Dead of Night

(Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer, UK, 1945)

BY LAURA KERN | October 31, 2022

Legendary Amicus anthologies like Freddie Francis’s Tales from the Crypt (not to mention TV shows like The Twilight Zone, adopting the same style) owe everything to Dead of Night, the granddaddy of the horror omnibus. With 1940s British film production limited in general due to World War II and horror cinema largely off-limits to viewers under 16 because of restrictions imposed by the H (for “horrific”) certificate that was in effect from 1932 through 1951, Dead of Night, released just after the war’s end, is a true terror treat to behold.

The most atypical release from Ealing Studios—their only strict horror film of this era, despite dashes of comedy—consists of five tales of the unexpected that lean heavily on the supernatural, and are seamlessly woven into one cohesive whole by a wraparound story, which begins with an architect (Mervyn Johns) arriving at a secluded English country manor for a weekend visit to discuss possible work. There, upon making the acquaintance of six supposed strangers, he becomes visibly flustered, claiming to have already met them all in his dreams. It sounds outlandish at first, but as the others relate their experiences involving brushes with death and insanity, murder and suicide, and ghostly encounters, it seems increasingly more plausible, even with the psychologist of the group (Frederick Valk) offering logical explanations for these bizarre occurrences.

Films adhering to this multistory approach historically yield wildly uneven results, but the good-bad ratio here is higher than usual. Only one segment—by far the silliest—about two friends whose golf game determining who gets the girl they’ve been vying for results in an inept haunting, feels out of place, though it is wisely bookended by pure virtuosity. Preceding it is Robert Hamer’s sensational contribution involving a cursed mirror gifted to a man by his fiancée that distressingly reflects a mysterious background to him only. And following it is Alberto Cavalcanti’s segment that forever immortalized ventriloquist dummies as vessels of evil. It’s widely considered the best of all, and that’s no wonder—Michael Redgrave’s brilliant performance, as the puppeteer driven to madness by his conniving dummy Hugo, alone makes Dead of Night essential viewing. Strikingly directed, shot, lit, edited, and scored (by Georges Auric), the film as a whole is perfect for those who want their frights served up smartly, engagingly, and rather profoundly. The power of nightmares has seldom been explored to such a degree on-screen. As the architect points out, remembering dreams is like a flash of lightning, there one minute and gone the next. This movie, on the other hand, stays with you for good. 🩸


is a writer, editor, and horror programmer based in New York. She is the editor of Bloodvine and her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Film Comment, and Rolling Stone.

TWITTER: @killerkern

How to see Dead of Night

The film is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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