Dead of Night, a British anthology film, premièred 9 September 1945 at London’s Gaumont Haymarket theatre, and did very well commercially. Many modern critics continue to praise it as a classic horror film, with special praise for the final story about the ventriloquist.
Though horror films had long been common in the U.S., they weren’t so common in Britain in this era; indeed, they’d been banned during WWII. Dead of Night began to change all that.
The film was made at Ealing Studios in West London, which began business in 1902 and is the world’s oldest continually-operating film production studio.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a Tudor-style cottage in the country which seems oddly familiar. His sense of déjà vu increases even more when his host, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), shows him inside. Though Walter has never met any of the guests, he’s dreamt about them all many times.
Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk) has a ready scientific answer for everything, including the stories the other guests tell about eerie events from their own lives, but as the night wears on, his skepticism gradually starts waning.
First up is Hugh Grainger (Antony Baird), who tells the story of how he was almost killed in a racecar accident in “The Hearse Driver.” During the end of his hospital stay, he looks out the window and has a horrifying vision of a horse-drawn hearse. His nurse Joyce thinks he imagined it, but he can’t shake his terror.
Upon his discharge, Grainger goes to catch a bus, but he’s filled with foreboding when the driver looks exactly like the hearse driver and says there’s only room for one. Grainger immediately steps back and lets the bus take off without him.
Almost immediately, the bus goes off the road and crashes down a steep hill. Grainger’s premonition saved his life.
Next up is “The Christmas Party,” the story of teenage Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes, now age 90). While playing hide-and-seek, Sally stumbles upon a hallway leading to a staircase leading to secret passageways and a playroom.
In the playroom, she encounters a little boy, Francis, who says his older sister Constance is very mean to him and wants to kill him. Sally treats him very tenderly and tucks him into bed before being found by her friends.
Sally is freaked out when she learns there are no children spending the night and that Francis is the unfortunate boy her buddy Jimmy told her about when they were hiding together earlier, a boy who was killed by his sister in that house a long time ago.
The middle story is “The Haunted Mirror,” the story that creeped me out most. Joan (Googie Withers) buys her fiancé Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael) a mirror from an antiques store to replace the basic one his uncle bought him awhile ago. Peter is happy with the gift at first, but soon lives in terror of it.
Every time he looks in the mirror, he sees a very Gothic-type room that looks like it’s in a mansion, with a burning fireplace, candles, and a fancy four-poster bed with carved grapes on top. He also can’t see Joyce in the mirror when she stands beside him.
Peter wants to push out their wedding date because he fears he’s losing his mind, but he manages to summon the willpower to see his normal room behind him in the mirror again, and Joyce beside him.
Everything seems to be going most swimmingly after they marry and move into a new house, but then the visions return. Joyce learns the supernatural reason for this when she visits the store where she bought the mirror and sees a bed exactly like the one Peter described.
The mirror, the bed, and several other things in the shop belonged to a man who died in 1836, in a house which was sealed until very recently. The storekeeper tells Joyce the tragic, horrific story of the original owner and his wife, a story Peter begins re-enacting when Joyce comes home.
This intense, creepy mood is lifted by the penultimate story, “The Golfer’s Story,” which is comedy-horror.
Buddies George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne) are intense rivals on the golf course, but closer than brothers in all other arenas. That all changes, however, when they meet Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan).
Eventually they hit upon the idea of playing a golf game with Mary’s hand in marriage as the prize. George wades into the lake by the green after losing, and his ghost comes back to haunt Larry.
George tries to make Larry give up both Mary and golf forever, but Larry refuses this deal. He can give up Mary, but he’ll have no reason for living if he never golfs again. George accepts the compromise, and says he must always stay within six feet of Larry.
George’s presence quickly becomes impossible to bear, and George himself agrees this is really awkward. However, he’s unable to go back to the other world, since he came back to Earth without knowing that rather important detail of ghosting. The magic formula keeps eluding him.
Finally, we have “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” a story within a story within a story. Dr. van Straaten tells a tale of the time he was called in as a psychoanalyst for Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave), who was charged with the attempted murder of fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power).
Maxwell’s dummy, Hugo, becomes more and more out of control, acting as if with a mind of his own instead of controlled by his master. This drives Maxwell into madness.
The last reel reminds me very much of all the twists and turns near the end of Dr. Caligari. It’s hard to tell what is and isn’t reality, since the lines are so blurred.