Posted on: 31 October 2009
31 Days of Horror VI
After another month of delving into horror flicks old and new, gruesome and historic, terrifying and thought-provoking, we have come at last to the day of days in every horror lovers heart—Halloween. Having spent many of the preceding All Hallows’ Eves covering slasher staples and many other modern horror efforts, we decided to turn our collective attention this year to a genre classic from the past, 1945 to be exact, and to a format we had not previously covered: the horror anthology. Obviously, the structure of an anthology film lends itself nicely to our efforts to make our Halloween feature a collaborative effort—the five distinct episodes here, in addition to the framing narrative, offering six of our writers the chance to participate in covering a single film. Add to this the enticements of the film’s several notable acting and directing talents, and the case was made: Dead of Night as this year’s Halloween special.
The story begins with a noted architect, a Mr. Craig, arriving at a remote farmhouse in the English countryside. Hired to plan out a much needed addition to the cramped quarters, Mr. Craig finds himself unable to even begin thinking of his work, his attention consumed by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu the moment he steps inside the place. He seemingly knows the layout of the interior by heart, despite the fact that he’s never been there, and he has an inkling as to the identities of the people he meets in the drawing room, though he has never met any of them before. Within moments, Mr. Craig has unburdened himself to the group, explaining that he has in fact had disturbing dreams about that very farmhouse, and its occupants, for some time. He even seems able to predict what will happen next.
Without wasting time, this opening sequence quickly establishes the framing device, efficiently introducing both Mr. Craig and his peculiarities, not to mention a drawing room full of people with nothing better to do with their lives than discuss the ins and outs of paranormal phenomenon with a complete stranger. Far from being scared by Mr. Craig’s insistence that his premonitions are of something unutterably horrible that he himself will do at some point in the near future, the majority of the group attempts to cheer up the poor fellow, assuring him that they believe his fanciful tale. Of course, if everyone simply believed Mr. Craig’s story, we wouldn’t have much of a film. Thankfully, a sober psychiatrist is present, ready and willing to dismiss any and all flights of supernatural fancy with sound logic and hard science. And while this enjoyable dynamic makes for some intriguing and humorous discussions among the group, its true purpose is to trigger our series of five horror tales, each related by a member of the party eager to recount his or her own chilling brush with forces beyond the ordinary.
Introduction by Thomas Scalzo
The first of Dead of Night’s five vignettes, “Hearse Driver,” is told by a Hugh Grainger, a race car driver. He’s impressed with Mr. Craig’s clairvoyance, for it is a gift he shares as the result of a racing accident. The vignette opens with this accident: in the middle of a race, Grainger’s race car veers sharply around a turn and connects with another car, thrusting up in to the air, and tumbling horribly back onto the ground.
When we next see him he’s in a hospital bed, his face the only part of his body that protrudes out of the stringently tucked bedsheets. A nurse reveals that he’s been there for several days, and will recover fine; the shock of the crash seems to have affected his mind more than anything else. One evening, the day before his departure, he regains the strength to speak, and to stand. Grainger is drawn to his window—velvet curtains enclose it, and our view is pulled slowly, ominously forward. He slides the curtains open, revealing a bright sunlight, and peers down to the road outside. Down before him is an antique hearse—its driver cranes his head eagerly toward us, reporting, “Room for one more, sir!” Grainger collects himself, looks around the room, and then glances back to the window. It’s night outside, the hearse is gone. Grainger returns to bed.
This moment is notable as it establishes a thematic leitmotif in Dead of Night—the presentation of a premonitory illusion absent of any logic. But it is important to note that these are only illusions in retrospect. When Grainger is looking out the window of his hospital quarters, the sunlight, the hearse, the driver’s voice: it’s all real at that moment. Prior to this episode, we had met the psychiatrist, present at the rural farmhouse to rationalize any claims of clairvoyance. And while the ensuing vignettes exist as evidence of the contrary—five stories of actual events anchored by someone’s extrasensory perception—“Hearse Driver” is the only one that attempts to justify any basis for such perception.
