Inexhaustibly fresh and macabre, despite being copied for more than sixty years, the great British horror anthology Dead of Night remains a masterpiece of terror. The protagonist is architect Walter Craig, who is tormented by a recurrent, possibly deadly dream amongst strangers in a country farmhouse, in whose space he has arrived to design two additional bedrooms. Highlighted by Michael Redgrave’s brilliant performance as Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist whose mind and soul are taken over by his nasty dummy, one Caligarish segment written by John Baines and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti is often cited, independent of the rest of the film, as a great piece; but the entire film, with its circular narrative, is terrific, as one character after another shares a supernatural event from his or her life, or that he or she has heard about, in order to dispute bespectacled psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten’s claim that all these events can be rationally, scientifically explained. In the encasing story, which Craig believes to be his recurrent dream, Craig tells everyone that this will happen and that will happen, but even as these things do happen Van Straaten maintains his cold-blooded arrogance, his contumelious, supercilious pose—until . . . .
Apart from “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” my favorite episode is perhaps “Hearse Driver,” in which Hugh Grainger, a race car driver at hospital following a track mishap, “dreams” his own death as the driver of a hearse down below calls up to him in the dead of night, “Just room for one inside, sir.” Once Hugh is discharged, the premonition comes to fruition; the driver reappears on a bus and delivers to Hugh the same line, causing Hugh to recoil from boarding the bus, which subsequently is demolished in a road catastrophe. A piercing touch: a closeup of Hugh’s responsive face; Hugh is stricken with remorse and compassion over the lost lives—a revelation of how cavalierly he has been playing with mortality on the race track: something to consider now that he is about to wed. The material isn’t Twilight Zone-reductive, mere cleverness; it’s rich. E.F. Benson wrote, and Basil Dearden directed.
Another couple is poised to marry in the absolutely terrifying “Haunted Mirror,” written by Baines and directed by Robert Hamer. Joan gifts Peter Courtland with a three-paneled mirror that reflects another room when Peter looks into it: rather than the room he is in, a Victorian room in which a man, it turns out, insanely jealous, strangled his wife. Peter’s obsession with the mirror eventually leads to his absorption of the murderer’s suspiciousness of the woman’s infidelity. Peter assaults Joan, attempting to strangle her; in the nick of time, Joan smashes the mirror. Now that Peter has been drawn out of his self-involvement, he and Joan are, presumably, happily married.
Other scenarists include H.G. Wells and Angus MacPhail; Charles Crichton also directed; screenplay prize at Locarno.
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