“Dead of Night” is a 1945 British film that consists of a group of characters thrown together in a home and each tells a supernatural story. Then these characters turn out to be the subject of another character’s dream. And finally, the whole story turns out to be part of an endless recursive dream nightmare, a dream within a dream, within a dream like the images produced by two mirrors facing each other. The only actor I recognized was Mervyn Johns who played Bob Cratchit in the 1951 movie Scrooge.
The stories include a young girl meeting the ghost of a boy who was murdered a century ago in the old house where the girl is visiting. Another story involves a race car driver who while recovering from a crash has a vision of a hearse driver inviting him into the coffin. Later he sees the same man as a bus conductor inviting him to board the bus. He backs away and as he watches the bus drive off and crashes killing everyone aboard. A third story involves a bedroom mirror possessed by a murderous spirit. The fourth story is a comical golf ghost story. And the final story is about an evil living ventriloquist dummy.
Back in the underlying scene the character who recognizes the other characters from his dream commits a murder and then somehow finds himself inside the five stories we have just witnessed in a mish-mash of the stories until finally he awakes in his own bedroom. His wife consoles him for having another nightmare. He then receives a phone call that sends him to the house where the earlier story takes place. And the whole thing circles round to the introductory scene.
Despite the theatricality of some of the scenes the movie works. Of course, it’s all ridiculous but the atmosphere of the movie is claustrophobic enough to produce the requisite discomfort in the audience that makes a ghost story work. Admittedly the golf story is a bit of a distraction from this mood but there are enough creepy moments and characters to make this movie a success. I’ll have to say that the fact that the cast look like ordinary people and lack the movie star good looks of an American production actually goes a long way to aiding the illusion we are inside the story with them.
Like many British films from the middle of the 20th century the story had to depend on a good script and competent actors instead of expensive sets and special effects to immerse the viewers in the story. And because of that this movie still works as well today as it did back then. And it stands up after repeated viewing. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The British love a good ghost story and this one has several. Dead of Night probably won’t work for those who depend on comic book special effects to tell a supernatural story. But if you have an imagination you may like this one.
My longtime readers know that I indulge myself in the run-up to Halloween with book and movie reviews that concur with my preferences for that holiday. A couple of years ago I wrote reviews for all the Universal Classic Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. I usually take the season as an excuse to reread Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and watch the movie for good measure.
But last year I reviewed Psycho and this year I intend to review the Thomas Harris novels that include the character Hannibal Lecter. Many years ago, a friend gave me his copy of Red Dragon and I found it to be one of the most unsettling things I had ever read. And although the violence and insanity were pretty extreme by the standards of that happier time, the thing about the book that truly frightened me was the plausibility of the killer’s method for stalking his victims and the impossibility of protecting your family from someone who was determined to kill in that fashion. I guess it was the fact that I had a young family at that time and the idea that I might be powerless to save them that horrified me. And that is when I first became aware that true horror always has a human face. It won’t be a normal human but it will look out of a face that is attached to a driver’s license and a cellphone and a bank account.
So, there is a difference between the good old days and the bad new days. We stopped trying to gently scare children and now we horrify adults by showing them what’s really out there. I’ll be the first to admit that watching Frankenstein or Dracula doesn’t actually involve any fear for anyone over the age of ten. It was natural that movie makers and writers would escalate the violence and cart out the gore to tempt adult thrill-seekers, mostly in their teenage years, to spend their entertainment dollars on the latest fright fest. Back in the 1970s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the poster child for exploitation movies aimed at frightening audiences out of their seats. Since then every year has upped the ante until lately the content has gotten so bad that the real name for what this represents has been designated. These movies are portraying torture through grisly dismemberment.
I consider that a distinction can be made between these gore fests that are almost bereft of meaningful characters and plot and crime drama like “Silence of the Lambs” which while it does include the description of horrible violence and depravity is not focused on flinging gore across the screen to delight the demented. It tells the story of people. This includes the victims, the police and even the murderer. We supposedly learn a little about what drives some of these characters to become monsters.
