Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Dead of Night (1945) Revisited

by Jordan Prejean

          Dead of Night, the 1945 horror anthology film from Britain’s Ealing Studios, is one of the most influential and highly regarded horror films of the classic era. The film’s reputation for terror rests primarily upon the fifth, and final, segment of the film, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” one of the most imitated of all short horror films. The film as a whole has inspired a host of imitations and homages, including episodes of The Twilight Zone and many other horror anthologies of both film and television, notable among which is the series of horror anthologies from Amicus Studios, whose principle creator, writer/producer Milton Subotsky, admitted a debt to the Ealing film. 

          Unfortunately, the film has never been readily available in the United States. Those that have not seen the film may catch an infrequent screening on Turner Classic Movies or send for an expensive, out-of-print double feature DVD from Anchor Bay, in which it is paired with the exceptional but thematically unrelated 1949 dark fantasy film The Queen of Spades (based on a 1934 short story by Alexander Pushkin). Those with a region-free Blu-ray player can send for a 2014 release from StudioCanal, which features a restoration of the film from the British Film Institute and a 76-minute talking-head documentary, “Remembering Dead of Night.”

          For the uninitiated, the film consists of five short tales of supernatural horror (and comedy) connected by a framing narrative which sees an architect (Mervyn Johns) visit a country manor house that exactly mirrors the setting of his recurring dream. When the architect reveals this odd coincidence, as well as an uncanny ability of precognition, to the members of a small social gathering at the house, it spurs each guest in turn to recount a strange incident in their own lives. 
via www.notcoming.com
          Dead of Night is notable for being the first full-blooded horror film to emerge from the post-war era of British filmmaking. Since 1936, the British Board of Film Censors, much like its American counterpart the Production Code Administration, began actively discouraging the production and distribution of horror films. Beyond the increasingly gruesome and sexual nature of horror films during the Pre-Code era (before July, 1934) was the perception that horror films produced a negative effect on the national psyche during a time of war. Universal Studios was eventually encouraged to continue its successful series of Frankenstein films, with Son of Frankenstein (1939), only after viewing the surprisingly high returns from a triple feature re-release of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and Son of Kong (1933) at the Regina Theater in Los Angeles in the summer of 1938.
          In Great Britain, beyond drawing room thrillers, supernatural comedies, and the occasional Tod Slaughter melodrama, a return to the production of supernatural horror films would have to wait until 1945 and Dead of Night. Ealing Studios was notable for producing patriotic war films to boost public morale and would later become famous for the “Ealing Comedy,” a type of darkly satirical film exemplified by Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Whiskey Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). It was unusual, then, that Ealing would utilize its talented stable of actors and technicians to produce a horror anthology, albeit one with several moments of dark comedy. Ealing would return to the anthology format with 1949’s Train of Events, a drama with dark undercurrents but nothing approaching the outright terror of Dead of Night. 

          The anthology format is likely very familiar to horror film fans. Notable examples of the form include Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1964), the Amicus series of films (1965-1974), Creepshow (1982), and Trick ‘r Treat (2007). Dozens more appeared in the years between, including numerous television efforts which have utilized the format in different and interesting ways. In 1945, the horror anthology film was still in its infancy and there was little precedent for the success of a film like Dead of Night. Though there were anthology films which contained horror elements before Dead of Night (silent German cinema gave us Richard Oswald’s Eerie Tales in 1919, Fritz Lang’s Destiny in 1921, and Paul Leni’s Waxworks in 1924) the Ealing film set a standard for format and quality which still influences filmmakers today. 

