Directed by Alberto Calvacanti, Charles Chrichton, Basil Deardon, and Robert Hamer
Written by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, and Angus MacPhail (original stories and screenplay); T.E.B. Clarke (additional dialogue)
Starring Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver, Frederick Valk, Sally Ann Howes, Googie Withers, Basil Radford, Naughton Wayne.
I like my horror subtle. Blood and gore are far less unnerving than something that engages your mind and scares you by what it implies. This is a characteristic of one of the best horror films to come out of Britain: Dead of Night.
The movie is an omnibus film, which tells several different stories instead and one narrative.* There was a handful of this type of film the late 30s and early 40s, and Ealing Studios -- who now are better known for their comedies -- tried it with this film. Five directors directed five different stories by many writers, with a frame tale that tied the all together, and the frame tale is the scariest of them all.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is invited to a British country house party. When he gets there, he reveals a strange sense of deja vu: even though he has never been there nor met anyone there before, he knows them all from a recurring dream he keeps having, a dream he always forgets upon waking, but which is slowly unveiling itself to him here. Dr. Van Staten (Frederick Valk) scoffs at the idea of deja vu, but the others begin to tell stories of their own encounters with the supernatural. They show
- A race driver who has a mysterious and deadly premonition.
- A mysterious young child who may be a ghost.
- A mirror that shows a scene from the past that catches the viewer in its spell
- A golf bet that goes wrong.
- A ventriloquist's dummy that takes on a life of its own.
Some of these, of course, are familiar stories. But they are all dramatized with them hitting all the right notes. The ventriloquist's dummy story is probably the best of that subgenre, as Michael Redgrave makes it seem fresh and more terrifying that most. The golf episode is pure comic relief** (and is considered the weakest of the five), but the others have the tension of a good Twilight Zone episode.
The movie returns to the main narrative in between all these, and at the end, where Craig remembers the source of his unease about the dream. And just as it happens -- he wakes up. That's usually the lamest ending in fiction, but in this case, there's a twist.
Spoiler (to read it drag your cursor over the text).
After he wakes up, Craig gets a phone call and is invited to a garden party. It seems a bit like the nearly as lame "Oh, no, not again!" ending. But, for the first time, there is a shot that shows something that is not Craig's point of view. The implication is that this is no longer a dream, and the horrifying events he dreamed of is about to come true.
The film is performed by a first-class cast. It was successful in the UK, but two of the segments were cut out of the American release, which probably didn't help.
Still the movie has its adherents and fans even today. It even had an influence on the world of science: astronomer Fred Hoyle developed his steady state theory of the universe*** after seeing the film's circular structure.
The film is still a landmark of horror.
*Nowadays, you usually tell multiple stories intertwined (e.g., Crash or Love, Actually).
**The director, Charles Chrichton, is best known to modern audiences for the classic A Fish Called Wanda. It features Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne, who made a name for themselves in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes as a couple of English sports fanatics -- a type of part they continued to play for years.
***Now discredited, but a legitimate idea for some time.