As the vignette concludes, we realize that Grainger’s racing accident has bestowed in him a peculiar ability to foresee his own death. On his first day following his release from the hospital, Grainger dons a suit and hat, and proceeds to the nearest bus stop to return home. The driver – the same disarmingly friendly man he saw from his window – leans toward him, “Room for one more, sir!” Alarmed, Grainger steps away from the bus, and watches quietly as, moments later, it tumbles off a bridge.
by Rumsey Taylor
“Christmas Party,” the second vignette of Dead of Night, is unsettling not because it showcases a grim encounter with death, but because it persistently denies that any such encounter has taken place. After Mr. Craig tells the party guests his peculiar dream, Sally O’Hara chimes in with a story of a time when she too was a victim of “subconscious thingumajigs” at a Christmas party in her youth. But by claiming her mysterious encounter with the young ghost of Francis Kent to be a mere mental error, she prods our curiosity and invites us to doubt her adult appraisal of the situation.
Sally’s flashback begins with an image of children in Christmas (not Halloween) costumes dancing about a large living room. Their activities are framed by the underside and sideview of staircases that make the play area look like an Escher drawing and suggest immediately that this story will evade the rules of space and time. Rules and authority seem to have all but vanished: With the exception of Jimmy Watson’s mother, there are no parent figures at the Christmas party. The children decide to take advantage of this palatial mansion by playing a hide and go seek game called “Sardines.” Sally is chosen as the one who has to hide, and she heads upstairs to find a place to wait.
When Jimmy finds Sally, he mocks our suspicion that something is about to go awry by putting his arm around Sally’s shoulder and telling her that the chill she feels is no normal cold, but “a cold from beyond the grave.” If we’ve managed to take our fear seriously after this, he makes it even harder to do so by looking straight into the camera and saying, “Believe it or not, this house is haunted.”
While Jimmy’s flirtatious scare tactics may embarrass from being afraid for a moment, they clear our ears for the puppy—like whimpering Sally hears after evading Jimmy’s advances and stumbling upon a hidden apartment in the attic. Here she meets a neatly dressed little boy who introduces himself as Francis Kent. Sally listens to the boy and soothes him and tucks him in to bed. When she finally descends and explains how she was in a room upstairs with a little boy, Jimmy tells her in a suddenly worried tone, “That’s where the whole thing happened!”—where Francis Kent was murdered by his sister.
Perhaps Sally’s kindness puts Francis’s suffering ghost finally to rest by giving him the sisterly affection he was robbed of prematurely along with his life. But while Francis’s soul may be at peace, Sally has begun to scramble. When she realizes she has seen a ghost, she denies her horror with gasping exclamation: “I’m not frightened, I’m not frightened.” She buries her face in Jimmy’s mother’s breast as if to hide from the whole ordeal and begs to her: “Oh please hold me tight, oh hold me tight.”
Back in the estate living room with Mr. Craig and the others, Sally goes on to explain how she was told to sleep with hot water bottles to get over her sickness that brought on her illusions. We, of course, know better. Up to the last, “Christmas Party” denies its own eeriness, and thus pushes it to the forefront of our minds with redoubled disturbing force.
by Sam Bett
Why are ghosts inherently creepy? Walk down any aisle in any box store around this time of year and you’ll see them lumped in with witches, vampires, and other supernatural things that mean us harm. But as the spirits of human beings, shouldn’t ghosts only be as frightening, or benign, as living human beings? They could be regular old child therapists or devoted husbands. Most horror movies about ghosts or hauntings identify the returning souls as the spirits of evil people: murderers, psychopaths, the dead seeking vengeance. But some of the best don’t press this more obvious angle—after all, a living serial killer is just as capable of causing terror and death as a dead one. The films that creep people out the most are often about incidents that are unnerving and strange, rather than threatening or gory. Of the several classic horror tales in Dead of Night, one of the best, and one that evokes this indefinable “creepiness,” is “The Haunted Mirror.”
