Horror movies were generally frowned upon in World War II era Britain, and even banned from production for a time, but as the world crawled from the fog of war, this spooky portmanteau emerged from Ealing studios. Made up of five segments, it has a framing device in which all the main characters gather to share chilling tales of mysterious happenings in their lives.
The story begins with a successful architect who has been invited to spend the weekend at a country estate. He has never met the other guests, and yet when he sees the group gathered by the fire, he recognizes all of them from a series of disturbing recurring dreams he has been having.
While skeptical of his claim, the guests all have their own unusual dreamlike experiences to share. It seems this crowd has a collective subconscious located in the Twilight Zone. All are delighted to share their frightening tales, as if the horror has faded in memory.
I love the characters' very British take on horror. I'm sure that I would be wetting myself with fright in their position, but the guests cheerfully chat about ghosts, demonic mirrors and possessed ventriloquist's dummies as if it's just a light topic for teatime conversation: "Oh it was just a spot of attempted murder. So frightfully inconvenient!"
There's only the slightest bit of lightness about these stories though--just enough to make the tension bearable. They tap into our deepest terrors, the fear of what is lurking behind a curtain, or whether your next step will be your last. The chilling awareness of a mysterious cry in the attic or an object that seems to have taken on a life of its own. Terror about losing self control.
Though I'd wanted to see Dead of Night for years, I was anxious about it, because I'd heard that one of the stories involved Michael Redgrave tangling with a ventriloquist's dummy that appears to take on a life of its own. I'm terrified of puppets and anything puppet like, so I thought that might be a tough one for me to endure. It was, but it is also the most powerful tale of the five and rightfully the most famous in the film, because it inspires the most animalistic, gut-wrenching fear. The segment could be successful on its own as a short.
It's always tricky to see a film that you have wanted to watch for years. Often there is something that doesn't conform to the fantasies you've weaved about it. This was the rare occasion where I got more than I'd hoped for. Dead of Night explores its horrors in many different ways, with humor, fantasy and very real violence, but all those pieces ultimately meld smoothly together into an effective exploration of the way fear and uncertainty affect us.
Dead of Night has been released on DVD, though it is currently appears to be out of print in the US. A restoration is available in PAL format on Amazon UK. The film has also been shown on TCM and can be rented at ClassicFlix.com.