A Special Halloween On Second Look
What I remember:
This will be my “Treehouse of Horror” entry. That much loved series of episodes of "The Simpsons” is usually told in 3 or so slightly related tales, all spooky. “Dead of Night” was possibly the first movie to attempt this feat. I can recall about 4 of the episodes, but I am sure there are a bunch more.
Two of them are definitely recreated in “The Twilight Zone” series. The famous Ventriloquist's dummy episode from the Zone that starred Cliff Robertson was positively based on the episode in “Dead of Night” starring Michael Redgrave. The other famous Zone episode that debuted herein was “Twenty Two”, also known by it’s most famous line: “Room for one more, honey.”
Holy crap, that show creeped me out beyond words the first time I saw it. Sure there are some great Zone episodes, some total classics, some really hilarious episodes, some really poignant ones. But by far the creepiest stay with you. For me it’s; “Twenty-Two”, Shatner with the Airplane Gremlin, and “The Howling Man”, which was based on a Roald Dahl story. I’m not saying they were my favorites, but they definitely terrified me. Funny, if you look at that Gremlin now, it looks like it’s wearing a clown outfit that went absurdly wrong. All I know is it gave me nightmares as a pre-teen.
When I found out that “Dead of Night” was responsible for “Twenty-Two” and maybe a few other Twilight Zone stories, I knew I had to see it.
So it’s British, right? That means the horror will be understated, subtle, intelligent and well acted. I can go for that. What I remember was that this truly was the case, and that the way they tied the different stories together was really interesting and fun. It was a bit uneven, for sure…not a classic of the genre, but really original in concept and execution.
Oohhh…execution. A creepy word.
I know I watched this with my wife back in the ’80’s. She, too, is a big fan of the Zone, and also of “Twenty-Two”. I believe that “A Stop at Willoughby” is her favorite. Remember that one? With the harried commuter who keeps seeing this beautiful small town on his daily train, even though there’s no actual stop for it? If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. Yet.
“Well, when it comes to foreseeing the future, something once happened to me that knocks your theories into a cocked hat. Something I’ll not forget to my dying day. As a matter of fact, it very nearly was my dying day!”-- Hugh Grainger
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is an architect who has been called to spend the weekend at a country farmhouse in order to consult with its owners, The Foleys, on rebuilding their house. Upon his arrival, he gets struck with the sensation of deja vu, and becomes aware that he has met all the people in the house in a dream. This recurring dream, he soon realizes turns into a nightmare eventually. One of the guests, a Dr. Von Straaten (Frederick Valk) is skeptical, and has a scientific explanation for Craig’s feelings. As the day progresses, events that Craig has predicted from his dream start becoming reality. At the same time, it turns out that each of the other guests has had some experience with the paranormal, and they relate these tales in episodic fashion.
Strange that Ealing Studios would be the source of a film that you would more likely associate with Hammer. Ealing was well known and loved for it’s comedies like “The Lavender Hill Mob”. Yet the chilling premise of this film is handled very expertly, as if the Studio had been churning these out for years.
Anthologies are not my favorite form of storytelling. I always feel like I am getting cheated out of depth of character and plot. At 103 minutes, “Dead of Night” doesn’t give you a lot of that.
There are basically 5 tales. Besides the over-running plot line of deja vu, each of the other tales is told by a guest at the house.
The first is told by ex race car driver Anthony Baird (Hugh Grainger). This is our original version of “Twenty Two”. In this case, it’s a wide awake dream from his hospital room while recovering from a racing accident. Though it’s bedtime, and his radio is playing, it suddenly grows very quiet. The radio fades out, the clock stops ticking, and outside birds tweet. He goes to the window, and parts the drapes to see that it is daytime, and there is a horse-drawn hearse below. The driver smiles and says, “Just room for one inside, sir.” I guess you can figure how the rest of it goes….instead of a plane, it’s a bus that goes over the bridge, with our friend the hearse driver as the ticket taker. It’s a great story, but if you are familiar with the Twilight Zone version, you pretty much know what’s coming.
Young Sally (a 15 year old Sally Ann Howes) follows with a classic ghost story. She is playing a version of “Hide and Seek” at a Christmas party in an old house that she has been told by another child is haunted. Of course she stumbles upon a room and a crying child. Since all the children are in costumes, it isn’t remarkable to Sally that the child is in period dress from the 1860’s. He tells her he is scared of his half-sister, Constance. Later Sally finds out that there was a child murdered in that very house, a Frances Kent murdered by his sister Constance. In 1860. What’s actually strange here, is that this is a real case from UK history, and the names were not changed. So much for the disclaimer about "any resemblance blah blah blah.” This would be like you meeting a kid called Bobby Franks in a house in Chicago, and him telling you that he’s scared of these two High School students he knows, named Leopold and Loeb.
This story is probably the weakest of the 5, and maybe the most transparent. There is certainly no surprise for the audience in finding out that Frances was a ghost.