Like the other vignettes, this story is framed as a tale told by one of several house guests at a country home. The guest, a fashionable woman (with a truly fantastic collection of precarious-looking hats), purchases an ornate mirror for her fiancée. Once the mirror is hung, the fiancée glimpses the reflection of a different room in its glass. The room is ornately Victorian, with a carved four-poster bed and a fireplace, in sharp contrast to his own simple, ultra-modern bachelor pad. The fiancée can still see himself in the mirror, and though he is unnerved, he soon becomes fascinated by the world on the other side. When he breaks down and confesses these events to his fiancée, she joins him at the mirror, which appears totally normal to her, and manages to help him break the spell. Nothing more comes of it until the pair is wedded and hangs the mirror in their new home. Secretly, the husband begins to see the strange room again, and this time, does not fight the visions. The wife chances by the antique store where she purchased the mirror, and, spotting a carved four-poster bed that matches her husband’s description of the mysterious room, she inquires. The shopkeeper tells how he got the estate from a violent, jealous man who was paralyzed in an accident and confined to the bed until idleness drove him insane. He strangled his wife and sat before the mirror to cut his own throat. When the wife dashes back home, her husband has been utterly possessed by the room in the mirror, and lashes out jealously, nearly strangling her before she manages to smash the glass with a candlestick.
Yes, the mirror is “haunted” by a man who murdered his wife—though neither the murderer nor his spirit ever makes an appearance onscreen. But what makes this tale work is the attention to unsettling details: the quick, can’t-be-sure-you-saw-it timing of our first glimpse of the strange room; the heavy dimness of the room itself; the subtle and expertly crescendo-ed performance of Ralph Michael as the husband. One of the most unnerving effects of the story is how stubbornly quiet and empty the room remains. There is just the flicker of the fire and a deadened, predatory silence. This stillness seems to be the room’s real menace; though the husband starts out agitated, he soon becomes entranced by the mirror, and stares into it, unmoving. When the wife returns from the shop, her husband sits as motionless in the middle of the room as Hannibal Lecter in his unforgettable first appearance in his cell. The viewer, too, finds the strange room somehow stifling and uncomfortable, its haunting, anachronistic formality seeping into the couple’s dashing playfulness.
No ghost leaps bloodily out of the mirror to attack, nor do we even see the initial murder-suicide play itself out (unlike in the multi-layered story-within-a-story-within-a-story of the final chapter about the ventriloquist). When there finally is violence, it comes not from the object that appears unambiguously, predictably evil, but from what the wife, and we, believed was a sane, decent person. The mirror, as always, remains impassive and silent, chillingly indifferent. The Haunted Mirror isn’t “boo!” scary. It’s creepy. And creepy can be much more pervasive and frightening than more common horror-movie thrills.
by Katherine Follett
Compelled by his half-remembered nightmares to flee the small country house in which he finds himself, in which horrible fates apparently await him, Walter Craig is persuaded to linger by the “The Golfing Story.” The story’s role, then, at the center of a Dead of Night’s compendium of horror stories is as a distracting, palliative influence and therefore something of a sneaky one, even if the entry itself is fairly benign by the rest of the film’s standards.
“The Golfing Story” serves as a kind of respite, a sample of what is generally termed “comic relief.” Shakespeare, too, has his recourse to comic figures, even it can often seem just as clunky a device in his hands. At its best, in such grim horror plays as Titus Andronicus and Macbeth, buffoonish clowns (carrying basketfuls of pigeons and the like) and drunken servants (talking about urine and lengthily answering the portcullis) nominally offer the audience us a bit of a break, either to reorient our perspectives on the plot or to keep us from running away. In telling us “The Golfing Story,” Dead of Night and Craig’s host Eliot Foyle serve both of Shakespeare’s intentions: they distract us from the unpleasant long enough to keep us watching and reassure us that all this morbidity is simply a bit of fun.
