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

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Dead of Night.

criterion logoFive tales of the macabre interwoven by four master directors of British cinema, Dead of Night is the prototypical example of the heritage horror film and cinema’s finest achievement in anthology filmmaking.  Architect Walter Craig arrives at an all-too-familiar country home convinced he’s dreamt of the visit before and that it concludes in a terrible, violent end.  Guests of the home seek to reassure Craig by recounting their own brushes with the supernatural, offering tales of phantoms and madness.  Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer combine their efforts to produce this chilling collection of stories, including standout sequences “The Haunted Mirror” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.”  A perfect compliment to a dark and stormy night, Dead of Night‘s haunting visions continue to influence and inspire.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary anthology by British horror film scholars Peter Hutchings and Tony Williams, Ealing Studios historian Charles Barr, and director Martin Scorsese
  •  A new video piece with genre film writer Tom Weaver on the American cut of Dead of Night
  • Two 1947 radio productions of “Dead of Night,” the audition pilot for Out of This World and the 1947 inaugural episode of CBS Radio’s Escape
  • Gallery of production stills, vintage advertisements, and lobby cards
  • PLUS:  A booklet of essays by BFI contributor Mark Duguid, film critic and historian Philip Kemp, and film historian Bruce Eder

There’s something incomprehensible, even downright unsettling about one of the greatest examples of British horror cinema and of anthology filmmaking existing in only poor, hard-to-find, public domain discs, yet such is the lot of the Ealing Studio’s Dead of Night.  Made right on the heels of World War II, the film may qualify as proto-British horror, a forerunner to “heritage horror” before being eclipsed by Hammer Studios in the 1950s.  The Collection is always in need of good horror films, is slim on British horror cinema and Ealing productions, and has nothing representing the omnibus format.  Accordingly, Dead of Night seems like a prime candidate for a spine number.

Dead of Night consists of 5 separate tales of the macabre, each recounted within a framing narrative.  This linking story, directed by Basil Dearden, involves an architect named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who attends a country house only to discover that the home and its guests have all appeared to him in a recurring nightmare.  Most of the guests believe Craig and his foresight, and they describe other supernatural accounts in an effort to convince a skeptical psychiatrist (Frederick Valk) who dismisses Craig’s claim of dreamt precognition.  The first tale, “The Hearse Driver,” is also directed by Dearden and focuses upon a race car driver’s (Anthony Baird) premonitory vision that causes him to avoid a bus accident.  The second story, told by a young, enthusiastic woman (Sally Ann Howes) and directed by Cavalcanti, is “Christmas Story,” wherein a game of hide and seek runs across of a ghostly child.  Hamer’s “The Haunted Mirror” is considered one of the best sequences of the film, a Poe-like tale of a gentleman (Ralph Michael) driven mad by a dead man’s antique mirror, and Crichton’s “Golfing Story” serves as a humourous interlude involving comic duo Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.  Cavalcanti’s final sequence, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” may even surpass the eerie “The Haunted Mirror.”  Michael Redgrave is the high point of the film, playing a ventriloquist driven insane by his dummy and charged with assault on another performer.  Redgrave is noteworthy for having embraced the role as portraying a schizophrenic and actually mastering the art of throwing his voice.  Dead of Night concludes with Dearden’s masterful synthesis of all the directors’ individual sequences and wraps up the film Mobius strip-style into what Martin Scorsese refers to as a “crescendo of madness.”

The picture is steeped in British good form and manners and eerie with shadowy sets and paranoid performances (particularly the sections directed by Dearden and Cavalcanti), but also offers more than chills and thrills.  Like all good horror films, Dead of Night uses the genre to explore broader social issues, in particular the immediate challenges to masculinity in post-war England.  Male authority and heterosexual relationships, much like rational cause-and-effect, are repeatedly undermined by traumatized men unable to find remedy through conventional medicine.  Hospitals and doctors frequently let down the film’s male figures and they are left frail and dangerously exposed when compared to their more resilient female counterparts.  Rich in both academic and entertainment value, Dead of Night is a classic work of film that desperately needs a quality release in the order for which Criterion is renowned.

Goon 10 CoverDead of Night interconnects with various aspects of the Collection – Ealing Studio’s producer Michael Balcon and his prior work at Gainsborough Pictures, the Basil Dearden Eclipse Set, Radford and Wayne’s work in The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) and Crook’s Tour (John Baxter, 1941), Hamer’s black comedy for Ealing, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Michael Redgrave’s various Criterion-endorsed performances.  Dead of Night would provide a welcome introduction of “heritage horror” to the Collection, but finding the right artist to express this mode in a single style, synthesizing the film’s horror, humour, Britishness, and omnibus nature, is no easy challenge.  Up to the task is Eric Powell, writer and artist of The Goon.  Powell’s comic blends humour, violence, and true pathos in a supernaturally infused, 1930s-ish American town.  His ability to carry off these conflicting sensibilities with sincerity, rather than parody, is the fundamental key to The Goon‘s success, and it is this talent that makes Powell an appropriate candidate for a Dead of Night cover commission.  Powell’s pencil-shaded work is particularly compelling, often used where Powell needs to suppress his more obviously comedic talents and handle a more heartfelt tale (his version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol also shows off a knack for British heritage that brings home his suitability for this project), however his colour work can also be enticing and particularly creepy.  A mixture of the two would serve a Dead of Night release well, with a colour cover and pencilled interiors for the booklet.

Credits:  The idea of an anthology commentary seemed highly appropriate, as well as novel.  Martin Scorsese has often expressed his admiration for Dead of Night and, as a friend to the Collection, was an easy choice to lead the way.  Peter Hutchings is a well-regarded British-horror expert (particularly regarding Hammer), while Tony Williams is a past contributor with an interest in horror cinema as well.  Charles Barr frequently appears within the Criterion Collection to provide insight on British cinema from the ’30s and ’40s.  The American cut of Dead of Night omitted “Golfing Story” and “The Haunted Mirror,” and so we’ve tasked American horror scholar Tom Weaver (yet another Criterion stalwart) with the task of canvassing the differing versions.  Mark Duguid was chosen as an essay contributor for his piece at BFI Screenonline, Philip Kemp for his vast knowledge of British cinema and his love of British horror and movies of this era, and Bruce Eder for his various essays for the Collection, particularly those on British cinema and genre films.

2 thoughts on “Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, and Basil Dearden, 1945)

  1. Gilles FRANCOIS August 15, 2015 / 11:02 pm


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