Dead Of Night (1945)
It would be safe to say that most of the films on this site aren't particularly frightening. Occasionally they may make you think, or shudder, or jump - but there are very few genuinely terrifying examples along the same lines as say, The Blair Witch Project or The Exorcist (which I don't actually rate, but some people seem to like).
Most examples of British Horror are camp (Scream And Scream Again, The Abominable Doctor Phibes), intentionally funny (Psychomania, Horror Hospital), unintentionally funny (I Don't Want To Be Born), or period pieces (Tales From The Crypt, Corruption) - in fact many of these examples have elements of all of these. Some are grim (Witchfinder General), but few are genuinely frightening - I can only think of three that have really scared me since I started this site - The Haunting, Night Of The Demon, and Dead Of Night.
Dead Of Night will not be to everyone's taste. It was made in the 40s, so it's very, very old. The acting can verge on the wooden, and much of the dialogue and ideas seem almost quaint. But it scared me the first time I saw it, and it still scares me now.
Perhaps it has a special place in my heart because I first watched it as a teenager, on my own in the middle of the night - and it freaked me out. From that point on, every time I've seen it I can still remember the delicious terror that I felt on first seeing the bus conductor's face, the chill I got when Peter first saw something in the mirror, and the out-and-out horror of Hugo's final revenge on Maxwell. I'm ashamed to say that I even find the golfing story unsettling (and me, running a horror movies website - I ask you).
I can only recommend that you see this film if you haven't already, and make up your own mind. And for those who have seen it, re-live your terror with this story-by-story critique and collection of sound bites. Or chant obscenities at me in a plummy accent if you think I'm wrong.
The story begins with a man (Mr Craig) arriving at a country cottage on a beautiful sunny day, where there's a small gathering of people. He immediately spoils the atmos by banging on about a recurring dream he's been having. Luckily, everyone's very British (apart from the obligatorily Germanic psychiatrist) and they start breezily trying to explain why he's not a nutter and how it's probably all got a perfectly natural explaination, probably involving the drinking of lots of tea.
"Well, I must say it's very disappointing not to be one of the leading characters in a sort of supernatural drama after all," says one particularly dotty old dear, without drawing breath or indeed bothering to act.
Much talk of seeing the future starts more talk of spooky occurrences that have happened to the assorted members of the gathering, and the terror begins...
Story 1: Just room for one inside, sir
After a particularly nasty car racing accident, our hero wakes up in hospital and within seconds he's fallen in love with his nurse and is calling her "darling". This being the 1940s when men were all tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking Brylcreemed racing drivers and nurses were all called Joyce, she doesn't seem to mind.
It's evening, and he starts to read a book. Then suddenly notices that the clock says 4.15 - and it's daylight outside. Looking through the window, he's shocked to see a hearse parked right outside. The driver looks up, and cheerily comments: "Just room for one inside, sir".
He sits down, and when he looks up the time is back to normal and it's dark outside. "Am I going crackers?" he asks himself, before shrugging it off in a stiff-upper-lipped kind of way.
The next day he's discharged, but as he waits for a bus to take him home, he asks for the time and doesn't like the answer. He likes it even less when the bus conductor looks very familiar...
After the unsettling beginning to the film, this is horror painted with much broader strokes. But it's only an hors d'euvre... Back at the cottage, the Craig's dream is being broken again and again - this time with the arrival of the "penniless brunette" he predicted. All he can say is that his "dream becomes a nightmare" later on... "a nightmare of horror". But he can't remember why.
Story 2: Subconscious thingumajigs
At a children's Christmas Party, the narrator (Sally) shows how crap she is at sardines by being found straight away. She and her finder decide to look for a better place to hide, and start talking about the odd history of the house - which involves hauntings and murder. They get seperated and Sally comes across a small boy crying in a bedroom. "She hates me..." the boy tells her. "She said she'd like to kill me."
She tucks him in and goes back to the party, where she's told that the child doesn't exist and "that's where the whole thing happened!"
Such a simple story, but effective, some scenes were repeated in the hugely overrated Sixth Sense. Sally's eventual realisation of what she's just seen is genuinely upsetting, and her tears set the viewers up for the next story, what I consider to be one of the most frightening film segments of all time...
Story 3: I thought you'd like to look at yourself...
Peter (the man who has everything, apparently - including Googie Withers for a missus) gets bought a mirror by his wife. "I thought you'd like to look at yourself," she tells him. "Mmm... handsome couple." But then she notices a troubled look pass over his reflection. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," he replies. "I thought I saw something."
Of course, it's not long before he is definitely seeing something, the reflection of a room that certainly isn't the one he's standing in. What's worse, when Googie stands next to him, he can't see her - just himself, alone, in an ornate gothic bedroom.
"In a queer sort of way it fascinates me," he explains. "I feel that room is trying to claim me... I know there's something waiting for me on the other side..."
As Peter becomes more and more obsessed with the mirror, his wife goes back to the shop where she bought it, and finds out it has a "curious history". A history that's soon to repeat itself, and then it won't just be Peter who sees the ghostly room...
Even if you haven't seen Dead Of Night, this story may seem vaguely familiar, as it was used twice in one film in the 70s. David Warner met a sticky end thanks to his antique mirror, and Ian Ogilvy had a similar problem with a door, in From Beyond The Grave. If like me, mirrors scare the crap out of you, this one will have you longing for the warm busom of mother.