The 3rd story I did not recall, and it’s really well done. Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of when she bought an antique mirror for her fiancé, Peter (Ralph Michael, looking a bit like Clifton Webb). When Peter looks in the mirror, he sees a different room completely than his own. He begins acting strangely, and eventually he becomes jealous and angry. Suffice to say that something awful happened in that room, and he begins to take on the personality of the inhabitant.This episode is well shot and acted, and I found it quite suspenseful.
The 4th is a bit of comic relief from a very popular comedy team of the era, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. These were the two guys who were obsessed with the Cricket scores in “The Lady Vanishes”, even at the risk of their own safety. They were also in “Night Train to Munich” in similar fashion. In “Dead of Night” they are obsessed golfers, in love with the same woman, who decide to play a game wherein the winner gets the woman’s hand in marriage, and the loser disappears. Radford wins by cheating, and upon losing, Wayne actually walks into the water hazard and drowns. He begins to haunt Radford when the afterlife informs him that Radford cheated. There are a couple of laugh out loud moments in the “Topper” tradition, but certainly nothing new here. I do love the British tradition of watching a guy do something very silly he thinks nobody can see, and then having another character walk in on this.
Our 5th story is clearly the strongest and most chilling, if maybe the least original. It’s told by the skeptical Dr. Von Straaten. Yes, it’s the ventriloquist dummy with a mind of it’s own. Wasn’t there also a movie with Anthony Hopkins called “Magic” that used this gimmick? And I know there was a silent film by Erch Von Stroheim called “The Great Gabbo” that preceded this. Hmm…Von Straaten. Von Stroheim. An homage, perhaps? I wonder if the director of “Greed” ever tried to get some money from Ealing for their appropriation of his work.
Anyway, this little story was beautifully realized and perfectly acted by Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, who’s dummy Hugo is an evil little bastard, ready to dump him at the first sign of another ventriloquist. Hugo has got this high-pitched whiny voice, thus making him even more evil than he looks. Which makes me wonder….why is it that dummies are so evil looking? Aren’t they supposed to be funny? I mean, even Knucklehead Smith gave me the willies. And Charlie McCarthy? An Irishman with a monocle and top hat? TERRRRRifying. Forget clowns, people. Dummies. (Shudder).
Some neat tricks are used by our team of directors. Ealing flagship director Robert Hamer, helmed “The Haunted Mirror” episode, and did some nice work with the reflections and camera movement. The trickery reminded me of Magritte, more than a little.
Brazilan born Alberto Cavalcanti, who directed “The Christmas Party" and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” later on teamed up with Sally Ann Howes again in an adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby”. Obviously his work in the Dummy story was the highlight of this film. The camera angles and lighting are particularly effective. And he got just the right amount of movement from the dummy…just enough to make him seem like he had his own mind. He does some nice work in the ghost story too; particularly the contrast between the action and mayhem of the kids playing games and the silence and seclusion of the little murdered boy’s room.
Charles Crichton, another Ealing man, directed the Golf story, and his humorous bent and timing make it work. The man who helmed “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “A Fish Called Wanda” 37 years apart had quite a career, it turns out. Lots of TV, but also a co-directing spot for “The Birdman of Alcatraz”.
The “Hearse Driver” and the Architect’s dream were directed by Basil Dearden. He does a great job at creating the eerie atmosphere, and also the really dry and subtle end of the film. I enjoyed the transition in the hospital room from noisy nighttime to silent day. Sound and picture together work to form a very seamless transformation. Ironically, Dearden himself died in an auto accident. I guess he wasn’t given the same warning as Baird. Or maybe he was, and was skeptical like Von Straaten.
Most of the heavy lifting is done by Redgrave, with a bit of help by Googie Withers and Ralph Michael. The rest of the acting is pretty standard, and young Sally Ann Howes is maybe even a bit over her head, particularly when she realizes that she just hung out with a ghost, and repeats “I’m not frightened... I’m not frightened”, before collapsing into the arms of an older woman.
Radford and Wayne are exactly who they are, and their humor, while maybe a little antiquated, still gets the job done.
Back to Redgrave, though. I didn’t remember him being this effective, but he is simply marvelous. When he is drunk at the bar, he resembles Hugo’s limp body almost more than the dummy. At the end of the episode, when the dummy has taken over his mind, his expressions are positively chilling. And the fact that the dummy’s voice comes out of this rictus of a mouth that doesn’t move, is truly horrifying. I think there is a bit of influence on the final scene of "Psycho" here. I'm sure Hitch had seen this film, and that last shot of Norman with his Mom's voice ("I wouldn't hurt a fly") is quite similar to Hugo's voice coming out of Frere's unmoving mouth.
Even though it’s only about 20 minutes long, this version of the dummy from hell is the best I’ve seen, and it’s mostly thanks to Redgrave.
ON SECOND LOOK
Despite the familiarity with it’s story lines and tropes, “Dead of Night” has a unique feel to it. The circular overriding narrative was apparently the inspiration for the guys who invented the Steady State model of the universe in 1948! The way the stories spring from this and the strength of the two scariest episodes make this a great and enjoyable watch.
It's the funeral home's name! Willoughby! He's dead, you see? Oh, you knew, already? Spoiler spoiled!
On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2 On Second Look: ✭✭✭1/2