Now that you’ve met us, I’m sure you wouldn’t dream of dreaming of us again.
Dead of Night is a mean, gripping little movie. You can see in it the seeds of The Twilight Zone, Stephen King, Hammer Horror and a lot more than that. It’s a decidedly disturbing movie, mainly because of its prim and proper British atmosphere, eventually shattered into a gruesome and chaotic climax that’s as trippy and terrifying as any horror climax has ever been.
The plot is best told in brief because it is brief. In short, an architect drives to an old country house to meet with the owner about remodeling the building. Once there, he begins to recall that he’s visited the place in dreams and even met the people inside the house in dreams. He can’t remember much about the dream, except that it terrifies him every time he dreams it. Among the inhabitants of the house is a staunchly scientific psychologist and he attempts to argue against any sort of spiritual activity in the world at all. The other house guests take their turns, telling of strange experiences they’ve had; between every story, we return to the ever more claustrophobic drawing room in which the guests sit as the architect remembers ever more and more details of his dream.
It is, as is obvious from this summary, an anthology film with a framing narrative. What is perhaps not obvious from the summary is that this is, in fact, the finest horror anthology film ever made. Not all of the stories are equally successful; the first two are rather perfunctory affairs, but by the third, a grim tale of a mirror that can’t quite seem to consistently reflect what’s actually in front of it, the movie has moved into a darker, Freudian place, where the stories have become psychological dramas of mental collapse in the face of the supernatural. By the time the film reaches its fevered conclusion with the story of a ventriloquist with a, shall we say, decidedly fluctuating relationship with his dummy, the mood in the viewing room will have become absolutely fraught with tension. This ventriloquist, played masterfully by the always wonderful Michael Redgrave, is the inverse of his charming, likable rake from The Lady Vanishes. Redgrave here is a tense, twitching, vulnerable and yet terrifying figure, the figure of a man driven to madness, but are the strange occurrences around him the impetus of his madness or the product of them? This question will forever after haunt the realm of supernatural film; it is the central question in what remains, for my money, the most frightening movie of all time, The Innocents, in which Deborah Kerr inhabits either a moral vacuum or a moral battleground in an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw.
There are many small pleasures along the way. Some people dislike the humorous story, a tale of the rivalry of two golfers, masterfully assayed by Basil Radford and Nauton Wayne, most famous for their recurring roles as Charters and Caldicott, a pair of starchy Englishmen first introduced in The Lady Vanishes. Here they play similar characters in a story that seems tailor made for an episode of The Twilight Zone, dark humor and all.
The images of the film, finally, will be etched in your memory. This film is the author of many iconic horror movie images. In that final climactic showdown, the film becomes dangerously close to psychedelic and the parade of scenes that blast by you and through you seem to have been dredged out of the collective unconscious, so terrifying and archetypal are they. It is, however, in the aftermath of that climax that the movie places its greatest legacy with a quiet scene that breathes absolute menace and places us squarely in a hell of never ending terror, in an endless loop of our worst fears coming true. This film is unforgettable and unstoppable, as implacable as the slow march of our sleeping souls to waking at morning’s light. But finally, we understand, as horrible as the nightmare may have been, it is vastly preferable to the morning light on the other side of it. Finally, a more harrowing film you will be hard pressed to find. And very nearly not a single drop of blood and not a single masked killer; in this film, the killers wear no masks and the torment is in the mind, which does not bleed, though it can weep.
5 out of 5 stars.