The horror anthologies have, by pretty much universal agreement, a mixed bag of stories in each movie. Sometimes you get one where a particular segment gets a lot more praise than the other segments in the movie (see, for instance, “Safe Haven” in V/H/S 2 which is way better than the rest of the movie). Thankfully, with Dead Of Night, you get segments of consistent high quality. Part of that is it’s an early production of Ealing Studios, which was just about to explode on their great run of classics like The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob and the like. This was a studio that wasn’t just tossing money at a variety of directors and not trying to tie them together. (If you want to see a modern equivalent, check out the 2007 movie Trick ‘r Treat.)
The framing device of this one is Walter Craig (the great Mervyn Johns) arriving at a country house in the British countryside to consult on some renovations. Upon arriving, he encounters some guests of the owner who he realizes and relates that he has seen them all in dreams and has visions of their terrible future. They’re all, of course, skeptical and try to test him by telling tales of strange encounters they had and to pass the time.
There’s a race car driver who was in the hospital recovering from an accident who may or may not have avoided Death trying to pick him up in a carriage and then a commuter bus. A woman who was at a dinner party, playing hide and seek and may have tucked the ghost of a child into bed. A woman who gave her husband the gift of a mirror which may be possessed by the previous owner, who murdered his wife. A doctor who recalls interviewing a mental patient who is a ventriloquist who’s dummy talks about abandoning him for a new ventriloquist from America.*
But for me, despite all of the segments being good, the killer in this one is about two golfers, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (and my god, those are wonderful names) who are both in love with the same woman, Mary, and play a round of golf for who can woo her (yes, yes, totally leaving Mary’s wishes out of the equation.) One of them cheats, the other drowns himself and then starts haunting his rival. Including on his wedding night. This all sounds creepy and dismal, right? But Radford and Wayne and the writing (based on “The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost” by H. G. Wells) are so deft and light comedically that it all works in some weird comedic horror alchemy. Radford and Wayne made such an impression in this (they originally paired together in The Lady Vanishes) as a comedic duo that they would play variations on it for the rest of their careers and rightly so. They’re just a delight together.
Finally we see Craig waking up from his dreams about the guests and getting a call to go…consult on some renovations in the countryside. Twist! We’re back at the beginning of the movie! I’m not sure how many previous movies had used a time loop like this but as of 1945 I can’t imagine it was that many.
It’s a very fun movie that I was happy to revisit. There’s some dark stuff in this but it has an air of weird cheeriness without being cruel that I’ve always liked. It’s streaming in a few places like Kanopy but there’s also a Kino Lorber restoration that I just ordered because, “Wait, why don’t I have this?” If you like a good horror anthology you can do far, far worse.
* The ventriloquist segment probably has the biggest cultural impact from this movie, a story that’s the most outright horror of the movie and has resonated through the years in things like William Goldman’s Magic. It is a genuinely unsettling segment.