'Room for one inside':
Dead of Night
Nick Bartlett returns to one of the great British horror anthologies, 1945's Dead Of Night, in this article for Horrified...
Anthology horror films can be very hit and miss. For every truly scary story, there will generally be two or three filler segments. This doesn’t apply to Dead Of Night (UK, Basil Deardon et al, 1945), Ealing Studio’s only real foray into horror territory, where each story contributes to the increasing sense of unease, and the linking story is just as scary, if not more so than the stories that make up the lion’s share of the film. Dead Of Night is by no means the first anthology horror film (that honour goes to Uncanny Stories (Richard Oswald, 1919)) but it was the first one to make a lasting impression; one that can be felt on every subsequent portmanteau horror film, from Tales From The Crypt (UK, Freddie Francis, 1972) to Ghost Stories (UK, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, 2017).
Mervyn Johns is excellent as the befuddled architect Walter Craig, who arrives to spend the weekend at a potential client’s cottage, only to realise that he has been there before in a recurring nightmare – much to the amusement of the other guests. However, Craig goes on to predict precise details which come true. Despite the best efforts of psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) to disprove these supernatural claims, the other guests each offer up stories of their own otherworldly experiences.
‘The Hearse Driver’ (Basil Dearden)
The first is based on a well-known short story by E. F. Benson titled ‘The Bus-Conductor’ (1912). There have been a few versions of this, perhaps most famously in The Twilight Zone episode ‘Twenty-Two’ (USA, CBS Productions, 1961). In the Dead Of Night story, Anthony Baird plays a racing driver in hospital, who is woken by a ghostly hearse driver outside his window, cheerily telling him that there’s ‘just room for one inside’.
It’s a simple tale about a creepy premonition, yet as directed by Basil Dearden it’s thick with foreboding, featuring a creepily jovial turn from Miles Malleson as the titular hearse driver. The direction really lifts the material, and the moment in which Baird walks over to the curtains might be the eeriest moment in the entire film – the closed curtains are shot ominously from below, and, as he walks towards them, the film’s audio completely drops out, creating a tangibly apprehensive feeling among the audience.
‘The Christmas Party’ (Alberto Cavalcanti)
An atmospheric, if fairly slight, ghost story about a child’s Christmas party that goes wrong. Sally (Sally Ann Howes) is playing sardines in an old-fashioned mansion when she encounters a lonely crying boy.
The most disquieting moments are the huge empty spaces of the mansion where Sally looks for a hiding place, and her quiet conversation with the ghostly boy, who is both otherworldly and decidedly out of place, which only adds to the eeriness of the scene. The twist is predictable but this is by design. The creepiness comes from the audience knowing full well that this is a ghost when Sally doesn’t, and the disconcerting feeling that results.
‘The Haunted Mirror’ (Robert Hamer)
This is where the film really finds its feet. Directed by Robert Hamer – who would go on to helm the masterful Kind Hearts & Coronets (UK, Robert Hamer, 1949) – this is a wonderfully gothic story. Googie Withers buys her fiancé (Ralph Michael) an antique mirror as an engagement present, but he begins to notice things in the reflection. Small things at first, but soon he sees a completely different bedroom in the mirror. More than any, this feels the most like a classic horror tale in a similar vein to M. R. James – particularly something like ‘A View From A Hill’ (1925).
The story of a haunted mirror would return in Amicus’ From Beyond The Grave (UK, Kevin Connor, 1974) where it would be just as effective, but this story has a much more unnerving quality to it, helped immensely by George Auric’s jarring score. As with most ghost stories, it’s the smaller moments that really send a chill up your spine. When they first put the mirror up, Michael quickly glances behind him as if he’s just seen something in the reflection, before disregarding it out of hand. Both Withers and Michael are excellent in their roles – Michael’s slow deterioration as he is seduced by the mirror is especially sinister, while Withers is touching as his level-headed fiancée who essentially saves him by the story’s end.
‘The Golfer’s Story’ (Charles Crichton)
The weakest entry but still charming in its own way. Two friends compete for a girl over a game of golf, but one of them cheats. The loser kills himself and comes back to haunt his former friend until the latter comes clean. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne play a variation on their Charters and Caldicott characters from The Lady Vanishes (UK, Alfred Hitchcock, 1938), this time obsessed with golf rather than cricket.
This one is often maligned as a bit too frivolous, but it serves as a welcome break in tension before the nightmarish finale, and aside from anything else, the image of Wayne walking into the pond to his death is a creepy, strangely melancholy image that lingers in the memory.
‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ (Alberto Cavalcanti)
The most iconic segment of the film, and the definitive ‘creepy dummy’ story, which doubtless served as an influence both on Richard Attenborough’s Magic (USA, Richard Attenborough, 1978), Devil Doll (UK, Lindsay Shonteff, 1964) and episodes of both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Michael Redgrave gives what I believe to be his greatest film performance as Maxwell Frere, the disturbed ventriloquist who has a troubling relationship with his dummy, Hugo.
The most unnerving aspect of this story is that Hugo never actually moves unaided – there is always a moment in subsequent ‘creepy dummy’ stories where the dummy comes to life, but, in Dead Of Night, Cavalcanti is brave enough to convey Hugo’s domineering personality through stillness. The creepiest image in the story might be Hugo sitting perfectly motionless on Frere’s bed, or Frere physically recoiling at the sight of Hugo in his prison cell, pressing himself against the wall to get away from him. This segment also stands out for the way it looks; Douglas Slocombe, a master of lighting, makes expert use of his craft to suggest whether Frere or Hugo is in control. The framing is also suggestive, with numerous shots of Hugo sitting bolt upright, or propped against a bar, managing to make him seem imposing without looking particularly unnatural. He’s undoubtedly a creepy presence, but the direction and cinematography never ultimately reveals whether there is anything supernatural going on.
And that’s it… except it’s not. Of course, the film doesn’t end there, and it has to be said, the final section of the film, back in the cottage, is one of the most nightmarish and daring sequences in British horror film history, and full credit should go to director Basil Dearden and writer Angus McPhail for ensuring that the wheels never come off.
Back in the cottage, Dr Van Straaten breaks his glasses, just as Craig predicted, and he gives in to the nightmare and fulfils the rest of the prophecy, strangling the doctor. Mervyn Johns is great here, making the switch from befuddled protagonist to sinister murderer eerily plausible. His delivery of ‘Oh doctor, why did you have to break your glasses?’ is truly chilling.
This is a masterfully constructed climax to the film. Craig desperately runs through each of the stories we’ve just seen, interacting with the characters (even cheery Miles Malleson turns up again to say ‘room for one more inside’!) until he finally ends up in a prison cell, with a crowd of smiling ghouls grinning in at him, and a motionless Hugo sat on a chair. That is until the dummy stands, slowly walks toward Craig and begins to strangle him.
This moment is as chilling as Paul Meurisse standing up in the bathtub in Les Diaboliques (France, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) or the apparition at the window in The Innocents (UK, Jack Clayton, 1961). The whole sequence is truly disturbing, and only slightly undercut by the reveal that this has all been a nightmare. The masterstroke here, and the reason why the familiar ‘it was all a dream’ trope doesn’t feel like a cheat, is Dearden’s reprisal of the opening of the film, shot-for-shot beneath the credits. It becomes apparent that Craig is now caught in an infernal, never-ending loop. His nightmare isn’t over; it’s only just begun.
A remarkably subversive film, Dead Of Night was ahead of its time in its use of coded references to homosexuality in both ‘The Haunted Mirror’ and ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’, as well as an allusion to a past interracial relationship between Michael Redgrave and Elisabeth Welch. One interesting element is the way each story reflects the personality of the character telling it. The little girl’s segment is a standard child’s ghost story; the host’s frivolous tale reflects his cavalier attitude to proceedings, and the rational psychologist’s story can either be read as having no supernatural elements or alternatively being the most sinister of all. All of this helps with the idea that the stories could be imagined or truly inexplicable, which adds to the dreamlike quality of the whole film.
Milton Subotsky, the head of Amicus Productions, called Dead Of Night ‘the greatest horror film ever’ and tried to emulate it in his studio’s portmanteau horrors, like Asylum (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1972) and From Beyond The Grave. In Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965), Peter Cushing even enters the train carriage with the line ‘room for one more inside’. However, what they lack is the ingredient that makes Dead Of Night unique. Each of them feels like a collection of short films, and, with some tweaking, you could transpose an instalment from one to another. This couldn’t be done with Dead Of Night, which feels like a cohesive, structured whole rather than a collection of stories around a vague theme.
Dead Of Night is that rare thing – a classic horror film where the hype is completely justified. It’s an unusual film for Ealing, even for the period it was made, but it’s a masterpiece, and aside from a handful of old-fashioned moments, it still stands up today as one of Britain’s very best horror films.