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East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Insomnia movie: Dead of Night (1945)

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Who doesn’t like a good scary movie once in a while?
What better way to go through a bout of insomnia?
And this is the season for scary movies and creepy stories, so I went and finally watched an old movie that’s been on my list forever, and that only recently I got in the restored version. Because it’s a film from 1945, and it’s baffling and disquieting and a beauty to behold.
It’s called Dead of Night and you should really check it out.

The plot: a man drives to the British countryside, to stay in a place he is being contracted to refurbish. He’s greeted in a very friendly manner by the master of the house and his guests – people he’s meeting for the first time, but that he’s seen in his dreams.220px-DeadOfNight1
And not only the newcomer knows each one of the guests, but also knows what is about to happen, and it will be bad.
Then things get weird.

Dead of Night was made in 1945 by Ealing Studios, the main purveyor of romantic entertainment for British cinemas, and is listed as their only horror – interesting,considering that thehorror genre had been banned during the war years (bad for the morale, you see). The film is a communal effort involving many members of the Ealing family – it is an anthology movie of sorts, and different segments were filmed by different directors and technical staff.

Poor mister Craig, that comes to the scene of what’s been a recurring nightmare of his, reveals his strange premonitions, and while doctor Van Straaten tries to defuse his claims by invoking scientific explanations, the various guests tell of their own uncanny experiences.

In the first tale, based on E.F. Benson’s The Bus ConductorRace driver Anthony Baird, following a car crash during a competition, is staying in a hospital and has a strange dream that, probably, saves his life later.
The segment is directed by Basil Dearden, that also helms the framing sequences.

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Afterwards, young Sally O’Hara relates of a sinister experience she had during a Christmas party, playing sardines. The whole episode, filmed by veteran Alberto Cavalcanti, is beautifully shot and sinister, and based on a real case of murder from the 19th century. The story id from Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail – the man that gave the “MacGuffin” its name.

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The plot of the segment called The Haunted Mirror is so much of a classic that’s been redone a thousand times: Joan Cortland tells of how the mirror she bought as a gift for her husband to be comes to exert a strange influence on the man, that comes to be haunted by what he sees in the mirror. The director is Robert Hamer, that would go on to direct Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Up to this point, the movie’s been a crescendo of uneasiness, from the strange story of the car racer to the sinister experience of the girl at the party, to the frankly disquieting mirror story.

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But here the movie does a U turn and Charles Crichton (yes, the guy that directed The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda) takes an H.G. Wells story about the rivalry between two golfers and creates a funny, extremely British and somewhat naughty piece of supernatural comedy
Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise in all but name the characters of Charters and Caldecott they played in The Lady Vanishes. It’s as funny as you can get in a story featuring golf, suicide and a newlyweds’ first night.

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But the movie does another switch-back and darkness grows as it’s finally time for the doctor himself to relate his own brush with the supernatural, and he tells about his involvement in the case of an evil ventriloquist’s dummy. This is another absolute classic, and features Michael Redgrave in a great turn as the ventriloquist driven round the bend by his own puppet. Once again, Cavalcanti directs.

And then, as everything seems fine, it’s time for the weird nightmare of mister Craig to come full circle – almost literally.

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They don’t make them like this anymore. Dead of Night is scary but what’s more it is disquieting. There are no jump scares, no gore, no monsters. Everything is absolutely mundane, and photographed in beautiful black and white, and then reality cracks, and the supernatural pours in.
Along the way, we also have the opportunity of listening to legendary performer Elizabeth Welch sing a song in a Paris night-club, and we observe the British upper classes at their best (or worst, depending on your politics) in the pre-war years.

Surprising and decidedly scary, the movie is also responsible for suggesting a famous cosmological theory to Fred Hoyle – because astrophysicists do go to the movies.

It is possible that, to today’s moviegoers, a film like Dead of Night might look too quiet and filled with people that talk too much, but this should not discourage the curious: it’s a cornerstone of the genre, and as my friend Lucy once wrote,it paved the way for Hammer and Amicus. It was quite successful at the time, but Ealing would never do a horror again, and yet, the seed had been planted.

Check it out, if you can.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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