This is not Shakespeare – though it is apparently, suspiciously based on an H.G. Wells story – and whether by chance or as insurance against the particular degree of the film’s morbidity, this tale requires two comic figures, the golf-obsessed pair of Parratt and Potter as played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. This duo was more commonly known to the film’s contemporary audiences as Charters and Caldicott, a couple of stuffy, stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits first seen traveling together on the same train on which Hitchcock’s Lady Vanishes. (This 1938 film also stars Michael Redgrave, the bedeviled ventriloquist of Dead of Night’s deservedly most famous sequence.) The two characters and their respective actors reunited in Carol Reed’s pre-WWII thriller Night Train to Munich, scripted by Lady screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and remained popular enough with British audiences that they nearly appeared together in The Third Man. They later turned up as similar duos in films like the Ealing Studios classic Passport to Pimlico and in their own series on BBC Radio.
In Hitchcock’s film, the duo is a font of dirty puns on sporting and cohabitation, so distracted by an intense discussion of cricket that they don’t happen to notice the vanishing of the titular lady. Their rather cheeky humor is offset by the unassuming image of a couple of doughy, reserved Englishmen abroad: one taller, mustachioed, older, and a dead-ringer for Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; the other smaller, pudgier, and more boyish and Welsh-looking. In Dead of Night, Parratt and Potter share precisely the same rapport and fondness for double entendres as they do in the earlier films, even if they are situated almost exclusively in a setting that, while fraught with superstition, is not exactly scary: the golf course.
Foyle presents the two as best of friends in all things but golf—that is, until the entrance of Mary. Despite the requirements of the plot, the two seem once again too focused on sport to notice the feminine presence in their midst, but even so – Foyle tells us – they become desperate romantic rivals. The competition for the love of this very thinly sketched woman prompts the otherwise punctilious Potter to venture, “I wish you were dead, old man,” as the only solution to the quandary of which of the two should win Mary’s affections. Naturally, however, another form of competition – a friendly game of golf – presents itself, and Mary, poised in docile, unthinking, elbows-on-the-bar contemplation between Parratt and Potter, can think of no more jolly solution as to whom she should spend the rest of her life with. And so, the two men set about the eighteen holes that will clinch a new pairing of husband and wife.
This just sounds utterly terrifying, doesn’t it? Well, of course not: the sequence is in fact streamlined to distract you from the horrible—at least initially. On the final green, in spite of a wonderful showing by Potter, Parratt is mysteriously one up, and the tall, mustachioed gentleman’s win proves too much for his friend and opponent. Amid a newly creepy environment, decked with bare, tenticular trees grasping at a blank, grey sky, Potter turns around and walks nonchalantly into a nearby bog. It is an undramatic, even rather comically played scene (with a cutaway to a squirrel, no less), played with the same deadpan humor of Potter’s earlier line about wishing his friend dead. But it’s a decidedly weird suicide, the final bow of the defeated English sportsman, gallantly acquiescing in the face of a defeat that is, to say the least, suspicious.
But while Parratt wins his woman, some pairings prove more durable than matrimony. Parratt, it turns out, is a cheat, and the now-deceased Potter takes it upon himself to haunt his former friend and golfing partner with uncanny ball manipulations and backswing taunts like “The Lord have mercy on your handicap.” Parratt naturally denies the accusations, but Potter has proof: the Recording Angel’s record makes note of Parratt’s connivance, an example of the notion of a heavenly bureaucracy that will be pushed even further in Powell & Pressburger’s astonishing A Matter of Life and Death the following year. From there, the two are quite literally inseparable: Potter doomed to an afterlife haunting his unscrupulous mate; Parratt required to submit to the deceased’s terms by either giving up golf or Mary. Of course, he chooses to give up the latter.