I’m not a devotee of crime drama or fiction. As I said I was given the Red Dragon book long ago and because of it I went to see the Silence of the Lambs when it came out. Out of a sense of curiosity I read the rest of the Lecter books and saw the movies and tv series. I don’t think the later books were as good as the first two but I will review them all for general interest purposes.
But I have all the Universal Monster movies on DVD and I intend to watch them all with my younger grandsons as soon as the lockdown ends. They’re the correct age and they’ll get a kick out of them. And truth be told, so will I.
This has been a goofy mixed up year for weather. The spring and early summer were extremely cool and delayed many plants by almost a month from their normal cycle of growth. For the most part this wasn’t too bad but one plant that blooms late in the summer is wolf’s bane. And as of today, the very last gasp of summer, the leaves on the plants are turning yellow and the flowers aren’t even buds yet, they’re bumps. What we have here is a foot race between flowers and frost. Last night it got down to 36°F. That is dangerously flirting with freezing. There are two more nights of near freezing temperatures coming up before a warm up is predicted. I don’t like my chances here. I need a miracle.
Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal if some stupid plant doesn’t flower?” Well, that’s a fair question. I’ll try to explain.
The Calendar tracks the path of Earth as it performs its seemingly eternal dance with the Sun. And here at the Autumnal Equinox we mark the point where the northern latitudes lose their grip on the sun and slip into darkness. For millennia the inhabitants of the North have recognized this moment and celebrated it with various harvest festivals and religious myths like the Death of Tammuz or the Rape of Persephone. These solemn occasions were meant to memorialize the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest.
Nowadays most of us aren’t involved in farming and the advent of electric lights has lessened the impact of shorter days on our lives. But for some of us the end of summer is still an extremely meaningful time. As I have so often stated here on the site I am an avowed therophile (lover of summer) and the autumnal equinox is like a death knell for me. Like some primitive soul I atavistically search for a formula or spell to help me fight off the fear of darkness and believe that summer will reemerge on the other side of the sun all those months in the future. And for me the first step is to take the last gasp of summer, the blooming of the wolf’s bane flowers and tie that to the next great festival on my calendar, Halloween.
For Halloween begins for me with watching the classic Universal horror movies. And I always start with Dracula. Here we see Dracula square off against Dr. Van Helsing for possession of the soul of Mina Seward. And in this battle one of the prime weapons is a garland of wolf’s bane. Vampires hate it and all good vampire fighters carry it with them. And later on in the Universal series we will come to the Wolfman. Here we are told:
Even a man who’s pure at heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolf’s bane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright
And that is the link between summer and wolf’s bane and autumn and Halloween. And Halloween gets you to Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving gets you to Christmas. And Christmas has to get you to Easter and the beginning of spring. But it all starts with wolf’s bane. So wish me luck. If nature lets me down I’ll have to take drastic action and invoke the only other Summer/Halloween talisman I know of. I’ll have to have an early showing of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Bradbury’s story provides a direct link between summer and Halloween by way of the carnival theme. Carnivals are summer and end of summer events. But in the story we have a Halloween arrival of a dark carnival that is looking to ensnare souls. The battle between good and evil is to my mind the battle between summer and autumn. Between life and death. Okay, that’s the end of my raving.
Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays as a kid and in my heart of hearts I haven’t really progressed far from that. I guess I’m not a progressive. So here is the advantage to being in business for more than a year. The calendar allows you to recycle stuff you did last year. I did movie reviews of the Universal Classic Monster Movies and a few other related films last year and I’ll recycle them around for the Halloween season. And I’ll add some additional films to avoid the label of laziness. I’ll also try to find some other Halloween content. I guess Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is sort of the quintessential American story for this time of year. But there are all kinds of other stuff out there from Poe to (yikes) Lovecraft to even that lefty doofus Stephen King. So stay tuned and I’ll start cycling those in.