Omnibus films have a long and distinguished history, especially in the horror genre, and it’s possible that this quiet British film from Ealing Studios is one of the first. It’s certainly one of my favorites. I’ve seen it several times before, but when TCM played it recently, I couldn’t resist watching it again. The first time I saw it, many years ago, it was one of the first legitimate horror films that I actually liked (I didn’t start venturing into horror much until a couple of years ago), partially because, well, it isn’t that scary, but also because I love the way the frame story works. Most of the time, frame stories in omnibus films are pretty throwaway, just a string to hang the other stories on. But in Dead of Night, it’s essential, and possibly even the most intriguing/scariest of the stories.
This frame story has provincial architect Walter (played by Mervyn Johns) arriving at a country house to meet with the owner about potential renovations, but his demeanor reveals that something’s not quite right – he’s off-balance, and soon tells his host and the various other guests at the house that he’s met them all and experienced this situation before, even though he hasn’t. He’s convinced that certain things will happen throughout the evening (and they do), and that eventually something truly terrible that he can’t quite remember will happen, filling him with dread. The others laugh it off as a weird coincidence, but each of them also has a strange story to relay, and those stories, told in turn, take up the bulk of the film.
A few of the stories are relatively unmemorable, and none of particularly scary, but they’re all entertaining and a couple of them are quite well-done and chilling. One story of a wounded soldier seeing a vision of a dark hearse waiting for him is pretty routine and doesn’t go much of anywhere, and the Charles Crichton-directed golfing ghost episode is played for broad laughs rather than scares (which is fitting, since Crichton was responsible for some of Ealing’s most uproarious comedies, from The Lavender Hill Mob to A Fish Called Wanda). But the young girl’s tale of going through a door while playing hide and seek in a supposedly haunted mansion and meeting a little boy who doesn’t seem to belong with the party she’s at has one of those nice chills right at the end that Twilight Zone episodes do so well. Really, that’s the best comparison for these stories – they get just barely to the weird and unexplained part, just enough to suggest to you something odd and then stop just when your imagination can take over. It’s one of my favorite horror techniques.
There’s also a finely done creepy story of a mirror that shows another room in it, a room that turns out to hold its own horrific secrets that threaten to bleed into our character’s life. This one evokes a bit of Dorian Gray for me, where an image ends up affecting the owner’s life in a far deeper way than initially expected, and though it plays out more like a thriller than horror, it’s quite a nice little entry. It’s got kind of a Victorian feel to it (as do most of the shorts, actually, but this one and the haunted mansion one do most strongly) that appeals to my horror sensibilities.
But the segment that most people remember from this film and definitely the most creepy one is the last one before the frame story kicks back in, bringing us full circle in more ways than one. The last segment, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (an Italian expatriot who also did several other excellent moody British films during this time, and also directed the haunted mansion segment here), has to do with a ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave and his dummy, who seems to have a strange control over his master – in fact, who indeed IS the master? I’m always creeped out by ventriloquist’s dummies, and I have a pretty strong feeling that this movie started that.
When the frame story comes back, the last of Walter’s predictions comes true, and he soon falls into a surreal nightmare world that’s worthy of Dali or almost David Lynch – most of the movie isn’t scary, but this part is genuinely frightening, I think, and elements from all the other stories turn up again, distorted into an Expressionist mishmash of terror. It’s pretty short, but there are some wonderful and terrible images in there, and then the last little coda, which I won’t spoil, is fantastic and the thing that really sold me all those years ago on loving this film. I loved it all over again this time.
Directors: Robert Hamer (“The Haunted Mirror”), Basil Deardon (“Hearse Driver” and “Linking Narrative”), Alberto Cavalcanti (“Christmas Party” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”)
Screenplay: John Baines and Angus MacPhail
Original Stories by: H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, Angus MacPhail
Producer: Michael Balcon
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe, Stanley Pavey
Editing: Charles Hasse
Score: Georges Auric
Starring: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Sally Ann Howes, Robert Wyndam, Michael Redgrave