Dead of Night has slipped down the ranks of famous horror anthology films, but it’s a quiet little chiller that deserves to be remembered. It has a real Twilight Zone vibe–the source material for one of the segments was even adapted for the episode “Twenty-two”–but it also has a slippery malice all its own.
The frame story is unusual and creative. Architect Walter Craig is invited to a country house weekend with people he’s never met before; he’s there to provide guidance on planned renovations. As soon as he arrives, Craig is hit with a strong wave of déjà vu, and we, at least, are quickly persuaded that it’s genuine. The other guests are divided in their opinions, however, and psychologist Dr. van Straaten is out-and-out skeptical. As he tries to convince Craig that he’s imagining things, the others take turns telling stories explaining their own experiences with supernatural phenomena. They range from eerie predictions of the future to a ghost encountered at a party to a haunted mirror to a badly handled romp (also foreshadowing The Twilight Zone‘s generally inept handling of comedy).
The best standalone segment is the excellent “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” which handles its evil dummy–is there any other kind?–with a kind of queasy emotional realism, making the symbiotic-exploitative connection between the ventriloquist and his “act” into a kind of abusive relationship. The ending is a great, painful little shock.
But the biggest strength of Dead of Night may be its conclusion, which returns to its frame story only to throw it into a surreal welter of prophecy and nightmare; it’s visually stunning and a lot more tonally ambitious than everything else, and it carries it off well, right to the final doom-laden note.
Dead of Night (1945) is streaming on Kanopy.