As someone comments to the now-silenced room: "Well, how's the great debunker going to debunk that?"
Luckily, we're in for a bit of comic relief, thanks to Charters and Caldicott from The Lady Vanishes, and their shared fascination for golf and a strumpet called Mary...
Story 4: I wish you were dead, old man
It's bizarre. I can't see any modern woman being happy to be the prize in a game of golf, but that was the 40s for you, I suppose. Parrot and Potter are great golfing mates, but both of them love Mary (the menage a trois which led up to this situation has been glossed over, but it's common knowledge that people didn't do "it" before 1965 anyway - I know for a fact my grandparents never touched each other, and anyone who says otherwise will get a punch up the bracket). All three are thoroughly miserable: "I wish you were dead, old man," until they hit on the bright idea of playing for Mary's hand in a game of golf. Of course, Parrot cheats and Potter loses and walks into a nearby lake, never to be seen again.
Of course, once dead he discovers the truth and is soon back to haunt Parrot: "Cheat! Cad! Twister! May the Lord have mercy on your handicap!"
Parrot is happy enough to give up Mary to make amends, but refuses Potter's request to lay down his clubs forever: "You can't punish me like this! I should have nothing left to live for!"
They agree that as a punishment for something as trivial as murder, giving up golf would be a bit excessive, but then Potter realises he's forgotten how to vanish, and he can't stray more than six feet away from his hauntee - ever. What's worse, it's Parrot's wedding night...
"Just because a chap becomes a ghost," Parrot splutters, "it surely doesn't mean he ceases to be a gentleman!"
This segment, coming as it does between the scariest moments of British cinema, has been unfairly maligned. Yes, it's lighthearted and amusing and therefore jars slightly, but in the context of the film it's supposed to. It's a story told in an attempt to lighten the mood by a skeptical member of the group, and it's not supposed to be true. In a way its insertion into a bona fide horror film works quite well - the viewer is so unprepared for a bit of whimsy that Potter's botched attempts at haunting are still unsettling.
It's also taken from an HG Wells short story (which had very little to do with golf originally), which, once you're aware of this nugget of information, lends the whole thing a certain gravitas. And the two leads are fantastic. Perhaps the audience has been lulled into a false sense of security by tales of golf and gentle courtship? If so, they're in for a shock...
Story 5: You don't know what Hugo's capable of...
The police are investigating an attempted murder, only to be told by their suspect: "Hugo's the only one who can help me. He's more to blame for all this than I am."
But, as we find out in flashback, "Hugo" is a ventriloquist's dummy. A very scary ventriloquist's dummy (even by ventriloquist dummy standards). He's operated by Maxwell Frere, but their latest performance is cut short when Hugo appears to be more interested in discussing job prospects with Silvester, a rival ventriloquist from America.
Seemingly incensed, Maxwell slaps the dummy, only to be told: "You'll pay for that later."
"Yes..." he replies, wearily. "I will."
Silvester is very keen to find out exactly how Maxwell has got his dummy to act so realistically - even, it appears, when he's not there. And even after being told: "You don't know what Hugo's capable of..."
Weeks later, Silvester saves Maxwell from getting a kicking after Hugo starts a fight, but drunken Maxwell finds Hugo in Silvester's room and shoots him. Locked up in jail, he's visited by a psychiatrist, who decides the best way to treat him for his mental illness is to bring Hugo to him...
Hugo Fitch is a terrifying creation, and he's undoubtedly the star of the segment. But the whole story hinges on Michael Redgrave's stunning performance as Maxwell - if that last scene doesn't stick in your head for days after you first see it, then there's something wrong with you.
"Why... hallo... Silvester... I've been waiting for you..."
But the horror's not over yet. Back at the cottage, Craig has remembered how his "nightmare of horror" ends, and it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As he's besieged by visions from the stories he's just heard (including a fully mobile Hugo) he wakes up, only for the whole thing to start again...
In every other case, a film that ends with "but it was all a dream" is a dreadful travesty of so-called "entertainment", but that's not so with Dead Of Night - mainly because it seems fitting that such a horrifying experience is a nightmare. And perhaps the most terrifying thing of all is that the poor sod is about to go through the whole thing again as "The End" appears on the screen and we can all go home...
Last updateFebruary 22, 2010 #EndDate -->
To me, Dead Of Night is simply the most terrifying film ever made. I can't explain it, it just is. Every single story (yes, even the golf one) gives me feelings ranging from slight unease to cold terror. If you've seen the film, see if these sounds bring it all back to you (especially Hugo's voice). If you haven't seen the film, why not? And if you don't agree, fair enough. I am a bit of a nancy boy.
The introductory scenes in the house:
The racing driver's tale:
Just room for one inside, sir (hearse driver) 7k
Just room for one inside, sir (bus conductor) 9k
The children's party:
The haunted mirror:
The golf segment:
The star of the entire film isn't even real (or is he?). Say hello to Hugo. Bet you can't see his lips move...
Oh, so... you won't talk, eh? ("hilarious" ventriloquist in-joke) 11k
And the final, chilling scene:
Several newspapers called for the film to be supressed - it was too scary by half for your average Daily Mail reader
Made by the famous Ealing Studios
Came after a "moratorium" on horror movies imposed by the Second World War, which some attribute to its runaway success (horror starved audiences couldn't get enough chills)
Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their roles of Charters and Caldicott from The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Other similarities with the Hitchcock comedy classic include actors Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers
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