TV Cream

Films: D is for...

Dead of Night

Ealing Studios assembled four of their finest directors to film five tales of supernatural creepiness, and in the process created what remains the finest horror portmanteau of them all. Architect Mervyn Johns, haunted by a recurring nightmare, visits a country house, the inhabitants of which regale him with stories of their own nightmarish experiences – a premonition of death, a child from the past, a posessed mirror and a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) possessed by the malevolent spirit of his dummy. Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney, but the execution is flawless, and even after sixty-plus years this film retains the power to frighten. The various directors work wonders – that old dark house is a den of claustrophobia, and a simple slow track into a closed hospital ward curtain is imbued with unnameable dread. So effortlessly brilliant was this film, it unwittingly laid down several ground rules most subsequent horror anthologies have followed (or tried to) ever since. There’s the excellent linking narration, which does more than segue from one story to another, but gets various characters featured in the stories to talk to each other, even quibble over the likelihood of the tales, and gives a shape to the episodic structure by building to a brilliantly gothic climax in itself (‘Oh doctor, why did you have to break your glasses?’) Secondly, it injects some pace into the rigid framework, starting off with a five-minute palate-cleanser featuring an ominous hearse driver (‘Room for one more inside, sir!’), and building up to the longer Michael Redgrave segment at the end. Sadly, it also introduced the concept of the mid-film ‘comic relief’ story, with a pair of Charters and Caldicott-like golfing duffers getting mixed up with wagers, hauntings and supernatural hand gestures. It’s not a bad story really, and effectively lightens the mood before that ventriloquist’s dummy brings it crashing down again, but it set a dangerous precedent.

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