The demonic silent film roles of Conrad Veidt were an inspiration for Michael Redgrave’s extraordinary performance in DEAD OF NIGHT.
PREYING masterfully on the country’s post-war fears and paranoia, Ealing’s portmanteau DEAD OF NIGHT - over sixty years later - still remains a resonant work of art. Representing a departure for the studio from the classic comedy mould, the film is a psychological thriller made up of five ghost stories, which brought such a disturbing aura of unease at the time of release, that several newspapers called for it to be suppressed. The work sets up a classic genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. The character of Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer rational interpretations are dismissed - and pays for his scepticism with his life.
DEAD OF NIGHT is structured as a recurring nightmare, in which architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a strangely familiar country cottage. Unlike most modern horror compendiums, this framing story is embedded into the narrative, and is not just a device to link the tales. The first story recounts the presentiment of death offered to a racing driver (Anthony Baird), while the second touches on a young girl (Sally Anne Howes) who encounters a boy murdered several decades previously. The third has a couple (Googie Withers and Ralph Michael) whose cloying self-satisfaction is destroyed when she presents him with an ornate mirror, before the film takes an ill-advised detour into comic relief with the much maligned golfing segment. The film’s fifth episode is its most famous and disturbing, with Michael Redgrave as unbalanced ventriloquist Maxwell Frere, with John Maguire as his jeering alter ego Hugo Fitch. By the end of the story the ventriloquist is seen confined to a hospital bed, face alight with madness as the castrato tones of Hugo issue from his unmoving lips, a scene which anticipates the ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) almost exactly.
Dreamlike poster art for Ealing’s only foray into horror.
The film as a whole can be seen as a response to the social dislocations caused by the end of the war, a confusion in masculine identity arising from difficulties in integrating a large part of the male population back into civilian life. On one level, DEAD OF NIGHT reveals a male fear of domesticity, which is here equated with the presence of strong, independent women who are seen to have usurped male authority. The film is full of weak, crippled, and/or victimised male characters: an injured racing driver, a boy murdered by his elder sister, a meek accountant dominated first by his fiancée and then by the influence of the haunted mirror, and a neurotic ventriloquist who eventually collapses into insanity. It is significant in this light that the character whose dream the film turns out to be is an architect, a symbolically charged profession at a time of national reconstruction. That this architect is indecisive, frightened, and harbouring murderous desires underlines the DEAD OF NIGHT’s lack of confidence in the future.
This can be connected with one of the characteristic themes of British World War II cinema, namely the formation of a cohesive group out of diverse social elements. Instead, this group is fragmented by the film's insistent stress on the ways in which each individual is trapped within his or her own perceptions. Repeatedly characters stare disbelievingly at the "impossible" events unfolding before them, and seeing is no longer believing. Therefore, the faith in an objective reality central to British wartime documentaries and which also contributed to the style adopted by many fiction films has been eroded in DEAD OF NIGHT. Dreams and fantasies have taken its place, to the extent that "None of us exist at all. We're nothing but characters in Mr Craig's dream."