The Anthology Series is a roundtable column here at 4:3 where we look at the oft-overlooked genre of anthology films. Also known as portmanteaus, the anthology film is composed of a series of short films grouped together by theme or some awkward overarching premise. Some of the more popular portmanteaus in recent memory include Paris, je t’aime and horror anthology series V/H/S. There are also anthology films done by the same director, think Love Actually, Argentian Oscar-nominee Wild Tales and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. For the purposes of this column, we will be focusing on anthology films with more than two directors.
In this entry in the series, Conor Bateman and Dominic Barlow talk through the iconic 1945 British horror anthology film Dead of Night.
Conor Bateman: Dead of Night, a British horror portmanteau film, is one of the stranger films we’ve covered so far in our Anthology Series, less because of its age than its structure. Rather than have the film broken up into a sequence of short segments, instead all of the narratives are free-floating, digressing from the central premise of a locked room mystery, though the mystery itself is fairly abstract idea of a dream in which actions are foreseen in advance by our protagonist, an architect played by Welsh actor Mervyn Johns. Another oddity in approaching Dead of Night in this column is that it is heralded as something of a masterwork in the portmanteau genre. I’m not sure about you Dom but, for me at least, it was remarkably pedestrian, both directorially and in terms of its narrative. The hit-and-miss nature of each story, in addition to the increasingly uncompelling linking narrative in the country house, made it something of a chore to sit through, even as it found its footing in the final minutes.
Dominic Barlow: I agree in that its biggest enemy is a feeling of plainness, where a few gestures towards surreality and horror are crowded by others that feel varyingly pat and amusing. The framing story has Johns wandering into a weekend lodge on the invitation of an old friend (Roland Culver) and being hit with disarming deja vu by the gabby socialites he finds within. He insists that he has foreseen everything they do, and that it all leads to some dreadful fate that will change him forever. (“There’s something horrible waiting for me here… perhaps even death itself!”) Rather than shoo him off the premises, the other guests are surprisingly accommodating of his theory, to the point where they start rattling off their own unexplainable happenings, which the film obligingly flashes back to one by one. It’s a simple framing device, but the strange part is how it carries the buoyant tone of a hoighty-toighty dinner party. One of the group is a psychiatrist (Frederick Valk), and so many of the stories are addressed to him as a kind of challenge, daring him to find the right rationalist rubber stamp for their brushes with the supernatural, with the resulting exchanges coming perilously close to being obnoxious (Johns’ character quoting the famous “heaven and earth” Hamlet line at the doctor is one example). It’s gothic horror relocated to a quaint sitting-room, literally but also figuratively given how comical it gets in its gentility, on purpose in some instances.
Conor: The entire set-up was pretty compelling at first, there was this strange sense of the unknown pervading everything, particularly in how everyone seemed so amenable to his theory of dreams and seeing the future. Though not capitalised on for any arc, the viewer is given this sense of a twist on the way, the idea that these people have some greater plan for the architect at the center of the film. Unfortunately, though, so much of this potential is left unfulfilled. The climactic sequence, a genre mash of all of the other stories, is perhaps the high point of the film on the whole, but the route taken to get to that sudden collapse of narrative isolation lacks any real tangible sense of tension or horror. This is predominantly an issue with the very mixed quality of the sequences on offer. That said, though, I was somewhat taken with the first short we see, something we’ll dub ‘The Hearst Driver’, which was directed by Basil Dearden, who also shot the linking narrative elements. It’s a very traditional horror short, a man in hospital suffers through a delusion in which he sees the driver of a hearse outside his window, only to then see the same man driving a bus after he leaves the nursing home in which he’d been recovering. I like the sudden chill of that reveal, as obvious as it may be, but the conclusion of that section felt so far removed from the simply constructed tension in the scene; instead of resting on that sudden reveal, we get a proto-Final Destination turn where the bus careens off a bridge. What makes matters worse is how casually that’s described when we return to the linking narrative.
Dominic: I agree, the way the recounter of this story (Anthony Baird) casually dismisses the world-shaking weirdness of the story is where the movie’s wheels started to loosen for me, and the same goes for the beginning of the story where he all but pushes Johns’ character out of frame to make himself the protagonist. Crucially, the lack of aesthetic differentiation from the sitting room where he does so makes it feel like a strange aside without much weight. That said, I like the moments when the film mutes its own score to try and create an off-kilter tone, and it does so arrestingly for the key moment where Grainger falls into his dream. It’s a fleeting moment of surreality in what has been a fairly brusque affair so far.