E.F. Benson (via ISFDB)
          Dead of Night was written by Angus McPhail, John Baines, and T.E.B. Clarke, deriving its subject and tone from the literary tradition of British ghost stories. Despite the variety of the subject’s treatment, the film credits only two literary sources. E.F. Benson provides the inspiration for the framing narrative with his story “The Room in the Tower” (1912), which relates how a man’s recurring nightmare becomes reality. Another Benson story, “The Bus-Conductor,” first published in the December, 1906 issue of Pall Mall Magazine, inspired the first of the five principle segments, “The Hearse Driver,” directed by Basil Deardon. The film segment tells of a race-car driver (Anthony Baird) who sees a deadly portent in the form of a hearse driver while recuperating in hospital following an accident on the racetrack. Benson’s original story, particularly its haunting refrain, “room for one inside” (often interpreted as "room for one more"), has its roots in folkloric tales of the deadly portent. The story has gone on to inspire a host of other properties, including the second season Twilight Zone episode "Twenty-Two" (February 10, 1961) and a story, “Room for One More,” in Alvin Schwartz’s much loved and often banned collection of frightening folktales for young readers, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (J.B. Lippincott, 1981). Benson is the author of the Mapp and Lucia series of novels (six volumes, 1920-1939), an upper-class comedy of manners which has inspired two television series. He is also well-known for having written many of the most chilling stories of the post-Edwardian era, including “Caterpillars” (1912), “The Horror-Horn” (1922), and “Mrs. Amworth” (1922), this latter tale being memorably filmed in 1975 with Glynis Johns and broadcast as part of the British/Canadian television series Classics Dark and Dangerous in 1977.+ Benson’s ghostly tales are collected in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934). His Collected Ghost Stories appeared in 1992 from Robinson (U.K.) and Carroll & Graf (U.S.).  
          The film also credits H.G. Wells for “The Golfing Story,” the comical, and much derided, fourth segment of the film directed by Charles Crichton. This darkly humorous segment most closely resembles the comedies for which Ealing would soon become well-known. The segment is nominally taken from Wells's “The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost” from the March, 1902 issue of The Strand Magazine. Besides these two credits, the film presents the rest of the stories as original to the screenplay. Further investigation suggests otherwise. 
          The second segment, “The Christmas Party,” directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is told by a teenage girl (Sally Ann Howes) and concerns a Christmas party, a game of hide-and-go-seek, and the ghost of a long-ago murder. This segment was likely inspired by two sources which were then molded into a single tale. The first is the real-life murder of three year old Francis Kent by his sixteen year old half-sister Constance Kent in 1860 in the village of Road in Wiltshire (now Rode in Somerset). Young Francis was first discovered missing from the main house and later found in an outhouse with severe lacerations about his body, including a deep throat wound. Constance was not initially brought to trial because of class differences with the working-class detective that first identified the girl as a suspect. Five years later, Constance made a confession to an Anglo-Catholic clergyman describing how she first abducted young Francis from the house and then killed him in an outhouse using a stolen razor. Constance was subsequently sentenced to death but this was quickly commuted to a life sentence, of which she served twenty years before immigrating to Australia and living to a ripe 100 years. Elements of this famous murder were also incorporated into many contemporary works of popular literature, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), Charles Dickens's unfinished final work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868). 
Constance Kent (via Wikipedia)
          “The Christmas Party” also bears strong resemblance to the short story “Smee” by English author A.M. Burrage, a story first published in the December, 1929 issue of Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine. For years the story would be reprinted under Burrage’s pseudonym “Ex-Private X.” Burrage was a prolific writer specializing in short fiction for the crowded magazine market of the day, covering everything from boy’s adventure fiction to a scathing anti-war memoir to many of the creepiest ghost stories of the time. “Smee” was included in Burrage’s 1931 collection Someone in the Room, an excellent volume of supernatural tales that also contains “The Waxwork” (later adapted for the Lights Out television series and the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and two of his finest stories, “The Sweeper” and "One Who Saw." Dennis Wheatley included “Smee” in his massive 1935 survey A Century of Horror Stories and it was later included in Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense Stories in 1947, the fifth volume in a long line of ghost-edited horror and mystery anthologies to bear the director’s name.
A.M. Burrage
“Smee” concerns a Christmas party and a variation of the game of hide-and-seek, as well as the story of a young girl who previously died in the house by falling down a dark staircase and breaking her neck. The guests at the party decide to play “Smee,” the word being a degeneration of “It’s me.” Since the object of the game is to roam around a large, dark house attempting to find the player labeled “Smee,” it is easy to imagine how the story ends, especially when one considers the girl with the broken neck and how that sort of nasty accident might produce a ghost. Burrage's work found its way to television regularly in the early days of the medium. Besides "The Waxwork," his 1927 story "Playmates" was adapted no less than three times, for Gruen Guild Theater and The Schaefer Century Theatre in 1952, and for The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse in 1954. The story has been reprinted numerous times and included in anthologies compiled by Roald Dahl, Joan Kahn, Andre Norton, and Otto Penzler, among others.     
          The third segment, “The Haunted Mirror,” directed by Robert Hamer, is considered by some critics to be the true jewel of the film. It concerns an antique mirror which reveals a room from the past and suggests a malevolent occupant of the room who seems always to be hidden from view. The occupant begins to bodily possess the owner of the mirror. It is interesting to note that “The Haunted Mirror” segment, with its idea of an antique object that visually reveals a horrible hidden past, was likely an influence on the 1974 Amicus Studios film, From Beyond the Grave, a film based on four stories by English author R. Chetwynd-Hayes. That film contains two segments suggestive of the Dead of Night haunted mirror story. Milton Subotsky, one half of the Amicus production team, was a great admirer of Dead of Night and became a prolific writer and producer of horror anthology films modeled on a formula largely established by the Ealing film, this being three to five short segments with a narrative framing story. 