This final gag – that golf is more important than women, ha ha – may seem the episode’s final example of dull, dated humor to contemporary audiences. And while it’s not nearly as sophisticated or as effective as many of the other tales, the placement of this rather light tale in Dead of Night’s gallery of the ghoulish suggests a great deal of calculation on the part of the film’s makers. On the one hand, the episode is positioned quite literally as a joke: Craig subsequently chuckles and recognizes that Foyle was just trying to make him feel better with a light distraction, self-consciously noting a device that horror films still employ to give the spectator a chance to catch his or her breath. (Indeed, in the film’s terrifying whirlpool of images, this is the only tale not revisited.) But the very British black humor – about suicide, about sublimated desire, about a form of misogyny that is itself self-consciously incorporated – is difficult to ignore, and it is neither so offhand nor amateurishly integrated as it may seem.1
by Leo Goldsmith
Ventriloquism was considered a religious act and a form of necromancy in certain ancient societies. It is interesting that the ability was associated with giving a voice to the dead, since that would later become modern ventriloquism’s hallmark: giving a voice to the non-living ventriloquist’s dummy. Though removed from the world of spiritualism, stage ventriloquism is a unique form of entertainment and one that can be psychologically terrifying. However, one need not have pupaphobia to be unnerved by the dummy’s imitation of life.
The mix of theatrics and the supernatural makes ventriloquism a perfect fit for the horror genre. Ventriloquism, and specifically the relationship between the artist and his dummy, is the subject of the closing segment in Dead of Night, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” Related to the farmhouse gathering by the skeptical psychiatrist, this standout vignette telling the story of Maxwell Frere and his dummy Hugo is part police procedural drama, part psychological horror, and endures as both a chilling and highly influential tale of terror.
Frere has been imprisoned for shooting a rival ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee. The uncooperative defense attorney asks for psychiatrist Dr. van Straaten’s help with the case, but Frere continues to refuse assistance, stating that the only way to help him is to return Hugo. Van Straaten is forced to turn to Kee’s statement to analyze Frere and arrives at the disturbing conclusion that Hugo is an alternate personality of Frere’s and decides the best course of action is to reunite them.
The horror in “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” comes from the audience’s realization that van Straaten’s hypothesis is correct: Frere and Hugo are one and the same. The plot borrows a page from von Stroheim’s The Great Gabbo, but it is this vignette that can be pointed to as the inspiration for future ventriloquist/evil doll horror films such as Magic, Child’s Play and the more recent Dead Silence. Moreover, echoes of Frere’s split personality crisis would surface frequently in horror cinema.
The true power of “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” lies not with Hugo, but with Michael Redgrave’s brilliant performance as Frere. It is upon him that the tension in the story hangs, and as he deftly pivots between between sanity and madness, it is impossible for the audience to fully comprehend him or his actions. Redgrave so masterfully becomes Frere that we are swept up in his mania, empathizing with and also frightened by him. Maxwell Frere may be one of the first cinematic examples of the pitiable human monster, a forerunner of Norman Bates a full decade later.
by David Carter
As this last harrowing tale draws to a close and we return to our group at the farmhouse, the forces of destiny that have been at work throughout the picture begin to take on a menacing and insistent tone—Mr. Craig’s warnings and premonitions coalescing into a concrete and inevitable course of action, elements of the tales we have seen merging into a crescendo of maddening horror. It is a fitting conclusion to the intriguing narrative selections that have come before, and one which calls into question the veracity, and the reality, of all we have seen.
One by one the group exits the drawing room, the evening’s storytelling excitement apparently at an end. Left alone with the doctor, rendered helpless by a clumsy handling of his spectacles, Mr. Craig continues his attempts to explain the paralyzing fear he feels being in that house of his nightmares. The doctor again offers to help, inviting Mr. Craig to unburden himself, to speak whatever comes into his mind. Instead of bearing witness to Mr. Craig’s confession, however, we are drawn into the febrile imaginings of his mind, a nightmare landscape populated with the characters and horrors of the assorted vignettes we just experienced. As the lines of the real and the unreal begin to blur, we finally understand the source of Mr. Craig’s creeping terror.
Impressively melding the efforts of multiple directors, themselves working with material from several writers, Dead of Night remains one of the most satisfying horror anthologies ever created. From a stodgy Brit muttering “certainly unpleasant when you come slap up against the supernatural” to the indelible and terrifying image of Hugo the dummy fixing his empty eyes on his next victim, the film deftly walks the line between lighthearted comedy and creepy horror, managing to entertain and intrigue without scare chords or a drop of blood—with little more, really, than the terror and fascination of inextricable fate.