Conor: I would totally agree with you on the front of the awkward linking between scenes. Whilst, at first, I presumed their eagerness to engage was all part of some wider conspiracy, in fact it just comes down to dodgy dialogue and stilted performances. I think you’re spot on with regards to simple moments, like when the score suddenly disappears, as I think Dead of Night is a film that rides on these short and sharp moments of tension and confusion, rather than as a sequence of carefully crafted shorts, which is what makes it so hard to view it as an anthology film in any real way. Perhaps I was particularly amenable to the earlier sequences, because the following story, about a young girl’s meeting with a dead boy, I found to be the most chilling of the lot. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, whose later ventriloquist section is the most famous of this film, it too is a very simple premise that’s handled fairly well. It begins with a children’s game of hide and seek, that morphs into an instance of a tall tale of murderous history and then into an unsettling meeting with the child who had been murdered. It’s definitely lifted in its execution of the premise; the young boy that the girl meets only has a fear of his older sister, who is compared to the protagonist in this section, but the reveal to her, when she goes down to tell the house matriarch of what she saw, that the film seems to finally nail this incomprehension of reality, as this story, and that of the Hearst, are the only ones in which the person telling the story experienced the delusion on their own.
Dominic: I really wasn’t as sold on that ending as you, unfortunately. Putting aside how predictable it was (since it might not have been as such for the time period it was made in), that and everything else falls flat by misjudging the balancing act between the aforementioned surreality and emptiness. It doesn’t help that the heroine is so ridiculously friendly to everyone, even when she encounters the dead boy, and that she is like Grainger in being much the same back in the present day of the framing story, seemingly unaffected by what’s happened. I’d give kudos to Cavalcanti for picking such a ripe premise like a hide-and-seek game in a cavernous mansion, though – there’s a reason The Conjuring revived that primal delight several years later.
Dominic: The Mirror short is the first in my mind to achieve something like the “horror” atmosphere that’s been hinted at, but moreover it’s the first to make bank on the bourgeois overtones of the framing story. Featuring a couple (Googie Withers and Ralph Michael) who find a hobby in spending their capitalist wealth – “What shall we do tonight? Dress up, spend a lot of money?” says one, and the other replies “why not?” – her gift to him of a hallucinatory mirror that makes him progressively more spiteful and jealous becomes a metaphor for his insecurity over their impending marriage. It’s undoubtedly broad but it’s more cohesive in tone and narrative than the flighty shorts before, and it also marks a discernible change in the temperament of the character telling it, which isn’t the case with the two story-tellers before. It feels like a traumatic event rather than a puzzling one, though the teller’s use of the latter description beforehand is a bit of British understatement that’s both charming and poignant.
Conor: I see the capitalist undertones, and also the strange invocation of a man the wife strings along for lifts seems to play of of the selfish nature of these two relatively wealthy individuals, but for me The Mirror almost felt like a queer allegory, wherein the husband is drawn to this mysterious alternate space, where he says he feels different, and becomes increasingly isolated from his wife in the lead-up to their wedding. This theory perhaps isn’t substantiated outside of those plot beats, but it got me through the mostly turgid final reveal. That said, I did love some of the cinematography in this one, particularly in shots of the husband staring into the mirror, with one shot in particular, where he seems to be staring right into the camera lens, maybe one of the most disturbing in the film on the whole.
Dominic: Seeing a strong showing, comparative or otherwise, made me hopeful for what lay around the corner, particularly as it’s coming from the character that invited our tortured Mr. Craig out to the lodge in the first place. What follows is an entirely different, bafflingly ribald tale about two men who go head-to-head on the links to win the right to wed a nameless pretty woman who appears in the club. One cheats and wins, the other walks off into a lake and drowns himself so nonchalantly as to seem like a throwaway gag, and then haunts him in an extended sketch that could only have been intended as an overt comedy. It’s not a mix of comedy and horror either, because that would feel somewhat welcome, but an extended joke based around the idea of a ghost being unable to get into heaven and forced to walk within six feet of his victim at all times, even during his wedding day. As it sinks further into absurdity and loud gags that beg for canned laughter, I’m only confused further by its inclusion, and the best theory I can agree with is it being a selling point for a British public made bereft of horror for the several years of wartime prior. In any case, it really doesn’t play well on its own merits, and it certainly doesn’t invite the Beckett comparison that A.O. Scott makes in his web review of the film.
