the bulk of the film vary widely both in length and tone, from the six-minute long hearse segment to the highly comedic golfing buddies story to the approximately 25 minute long ventriloquist’s dummy segment. Though some might see this diversity as a shortcoming of the movie, personally I think it is one of its strengths as it plays into the dreamlike build-up of the entire arc of the narrative. After all, as we all have experienced, dreams quite often have their own internal logic which may not be apparent until it is viewed from afar, perhaps upon awakening.
Of course every good protagonist – which is, I suppose, what we must consider Walter Craig in this film – needs a good antagonist, and in the case of Dead of Night, that comes in the form of Frederick Valk’s Dr. van Straaten. Van Straaten act as a debunker to each of the stories, attempting to rationalize the events that are related and to explain how they could be psychological in stead of supernatural. It’s interesting, therefore that his own story is the one that is not only the longest, but also the most compelling, along with it being the one that begins the true horror that comes at the end of the film.
In deference to those who might want to seek out Dead of Night for themselves, – which I highly recommend – I’m not going to go much further into the individual stories or the overarching narrative which surrounds the individual episodes. Instead, I want to take a quick look at the lasting legacy of this film.
Obviously, the individual stories, none of which are exactly original in the first place, have their own places in future cinematic history. The story of the phantom hearse driver, for instance, is reflected in a number of places, with its main theme of a predictive vision of a fatal crash/explosion becoming the basis of the popular recent Final Destination series. Likewise, the theme of the mirror that shows a different reality has been picked up upon in numerous places, including the excellent Twilight Zone episode “The Mirror”. As far as the “Is it really alive or not?” theme of the ventriloquist’s dummy sequence, well, pretty much any long-running horror show is going to eventually do a similar episode, though for my money, the best movie to feature the theme still remains the 1978 movie Magic which starred Anthony Hopkins.
It’s not, however, the legacy of the individual stories themselves that I want to talk about, but of the entire film. Dead of Night, you see, was the film that inspired Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, the founders of Amicus Films, to turn their own hands to making anthology movies, thus cementing the studio’s legacy in British film history.
To put it succinctly for now, in 1960 Subotsky and Rosenberg teamed to make the movie City of the Dead at London’s Shepperton Studios. from there they moved on to put together Amicus Productions. After a making a couple of musicals aimed at the teen market – It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) and Just for Fun (1963) – the pair, inspired by Dead of Night decided to turn their hand to making their own portmanteau film, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and it proved such a hit that they returned to the style again and again, creating films that easily rivaled in popularity and creativity those of the studio’s larger and better known rival, Hammer. In fact, because many of the Amicus films use some of the same stars that were also appearing in Hammer films at the time, most notably Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, there are those who don’t realize that the Amicus Films are from a studio separate from Hammer.
I’ll have much more to say about Amicus and its movies in the near future. For now, however, I’ll just leave you with this thought: If you find yourself having strange dreams and then suddenly receive an unexpected invitation to join a group of people in a place you’ve never been before, you might want to think twice before accepting, or if you arrive in a place you’ve never been and the place and the people there seem strangely familiar, you will probably want to leave as soon as possible. Otherwise things may soon take a very, very dark turn and you may find yourself, like Walter Craig, trapped in the Dead of Night.