You can tell if a movie is genuinely a classic by how many works were influenced by it.
After all, does a film create a legacy by being the only one of its type or by creating countless offspring, aiming to duplicate what the “groundbreaker” accomplished?
Of course, that also allows for lesser artists to muddy the waters by attempting to “pay homage,” if not outright rip-off, what came before (look no further than all the bad “Star Wars” rip-offs that appeared after 1977).
Perhaps a classic isn’t simply one if it’s merely great but how the approach to shaping film art has never been met at that level ever since. In that way, the 1945 “Dead of Night,” among the first of its kind, remains a milestone because the formula it created has never been recreated with this much depth, intricate plotting and seamless blending of multiple collaborators.
This British thriller is among the first example of an omnibus, or anthology film, for the horror genre. Credited to no less than four directors (more on them later) and two screenwriters (John Baines and Angus MacPhail), correlating from the likes of E.F. Benson and no less than H.G. Wells, it presents a riveting wraparound tale that has five stories within it.
Mervyn Johns stars as Walter, an architect who arrives by car at a farmhouse in Kent. Once he enters the cozy home and meets the half dozen guests there, he realizes he had dreamt of everything that is about to happen. He tells them, “I have been here before, in my dream.”
The houseguests, a chipper, friendly lot, are perplexed but intrigued by Walter’s unorthodox declarations of having seen them all before, but in his dreams.
The visiting architect initially predicts phrases and character traits he’s about to encounter.
The eclectic group, including an athlete and a shrink, are amused at first by Walter’s apparent parlor trick ability to know things about them they couldn’t have known before.
“When he wakes up, we shall disappear,” notes one of the supporting characters- it seems, consciously or otherwise, these characters recognize their existence as potential aberrations in Walter’s mind, or simply as characters in his story.
The framing story is stagey and Agatha Christie-like, though the actors keep it lively; instead of halting the beginning of new vignettes, the wraparound story is always a welcome narrative pit stop and maintains its interest as the central plot line.
The first story within the story, “The Hearse Driver,” portrays a racecar driver recovering from an accident. While bedridden in a hospital, he sees an “apparition of death” outside his hospital window, waiting for him with a death carriage.
The apparition taunts him with a cheerful, “Room for one more, sir.” Clearly, the makers of “The Hearse,” “Burnt Offerings” and “Final Destination” have seen this movie.
The second story, “The Christmas Party” is far more confidant, visually lush and well-paced, considering how short it is. Sally Ann Howes is wonderful playing “Sally,” whose compassion for a “lost boy” makes the unveiling of the big twist moving as well as chilling. It’s a richly atmospheric supernatural tale, as a game of hide and seek reveals a ghost in the attic.
In creating story momentum by introducing a series of doorways and hidden passages, the build-up is strong, and it has a great tracking shot in the final reveal.
The third story is “The Haunted Mirror,” in which a man is petrified every time he looks in his bedroom mirror- he sees his reflection but in an entirely different setting. It turns out the origin of the bedroom mirror is dark and complicated.
Like most of the other vignettes, the focus is on a character’s grasp for sanity (note the line, “The trouble’s not the mirror, it’s in my mind.”). This segment, while overextended, ends on a strong note. Visual and narrative elements of “Oculus,” “Mirrors” and “Poltergeist III” owe a debt to this segment.
The fourth segment, “The Golfer’s Story,” portrays a rivalry on the course between two chummy players that extends into the afterlife. This cutesy failure attempts to conjure up Frank Capra-esque whimsy, goes on too long and has an awful finish. Not only is this golfing ghost tale insipid, it’s also sexist. The only positive attribute is some amusing, very-British slang (like, “After that, it was ding-dong all the way!”). None of this “Topper”-wannabe works but, as golf comedies go, it’s still better than “Caddyshack II.”
Then we get to the final story, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” which is the film’s signature vignette and probably the reason “Dead of Night” is remembered overall.
Michael Redgrave plays Maxwell, a ventriloquist whose dummy, “Hugo” is a big hit. However, Maxwell seems to be controlled by the dummy and not the other way around.
Redgrave’s performance is on a different level than the rest of the film, as the searing mania in his eyes and the intuitive, loose manner in which he plays the role suggests a man with an unsteady grip on reality. You can feel the intensity Redgrave emits from his first entrance.
This portrait of a tortured artist, whose talent is eclipsed by his mounting madness, is the film’s most haunting vignette. The concluding reveal is truly disturbing, even if the film pulls its punches and unwisely (and sheepishly) cuts away too quickly from its most powerful moment.
“Dead of Night” sports great set design and the exterior shots are lovely, filling the frame with beautiful vistas, though the film swiftly cuts away from them. The climax is a frenzied blend of all the stories swirling together- remarkably, rather than the melding of all the stories becoming a mess, it cleverly hurls Walter through a Lewis Carroll-like sprint through each of the different settings. The most frightening imagery in the film can be found in the climactic encounter in a prison cell.
The directors are Alberto Cavalcanti (he did the two best segments, “The Christmas Party” and “The Ventriloquist Dummy”), Charles Crichton (“The Golfer’s Story”), Basil Deardon (“The Hearse Driver” and the wraparound story) and Robert Hamer (“The Haunted Mirror”). While not every vignette is equal in story quality, they all seamlessly and coherently move in and out of focus.
“Dead of Night” notably provided an illustration of the Steady State Theory, which portrayed the universe as never-changing, cyclical and reinventing itself. Albert Einstein was reportedly a supporter of this theory at first, until it was discarded by the mid-20th century.
The brilliant final reveal, which occurs during the end credits (talk about an early easter egg!), offers a perspective on the story so intriguing, it makes repeat viewings essential.
The film itself is a masterpiece, both as an anthology horror film and an early example of a British supernatural thriller. This is how I’d rate each vignette on a scale of one to four stars-
The Hearse Driver ** 1/2
The Christmas Party *** 1/2
The Haunted Mirror ***
The Golfer’s Story *
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy ****
On its own, “Dead of Night” is a milestone, a towering work in a genre that continues to re-tell its stories but never this skillfully again.
Dead of Night is available on the Kanopy streaming site.