Conor: Oh God, the golf sequence was the worst thing by a country mile. I can see the notion of it being a marketing tool, having both Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as a comedic duo – their appearance in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is particularly delightful, and they certainly do have some great comedic chemistry. The issue, though, is that their own segment is both narratively unnecessary and thoroughly unfunny. The fight over the agency-less woman is a dull cliche, and the eventual jump into the specific acts of haunting is likewise a lazy invoking of physical humour to mask the lack of wit. It seems to be quite a hit with most viewers, though, and it’s not like director Charles Crichton had no comedic chops – his final film was 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda.
Dominic: It’s a good thing, then, that we finish strong, with a story that is reportedly the most referenced and adapted by subsequent films. Having Dr. Von Straaten tell it as a sign of the screws loosening on his rationality and then seeing it become a story within the story by way of a testimony is already novel, but in meeting the tortured Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) we find the closest thing to a tortured soul of a protagonist that this semi-gothic horror anthology has to offer. He and his ventriloquist dummy are caught in a struggle that is compellingly explored only from the perspective of outsiders – the psychiatrist, the American talent scout, audience members – and the shots that convey the uncertain divide between the two make for sharp sensations of dread. Here, more than anywhere else, does the film find something chilling rather than bemusing in its abrupt editing, and Redgrave’s performance is the anchor that steadies that effect.
Conor: Redgrave delivers easily the best performance in the whole of Dead of Night, but his opposite for most of the segment, Frederick Valk’s heavily accented psychiatrist, is as much of a bore in recollection as in his present-day scenes in the central manor. His mannerisms are particularly frustrating here, coming off as a dime-store Dr. Caligari, and his entry point into the narrative – the strangest thing he’d ever encountered – is mostly told through reading what must be a really long letter. Much of the actual narrative is rote but, as expected, the interplay between Redgrave and the mannequin is unsettling throughout. It goes to show you that even today, what with Annabelle, the knockoff of The Conjuring, that we’re still collectively frightened of an inanimate object with human features. As I mentioned at the start of this discussion, the ending of the film is by far the best part of it, managing to harvest strange shots and elements from the other stories and mesh them into one delirious panic. The lead-in to this delusion, though, is pretty lazy, with the architect’s vision coming true and the sudden desire to kill someone being the fruits of the entire film’s labour. It’s hard to think of a more underwhelming conclusion to that initial set up, but the experimental narrative approach in the concluding montage, and thereafter the assertion that the entire film is caught in a time loop, manages to more than just save that disappointing final turn.
Dominic: I agree, and that idea of it being a “save” almost segments it into a short in its own right. It’s certainly the one I’d most readily go to rewatch on YouTube, particularly with the genuinely chilling moment in the jail cell. I’m surprised at how much of a sum-of-its-parts film Dead of Night turns out to be, given how the limited variation in sound and visuals makes it feel more like a multi-director film than an anthology early on. It constantly wavers between a good and bad kind of weird, and even the lowest points of that line hold a fascination for me as a testament to the very different world of cinema it was released into. I won’t go so far as to call it “dated”, but entering its domain is a disarming and peculiar experience akin to a strange dream, and I’d say it’s worth watching for the few times where that’s intentional.
For the purpose of this film, Basil Dearden’s linking section will not be ranked.
|Conor Bateman||Dominic Barlow|
|1. The Christmas Party – dir. Alberto Cavalcanti
2. The Hearse Driver – dir. Basil Dearden
3. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy – dir. Alberto Cavalcanti
4. The Mirror – dir. Robert Hamer
5. The Golf Rivalry – dir. Charles Crichton
|1. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy – dir. Alberto Cavalcanti
2. The Mirror – dir. Robert Hamer
3. The Hearse Driver – dir. Basil Dearden
4. The Christmas Party – dir. Alberto Cavalcanti
5. The Golf Rivalry – dir. Charles Crichton