Dead of Night (5/5)
None of the new releases lured me into the cinema this week, so—since I’m
also conscious that I haven’t given full marks to any film yet (and I’m unlikely
to do so in the foreseeable future)—I thought I would look at an old classic,
1945’s Dead of Night. I believe that this is the greatest horror film ever made.
Mind you, I think there are only two great horror films—Dead of Night and
The Wicker Man, from 1973. You might assume from that I’m not a fan of the
horror genre, but you’d be dead wrong.
I am a fan of horror films, but I hate admitting it. I know the images that
the word “horror film” conjures up for most people. Chainsaws, screaming
teenagers, axes, screaming teenagers, hockey masks, innards, screaming
teenagers, blood and screaming teenagers. After all, most horror films are like
that. Most horror films are awful beyond words.
Dead of Night is nothing like that. There isn’t a single drop of blood, for a
start. There are no chainsaws, no psychopaths, no “jump moments”. The
whole thing is terribly English and pleasant—but far more frightening than any
amount of serial killers. This film operates on chills, not spills.
An architect, Walter Craig, is invited to a country house. A small company
is gathered there for the weekend. As soon as he lays eyes on them, Craig
declares that he’s seen them all in his dreams—that he’s dreamed about
this moment many times before. One of the guests is a psychoanalyst
(with, naturally, a heavy Central European accent). He sets out to debunk
the architect’s claim—but, one by one, the other guests tell of their own
encounters with the paranormal. As the storytelling progresses, Craig
remembers more about his recurring dream….and the point where “my dream
becomes a nightmare.”
Dead of Night is a portmanteau film, an anthology film containing several
short stories within a framing narrative. The format was used to good effect by
the UK’s Amicus and Tigon studios in the seventies, but none of them came
close to Dead of Night. There are five stories (including, like many anthology
horrors films, one funny story for comic relief). The final story is the most
famous (and copied)—a stark tale of a ventriloquist apparently possessed by
I can see why it’s so celebrated, but the climactic ventriloquist tale is actually
my least favourite of the stories. It just seems too intense for this very
understated film. The four other stories are much more subdued.
There’s the one about the little girl playing hide and seek in a strange house.
She finds herself wandering into a bedroom and talking to a rather old-
fashioned boy who laments that his sister is horrible to him and wants to kill
him. This is pretty much the standard ghost story, told time and again, and its
presence in Dead of Night seems entirely appropriate. The classic horror film
should contain the classic ghost story, shouldn’t it?
There’s the tale of an injured motor-car racer who looks out his hospital
window and sees a hearse parked outside—the driver smiles at him and
announces, “Just room for one more inside, sir”…
There’s the story of a woman who buys her fiancé a mirror (“you know how
difficult it is to buy presents for men—they always seem to have everything
they want”). Unbeknownst to her, the mirror previously belonged to a man
who murdered his wife—and her husband-to-be starts seeing funny things in
it, and behaving strangely.
And there’s the afore-mentioned comic relief story, involving two obsessive
golfers who play a match to decide which of them will marry their mutual love.
The loser commits suicide by walking into a lake—but learns on the Other
Side that he was cheated, and decides to come back for revenge. This story
was cut from the film in America, which is a pity—it’s genuinely funny, and
varies the tone nicely.
What makes Dead of Night the greatest horror movie ever? I think it’s the
perfect mix of the two elements horror needs—creepiness and cosiness.
When do people most love to hear ghost stories? On a winter’s night,
when the wind might rattle the windowpanes, but everybody is warm and
comfortable inside. Most horror doesn’t work because it breaks the one great
rule of scary stories— that less is more. One creaking floorboard at the right
moment is spookier than any amount of axe-wielding maniacs.
As for the cosiness, there is no film so velly English as this one. It’s as
English as Agatha Christie novels, fish and chips, hot water bottles and Toby
jugs. The house guests remain unflappable and invincibly cheerful through
all the paranormal talk. Lots of drinks are poured. The best line of the film
(delivered during the comic relief story) describes Dead of Night’s atmosphere
perfectly: “Just because a chap becomes a ghost, surely it doesn’t mean that
he ceases to be a gentleman.”.