The horror…: “Dead of Night”

July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Ealing Studios film Dead of Night is no more a horror movie than is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is not at all meant as a slight against either but more as an expression of the fact that the general aim of both the television series and this 1945 portmanteau picture seems to be to evoke that viscerally ticklish, goosefleshy sensation one gets when pleasantly terrified in bite-sized doses, like sitting around a campfire and being told a ghost story which would not be particularly terrifying if not for the fact that it is cold, dark, you guys are in the woods and that failing to be scared or at least to appear scared would be kind of a spoil-sport thing to do, or not do. It would be surprising if a viewer departs this film significantly more conscious of the possibility of malevolent forces being present all around them. For those who seek out horror cinema for jump scares and screams, there are few if any to be found here; but for those who prefer to be mildly unsettled but constantly so, then Dead of Night may very well hit the spot, at times.

Architect Walter Craig (played by Toby Jones lookalike Mervyn Johns) is summoned by acquaintance/client Eliot Foley to a house in the country where a small group of guests is already casually gathered, talking and sharing a drink. Within the first few minutes it is established that Walter is plagued by what seems to be a particularly nagging spell of déjà vu and is convinced that not only has he been in this exact location with this exact set of characters (or at the very least dreamt it), but that the night does not end well, least of all for the individual he believes he will end up murdering. Of course, his assertions are subjected to a range of responses from teasing curiosity by most, to overly huffy skepticism by the resident rationalist Dr Van Straaten whose explanation for everything seems to be that ‘it is not uncommon.’ In support of Walter, four of the characters take turns narrating their own experiences – firsthand and otherwise – with the vaguely paranormal. The doctor eventually succumbs to the mood and narrates his own experience of being boggled. What follows are five Twilight Zone-y episodes (culminating in a somewhat bravura freak-out climax), the most famous of which features Sir Michael Redgrave from The Lady Vanishes as a ventriloquist who finds himself caught between a fellow voice-thrower and the man’s puppet, Hugo, which may or may not have a consciousness of its own, and a malicious one at that. This particular episode’s renown is probably justified, but more so for what it promises to be, whether or not you feel that it delivers on this. There is a tantalising quality to these tales. They dare the viewer to wonder whether or not these ‘paranormal’ experiences will eventually prove to be some silly dream, an illusion of sorts or perhaps the result of a moment of madness. You could commend the filmmakers for their restraint and their investment in the viewers’ sense of imagination, or you could accuse them of falling shot, copping out, or displaying a poverty of creativity if you dare go that far.

Dead of Night, enjoyable as it is, raises the question of how effective horror and comedy can be in partnership. This is not to say that the film is a capital ‘C’ comedy, but that there is a distinctly light touch to it, as though the creators are making a conscious effort to acknowledge that these are nothing more than interesting sketches, pieces of whimsy that really have no bearing on reality, which can’t always be the case, at least with regards to some of the strange experiences the movie dramatises. Horror-comedy combinations have always seemed like a somewhat parasitic relationship in that laughter can result from broken tension, or perhaps in response to morbidly unbroken tension. But does the converse occur? Maybe so. Perhaps comedy stretched to certain extremes can end up exposing the horrors inherent in whatever subject is being made light of, but in the case of Dead of Night, neither is the case. The elements of dread and humour seem to exist despite each other and sometimes the result is that what is on screen is neither funny nor frightening, for example the golfing episode which is quite possibly the weakest, a title it shares with the second tale, that of the boy ghost. In all honesty, are anthology films ever intended to be particularly hearty single courses as opposed to tasting menus designed to entertain the tastebuds fleetingly?

If there is one terrifying aspect of the human experience that is repeatedly touched upon by all of the episodes in Dead of Night it would have to be isolation. Whether it is the newly married man tortured by the possibility that he is being driven mad by the mirror his wife purchased for him as an engagement gift, or the ventriloquist who can’t seem to convince anyone that his puppet is alive and kind of an ass, the fear of being completely alone in experiencing something is a constant theme throughout the film. We all know, on some level, that the commonalities all humans apparently share may actually be subject to more variation than expected. What hunger is to one may not be what hunger is to another, but at least both can agree than hunger isn’t exactly pleasant and that it tends to be eradicated by food. But the idea of seeing something that no one else can clearly see…or hear or feel or touch or taste or know, this can be truly unsettling, and Dead of Night captures this well. If only directors Cavalcanti, Hamer, Crichton and Dearden didn’t choose to erase the aftertaste of this by ultimately highlighting how much of a constructed, matinee romp the film actually is. On this note, it would be appropriate to mention this film’s status as a classic not only of the horror genre but of British cinema overall. Cited as something of a landmark and highly regarded by everyone from Time Out London to Martin Scorsese, Dead of Night is the kind of film one would hope to find exciting and instructive yet which, for reasons not exactly easy to articulate, feels a touch wanting and somewhat undeserving of its high praise. It seems that being alone in one’s indifference towards Dead of Night may be even more unsettling than the picture itself.

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