          The first segment of From Beyond the Grave, “The Gatecrasher,” concerns a man (David Warner) who purchases an antique mirror that houses an ancient, evil entity, played to eerie perfection by Marcel Steiner. After an impromptu séance awakens the spirit, it first demands blood sacrifices from its helpless subject before freeing itself from the mirror. The final segment of the film, “The Door,” tells of a young man (Ian Ogilvy) who installs an antique door in his home only to discover it onto a very old room that once belong to an evil sorcerer (Jack Watson) who still exists within the room.
         
Michael Redgrave and Hugo
The final segment of Dead of Night, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” also directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is likely familiar to every horror film fan, even those who have never seen the film, such is its reputation as a frightening segment. A ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave), is convinced that his dummy, Hugo, is alive and intent on causing him harm. When Hugo tricks the ventriloquist into shooting a rival (Harley Power), Maxwell's snaps and destroys the dummy. Hugo gets the last laugh, however, as the confrontation has destroyed Maxwell’s mind in a most disturbing way.
          Though the intrinsically creepy quality of the ventriloquist dummy has been steadily mined by horror writers since the popular emergence of the performance art, this segment of the film was likely inspired by two sources. The first is the 1929 film The Great Gabbo, a musical melodrama concerning a ventriloquist (Eric von Stroheim) who becomes increasingly dependent on his dummy for expression as he descends into madness. The Great Gabbo was adapted from the short story “The Rival Dummy” by Ben Hecht, first published in Liberty Magazine on August 18, 1928. Though The Great Gabbo is not a horror film, it is of interest to horror film fans as it appears to be the origin of the sub-genre of the possessed ventriloquist dummy. “The Rival Dummy” was adapted for radio, on the Mollé Mystery Theatre for November 1, 1946, starring Walter Slezak, and for television on Westinghouse Studio One on September 19, 1949, starring Paul Lukas and Anne Francis. 
Eric von Stroheim and dummy
          “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment received its own radio adaptations. “Dead of Night,” which utilized only the “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment of the film, was the one-off episode of Out of This World for February 28, 1947 and was again performed as the pilot episode of Escape! for March 21, 1947. Both shows featured Berry Kroeger and Art Carney.^
         
Gerald Kersh (via Wikipedia)
The film segment also owes a debt to Gerald Kersh’s 1939 story, “The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy.” Kersh’s story concerns a ventriloquist driven mad by a dummy he believes to be alive and possessed by the spirit of his dead father, who, when alive, was an overbearing taskmaster. Kersh’s story was first published in Penguin Parade #6 and was included in the author’s 1944 collection The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories. It was twice adapted and performed as “The Whisper” for the Lights Out television series, first on September 23, 1949 and again on July 3, 1950.  

