Dead of Night: A Thin Line Between Madness and Beyond

When it comes to the various formats within which horror has been presented, the anthology format has turned up time and time again. In a way, it makes a natural sense for many works of horror to present their stories in such a format. By working in shorter story forms, it allows one to offer a variety of terrors without potentially wearing out your welcome on any particular story. Of course, there are some risks that come with that approach. For example, some horror stories work best when they are given the room to breathe and draw out their horror rather than trying to cram them in a quick burst. Other times, the anthology may have just as much of a chance to feature a dud as it might in featuring a hit. Of course, those risks can be worth the reward of offering an audience a good batch of chilling stories. Such is the case with the 1945 British anthology horror film Dead of Night, which features some good vignettes held together with a strong framing story.

Awakening from a horrible nightmare, Walter Craig tries to calm himself as he prepares for a new day. Heading out to a cottage for a small party, he realizes that he has seen all of the guests before in his dream. This fills him with dread, for though he does not remember exactly what happened in his dream, he knows that something bad is going to happen. Walter’s fears prompt a variety of responses from the other guests, from the sympathetic as they try to calm him down or the curious who try to see if his dream really is as prophetic as he claims. All the while, they share stories of their own paranormal encounters to help pass the time. These stories include the tales of a man who receives a chilling premonition of death, a woman who discovers a ghostly guest at a Christmas party, a man bewitched by a mirror whose reflection shows the room of its previous owner, a golfer haunted by the spirit of his rival who accused him of cheating in their final game, and a ventriloquist who treats his dummy as if it were alive. Once the stories are done, however, it comes time to face if reality will have the horrifying conclusion that Walter’s dream possessed.

This is a nice little slice of vintage horror and a good use of the anthology format. One of the major strengths of the film is the framing story. It offers a nice tale in and of itself, drawing out its question of whether or not Walter’s dream will turn out to be true and start down the horrific path he can only vaguely recall. It also offers a foundation from which the vignettes in the movie build upon, with many touching on or exploring notions of premonitions and madness along with supernatural threats. As for the vignettes themselves, they offer some good creepy tales of their own. The first two stories, with one about a dream of an invitation from a hearse driver and the other about a woman who encounters a ghost at a Christmas party, are solid yarns to start the film off. There may not have a lot to them, but the stories are short, sweet, and get in their chilling punch. The fourth vignette, about a golfer haunted by the ghost of his rival, is for me the weakest of the batch. Mind you, this segment isn’t even truly a horror story. It’s actually a comedy, one made as a sort of palate cleanser between the third and final vignettes. However, I felt the humor and the performances within were a little too broad. Now, those third and final stories are the strongest within the film.

Both the third and final vignettes showcase tales that suggest the thin line between madness and the supernatural, offering the strongest connection to the framing story. The third story concerns a woman who has gotten an antique mirror for her fiance. However, this mirror seems to show him a reflection of the previous owner’s room. Not only that, the fiance begins to steadily act more and more like that previous owner, a cruel and paranoid man who wound up killing his lover. The final vignette, which is probably the piece of the movie that has most endured as iconic of the whole product, tells the tale of a ventriloquist named Maxwell Frere and his dummy Hugo. Though they offer a good act, it seems clear that Maxwell treats Hugo as if he were alive. Not only that, he grows increasingly jealous of Hugo’s success and begins to fear that they might be split apart, something that Maxwell would do anything to stop. Both tales are ones that illustrate the horror of madness, though they cloud it with a haze of the paranormal. In a way, they showcase an example of the shift that was beginning to happen in horror. They present that Gothic fear of the unknown, whether in a supposed curse from a mirror or the potential life in a ventriloquist’s dummy, but couch it within the terrifying psychological truths that may hold the key. That guessing game, of horror stemming from a real-world answer or from some paranormal source, serves as a nice stepping stone between the Gothic approach of earlier horror films with the more psychologically-driven horror that would emerge in the 1950s. In fact, these two particular segments are strong examples of the overall approach to dread which Dead of Night offers.

Unfortunately, the film has slipped out of the public consciousness and fallen into more obscure places. As a result, it may take a bit of a hunt to find a good copy of Dead of Night. However, such a hunt is worth it for a strong slice of anthology horror.

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