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February 25, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #8 - Dead of Night

When listing my favorite horror movies of all-time, the least known title I usually bring up is 1945's Dead of Night - which is to me the ultimate in horror anthology flicks. A production of England's famed Ealing Studios (a favorite of my Masha!) that's pieced together by a whopping FOUR directors (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer; if you're counting), it's the rare anthology that is seamlessly linked by a central story.

Our story starts with a man named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who arrives at a country estate for a job and is instantly struck with fear. The setting and its people are already common to him...because he's seen them in a terrible dream. When he attempts to relay his concern to the guests, led by a doctor of psychology who's entirely skeptical, each of the guests start to relay their own dreadful experiences of deja vu. Whether it's the race car driver who foresees an ominous hearse and its memorable driver or the young girl who meets a phantom boy at a Christmas party, each character has a piece of Walter's puzzle. And as his dream's warnings begin to mesh with reality, the stories escalate to a twisted ending.Each segment of the film has a distinct feel from the others, but they're arranged to build suspense well. There's a crescendo throughout the first three stories and the scenes that connect them, leading to my favorite bits in the final reels. Most well placed is the comedic ghost tale "Golfing Story" from Crichton, which is adapted from H.G. Wells. It stars the comedic duo of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who'd been first paired by Alfred Hitchcock in The Lady Vanishes, and their legendary rapport works well in lightening the mood for both the audience and the characters.

But calm never lasts in a film called Dead of Night, and the final act rises to the unforgettable "Ventriloquist's Dummy" segment, starring Michael Redgrave as a young ventriloquist who seems to have trouble controlling his wooden pal Hugo. Ventriloquist tales are a common terror in horror fiction, but Cavalcanti's work here does a great job of providing some of the iconic imagery that goes with that inherent fear. Redgrave is also fantastic at what he does here, particularly his voice work.

The most impressive aspect of Dead of Night is its connecting narrative. While many anthologies that would follow later, like Amicus' Tales from the Crypt or Romero's Creepshow, would only briefly focus on the characters outside each segment, this film gives us a story that's both ties the segments together and enhances the psychological aspects of the terror. Though each piece of the film is shown to be like a bad dream - with no consequence to the central character in their real life - the narrative brings fear into reality and makes the viewer question the line between our dreams and our lives.Thus I present Dead of Night as this week's Midnight Movie of the Week. If you're a fan of classic horror tales, you can't find many with the haunting imagery and psychological depth of this one.
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