      Another story which deserves consideration for inclusion in this list of possible inspirations is H. Russell Wakefield's 1940 short story, "Farewell Performance," about a possessed ventriloquist's dummy who exposes a murder committed by its operator. The story was first published in the author's collection The Clock Strikes Twelve (Herbert Jenkins, UK), a book reprinted in 1946 by Arkham House, Wakefield's first to be printed by the legendary small press. Noted English author Ramsey Campbell, who, as a young writer, also enjoyed a creatively fruitful relationship with Arkham House, suggested Wakefield's story. Campbell's own work in relation to tales of horrible dolls and dummies is explored in Leigh Blackmore's fascinating essay, "A Puppet's Parody of Joy: Dolls, Puppets, and Mannikins as Diabolical Other in Ramsey Campbell," collected in Ramsey Campbell: Critical Essays on the Modern Master of Horror (ed. Gary William Crawford, Scarecrow Press, 2013). The essay is exceedingly useful in directing readers to a number of horror and fantasy stories on a similar theme. Twilight Zone actors John Hoyt ("The Lateness of the Hour" and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?") and Alan Napier ("Passage on the Lady Anne") were joined by Joan Shawlee in a television adaptation of  Wakefield's "Farewell Perfomance" for Pepsi-Cola Playhouse on January 22, 1954. The story was adapted by writer W.J. Stuart and director John English, and re-aired as an episode of the mystery/thriller anthology series Moment of Fear on July 20, 1965, upon which basis editor Peter Haining included the tale in his 1993 compilation, The Television Late Night Horror Omnibus. 
    “The Ventriloquist's Dummy” segment has itself inspired countless variations on the tale of a ventriloquist dummy that is alive and either trying to take over the body of the ventriloquist or spur the ventriloquist to some ill-advised action. One memorable example is “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy!” from issue #28 of the EC Comics title, Tales from the Crypt (Feb/Mar, 1952). Written by Al Feldstein and illustrated by Graham Ingels, it tells of a ventriloquist whose dummy is imbued with life not by a supernatural source but rather through a hideous birth defect. The tale was adapted for the second season of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series with Don Rickles as the ventriloquist and Bobcat Goldthwait as an unfortunate admirer. It aired on June 5, 1990.
          Related to the Dead of Night ventriloquist dummy story are segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which approached similar material in 1956 and again in 1957. Ray Bradbury, a frequent contributor to the Hitchcock series in its early years, adapted his 1953 short story “And So Died Riabouchinska” (The Saint Detective Magazine, June/July, 1953) for the first season of the series, on February 12, 1956, with uninspiring results. Even the presence of Claude Rains as a ventriloquist who has fallen in love with his dummy and Charles Bronson as a detective investigating a murder tied to the ventriloquist cannot save the episode from its flimsy story foundation. Bradbury previously sold the story as a radio play to the CBS radio series Suspense in 1947, where it was adapted by writer Mel Dinelli and broadcast on November 13th of that year.* Bradbury subsequently adapted the story for the second season of The Ray Bradbury Theater on May 28, 1988.  
          Much more successful was the third season opener of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “The Glass Eye,” which aired on October 6, 1957. Based on the John Keir Cross story from 1944, taken from his excellent collection The Other Passenger, it concerns a woman (Jessica Tandy) who becomes obsessed with a ventriloquist (Tom Conway) who harbors a disturbing secret concerning his identity.
         
