Saturday, 13 October 2012

Dead of Night (1945) - Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer

Much like Hammer, Ealing Studios have become pigeonholed for a certain type of film. With Hammer it's obviously horror, despite the fact that they knocked out a whole range of other films back in their heyday - everything from Sci-Fi to comedy and crime films. The same goes for Ealing who are well remembered for their excellent run of comedies, but less so for the hundreds of other films they produced between the early thirties and late fifties.

Dead of Night is one such film, it's a portmanteau horror effort and although it's a little creaky in places is basically a wonderful little British horror film. Directed by a motley crew of Ealing stalwarts, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Robert Hamer it cracks along at a fair old pace. As well as the linking story there are a whopping four others crammed into the 97 minute running time. Dearden directs the main story in which architect Walter Craig (an excellent nervously edgy performance by Mervyn Johns) arrives at a country cottage, only to quickly realise that the inhabitants are the people from a recurring nightmare he's been having. This revelation then encourages the assembled characters to each tell a ghostly story.

Dearden directs the first of these about a racing driver who foresees a bus crash. It's a slight but effective slice of spookiness well directed and well acted, but as is often the case with these anthology films it's almost over before it's begun. The same can be said of the first of the two segments by Cavalcanti, about a ghostly boy at a Christmas party. Far better is the last story (also directed by Cavalcanti) about a ventriloquist and his relationship with his creepy dummy. It's the best section in the whole film, largely down to the fact that it gets a decent amount of time to evolve on screen and the always great Michael Redgrave is the ventriloquist. If you've ever seen Magic then you'll know just how scary a ventriloquist's dummy can be. Not only is it the best segment, but for a modern audience it's the one that will make it hard to sleep after seeing.

The other two stories are a very short but effective effort from Robert Hamer about a freaky mirror staring the excellent Googie Withers, and a misjudged comedic effort from Charles Crichton about a couple of golfers. As a separate film this last one would have worked just fine especially since the two golfers in question are our old friends - Charters and Caldicott. Except here they are renamed (for legal reasons I imagine) Parratt and Potter. They are just as good here as they were when we first met them seven years before in The Lady Vanishes. As I say there's nothing really wrong with their story it just doesn't really fit in here due to it being first and foremost a comedy.

Overall this is a wonderful film, the sort of thing that you should return too again and again (especially during the Halloween season). It also has one of the best endings you'll find in a horror film. All the directors involved in this would go on to make great landmark films for Ealing and others. It'd be nice to see Ealing receive a little more attention for it's output outside of the 'classic comedy', and I think as long as films like this find their way back into shops they will.

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