Anthology films usually disappoint. This offering comes mostly from England circa 1945. Dead Of Night, from what I can tell, is the first horror film anthology. Short films were not usually innovative at this point in cinema history, but tying them all together through a main, revisited storyline was. In an era dominated by creature features involving vampires, werewolves and other supernatural monsters, Dead Of Night stands out as a cinematic achievement in storytelling. It plays more like a series of really creepy campfire stories than a standard three act plot.
The main story begins with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) visiting an old house on business when he realizes that everyone in the house has been a part of a reoccurring nightmare for him. Trying to rid his worries that his dream has come to life, the occupants of the house begin telling their own stories of coincidence and odd occurrences. A race car driver who has a near death experience receives a premonition of impending death. A young girl playing games at a Christmas party in a old mansion has a run-in with an unknown child. A woman gets her husband an antique mirror that lets him see a bit more than his reflection. Two golfing friends vying for the affections of a woman end their quarrel with haunting results. A ventriloquist reaches his breaking point when he suspects another man of trying to undermine his act. Four directors (Alberto Cavalcante, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer) handle these 5 stories and the linking narrative in an amazing collaborative effort that I’ve not seen equaled in a horror film.
While taken on their own, these stories are not terribly impressive. The stories and ideas are well conceived and the acting is very good, though the obvious standout is the ventriloquist story directed by Alberto Cavalcante. I’ve never heard of Cavalcante (who is billed by last name only) before this, but his work will be well remembered here. Michael Redgrave gives a great, though all too brief performance as Max Frere a ventriloquist who appears to be losing control of his dummy, Hugo.
While this is easily the creepiest part of the film, the crowning achievement of Dead Of Night is the linking narrative story. The final sequence when Craig’s nightmare begins to take form, which connects the entire film, is so masterfully put together that I had to go back and watch it again, which I rarely do right after a film ends. Every element of all six stories are tied up in the ending, which is so incredibly satisfying to watch. As I said before, most anthology films disappoint. The problem lies primarily in linking the stories together in a coherent narrative. If this is done poorly or isn’t done at all, then any weak section of the film can ruin it for the viewer leaving us feeling let down. Dead Of Night has some sections that are weaker than others, but it doesn’t even matter when the storytelling is of this caliber. You may have never heard of this British gem, but if you love horror films it should be on your must see list.