Cliff Robertson and Willy
The third season Twilight Zone episode, “The Dummy” (May 4, 1962), written by Rod Serling and based on a story idea by Lee Polk, features a manic Cliff Robertson channeling his inner Michael Redgrave and is nearly a direct remake of the Dead of Night segment. The episode remains highly effective, however, and ups the ante on the horror of the final twist in the tale with disturbing makeup effects from Academy Award-winner William Tuttle. The series revisited the theme, far less effectively, in the fifth season episode “Caesar and Me” (April 10, 1964).
          The otherwise uninteresting 1964 film Devil Doll also contains an evil dummy named Hugo. Anthony Hopkins stars as a troubled ventriloquist in the disturbing 1978 psychological suspense film Magic, adapted by William Goldman from his bestselling 1976 novel. Goosebumps author R.L. Stine has derived a lot of mileage from the concept beginning with Night of the Living Dummy in May, 1993 and continuing on through a slew of sequels and spin-offs. 
Anthony Hopkins and Fats the Dummy
          Dead of Night finishes its quintet of tales with a nightmarish montage tying all the stories into one whole, only to begin anew with the closing credits. The theme of the recurring dream as deadly omen has also been borrowed from the film. Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont used the concept for two of his finest contributions to that series, the first season’s “Perchance to Dream” (November 27, 1959), starring Richard Conte and John Larch, and the second season’s “Shadow Play” (May 5, 1961), starring Dennis Weaver and Harry Townes. “The Overnight Case,” the tenth episode of the excellent but short-lived 1961 horror anthology series ‘Way Out, features a woman (Barbara Baxley) who is unable to wake up from a nightmare within a nightmare. One of the frequent story elements of Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (1959-1961) was the dream of premonition, much like that experienced by the architect in Dead of Night. Perhaps the most famous example of such a tale is the 1910 short story "August Heat" from William Fryer Harvey, a story familiar to most readers of supernatural fiction. The story was collected in Harvey's 1910 collection Midnight House and Other Tales and reprinted in numerous anthologies from such accomplished editors as Dorothy Sayers, Alexander Laing, Philip Van Doren Stern, Bennett Cerf, John Keir Cross, Les Daniels, and more. "August Heat" was adapted for television on four occasions, for Danger (1950), On Camera (1955), The Unforseen (1959), and Great Ghost Stories (1961). Other writers have approached the subject with success, including Agatha Christie ("In a Glass Darkly") and Daphne du Maurier ("Don't Look Now").
Dead of Night remains a horror film which casts a long shadow of influence and one which can be repeatedly examined to reveal new layers of insight. The numerous horror anthology films which followed in its wake owe the film a debt of inspiration. It has set a standard which has rarely been equaled. It is long past time for this film to receive an accessible home video treatment in the U.S.  

Dead of Night (09/04/1945)
(U.S. release: 06/28/1946)
Great Britain: Ealing Studios (production), Eagle-Lion (J. Arthur Rank)                                                (distribution), Universal Studios (U.S. distribution), 105 minutes
Five Stories: "The Hearse Driver," "The Christmas Story," "The Haunted                                             Mirror," "The Golfing Story," "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," and a                                 framing narrative
Producers: Michael Balcon
                   Sidney Cole (associate)
                   John Croydon (associate)
Directors: Basil Deardon (framing narrative and "The Hearse Driver")
                  Alberto Cavalcanti ("The Christmas Story" and "The Ventriloquist's                               Dummy")
                  Robert Hamer ("The Haunted Mirror")
                  Charles Chrichton ("The Golfing Story")
Editor: Charles Hasse
Screenplay: John V. Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke
Sources: -"The Room in the Tower" by E.F. Benson (Pall Mall Magazine,                                    January, 1912) for the framing narrative 
               -"The Bus-Conductor" by E.F. Benson (Pall Mall Magazine,                                          December, 1906) for "The Hearse Driver" segment.
               -"The Inexperienced Ghost" by H.G. Wells (Twelve Stories and a                                    Dream, 1903) for "The Golfing Story."  
Photography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Michael Relph
Music: Georges Auric (comp.), Ernest Irving (cond.), Frank Weir and his Sextet
Sound: Eric Williams
Costumes: Marion Horn, Bianca Mosca
Makeup: Tom Shenton
Visual Effects: Lionel Banes, Cliff Richardson
Featuring: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, 
                  Frederick Valk, Anthony Baird, Sally Ann Howes, Robert Wyndham,                             Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Michael Allan, Barbara Leake, Ralph                                 Michael, Esme Percy, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan,
                  Allan Jeayes, Michael Redgrave, Elisabeth Welch, Hartley Power,
                  Magda Kun, Garry Marsh, Renee Gadd
                  
