Dead Of Night, 1945. 9/10

Very successful example of a horror movie anthology. This ‘grab-bag’ device rarely works well, for a couple of reasons: there’s usually a wide variation in the quality among the episodes, and often the frame story is awkwardly-handled. In Dead of Night the frame story is actually one of the stories, and not just given in a Boris Karloff-esque detached narration. It ties all of the stories together, in that each main character is also the creator of their particular story. So there’s a complex sort of layering–each story reverts to the frame story, yet has a life of its own.

The mystery element operates both on the suspension of disbelief in each individual story, and the more closely-examined frame story. That focus makes sense, as the viewer is another guest around the fire, so to speak, at Foley’s (Roland Culver’s) house; the five stand-alone episodes are literally subplots of the main story. The question arises, does Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Jones’s) ‘dream’ encompass each episode, or only the characters and scene as they appear in Foley’s house? It would be consistent with the nature of dreams that the dreamer could ‘see’ what his own dream-characters describe. Near the end, having killed the doctor, Craig enters each episode in the very hallucinatory denouement. He’s not just a dream-character, he’s also a victim of a nightmare. He is manipulated just as the dummy presumably used the ventriloquist.

There’s an increasing sense of vertigo to the last scenes, as Craig is herded about by the mocking, menacing, ghoulish crowd. I was reminded of the zombie-like characters in 1962’s Carnival Of Souls who close in on the protagonist. In that movie we discover that the woman’s deteriorating mental state is a result of her having died in the film’s beginning scene. Maybe Craig similarly loses touch with reality, because, as the various episodes depict insanity and death show us in their different guises, he has died.

Throughout the film, we’re confronted by the shifting nature of reality. Stated another way, one’s perception is one’s reality. We generally have Craig’s point of view, the others either reflect his view, or replace it with their (and their stories’) view. How Craig absorbs this nest of viewpoints is to experience it as a dream. The alternative would be a sort of split personality–a possibility the ventriloquist story demonstrates. Is the filmmaker positing that reality is dream-like, or, that we can only perceive another’s point of view as a dream? Dreams are part of reality, they exist as thoughts. Unless we express them, of course, then their ‘expiration date’ is only as long as our memory, which may be incomplete, or even non-existent. To stretch a point, an actual event, once past, also exists only as a memory–possibly documented nonetheless. What ties us to reality is consciousness. Anything less than full consciousness leaves us open to all sorts of intriguing, even frightening possibilities.

I began by commenting that anthology films like Dead Of Night often are uneven–that’s also noticeable here. There’s broad agreement among user and critics’ reviews that the last episode, the ventriloquist story, is the best; the comical golfing story the weakest. The others’ somewhere in between, with the haunted mirror story probably the best of that bunch. Generally, the shorter the story, the less interesting–the brief haunted room and hearse driver’s episodes suffering from being underdeveloped. But this movie makes its own rules: given the conceit of dreaming, some parts should be fragmentary, absurd, even comical; just like the varied tone and intensity of each episode. Even Craig’s condensed, altered reenactments of each episode resonate (thankfully skipping the silly golfers’ deal), just as recurring dreams are common.

There’s always more complexity and doubling. The re-experiencing of each dream episode occurs within what is an overall recurring dream. If we accept that Craig actually does wake up, only to embark on the same journey, then he’s pretty much doomed. That version doesn’t quite add up, though, because with (waking) reality intruding, he’d be up for murder at some point. Another possibility is that he never leaves the dream, and therefore never actually goes to Foley’s, let alone kills anyone there. Or, as in Carnival Of Souls, he has already died. Again, the movie successfully makes its own reality, as an ambiguous ending is the only possible one.

A surreal treat for the classic horror fan. Elegantly scripted, well-acted, are undeniably frightening, especially the ending. If you gloss over the golfers, Dead Of Night is perfect. 9/10

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