*Grateful acknowledgement is made to Jack Seabrook for his article, "Ray Bradbury on TV Part Two: Alfred Hitchcock Presents 'And So Died Riabouchinska.'"Bare Bones E-Zine (barebonesez.blogspot.com), August 23, 2012. Accessed: May 6, 2016. 

 +There is little reliable information about Classics Dark and Dangerous, with some sources citing a production date as early as 1971. Date of production used herein was taken from Un-Dead TV: The Ultimate Guide to Vampire Television by Brad Middleton (Light Unseen Media, 2012). Broadcast information was taken from tvarchive.ca (an information database of classic Canadian television programs). 

^The Digital Deli Too provided information concerning the radio adaptations of "The Rival Dummy" and "Dead of Night" 


The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org) provided bibliographic details.

Special thanks to author Ramsey Campbell. 

Notes:   
 -The initial U.S. release print of the film was edited down from 105 minutes to 77 minutes not, as several sources have suggested, to make the film less frightening for a U.S. audience but rather for a more manageable running time, customary for the period. The two mildest segments, "The Christmas Story" and "The Golfing Story," were cut from the film. The film has been permanently restored to its original running time in the U.S. 

-“Dead of Night,” or some variation of, is the title of several other horror properties, most notably a 1972 BBC2 horror anthology television series, a 1974 horror film more commonly known by the alternate title Deathdream (directed by Bob Clark, written by Alan Ormsby, and featuring the first professional makeup work of industry legend Tom Savini), and the 1977 television anthology film directed by Dan Curtis and written by Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson.

5 comments:

  1. Great article! I have always liked this film. I was first turned on to it by the stills in Leslie Charteris's Filmgoer's Companion. I did not realize it was not available in the US.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's out of print now, and very expensive, which is unthinkable these days. I'm hoping that changes soon. It really is an excellent film and incredibly influential. I was astounded to find how much Serling and Beaumont, consciously or not, borrowed from it for the Zone. You know I searched and couldn't find where Bradbury first published his story until I remembered your series of articles, which also had the great info on the radio adaptation, so thank you for that, Jack. I know you and Peter know the mystery digests well.

    I've always found it odd which stories Bradbury chose for adaptation on Hitchcock's show. I would have loved to see "The October Game" or "The Small Assassin" but perhaps that was too strong of stuff for the mid to late '50s. EC Comics did some fantastic Bradbury adaptations, not all authorized, including both of those stories and my personal favorite, "There Was an Old Woman," illustrated by Graham Ingels. I'll look for them when you get to those issues on Bare Bones.

    If I'm not mistaken the Filmgoer's Companion was by that other Leslie, Leslie Halliwell. He also wrote a volume dedicated to the spooky stuff titled The Dead that Walk, and it's a pretty fun volume, though it's obvious he was a film fan and not a film historian and that horror and science fiction were not his preferred genres.

    Thanks for reading!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Halliwell! Of course. I got my Leslies mixed up.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Some years ago I bought a 2 disc DVD collection from Anchor Bay which has "Dead of Night" and "Queen of Spades". Very good quality video. Really great stories. I didn't know these videos are hard to get now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not exactly hard to get as there are several for sale online but always at a very high price. At the time of this writing the lowest priced listing on Amazon is $70. Keeping this classic film out-of-print in the U.S. is driving up the price of earlier editions.

      Delete