The first and best remembered British portmanteau film was made at Ealing Studios, it was their first foray into the ‘horror genre’ following WW2, during which horror films had been banned from production in Britain. In 1945 Ealing was not known for ‘horror’ but more for war films and documentaries. Dead of Night (1945) produced by Michael Balcon was his first experiment in getting ready for films following the war and was held up as a showcase for the people Ealing had working for them at this time. The film was in the tradition of English ghost stories more than real horror, which was normally left to the USA to make until Hammer started producing them in the mid 1950’s.
Dead of Night is a collection of supernatural, or if you refer, ghost stories linked together with a cunningly circular narrative. The linking or framing story involves an Architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who is invited to Pilgrim Farm by its owner Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) to prepare drawings for a revamp of the property. From the moment he arrives he gets a sense of déjà vu telling the other five guests that the country house seems strangely familiar and that he recognises all the people there from a recurring nightmare! Each one of them goes on to relate their own tale of nightmarish proportions.
The first is the Hearse Driver, directed by Basil Dearden, whose films have included Pool of London (1951), Violent Playground (1958), Sapphire (1959), Victim (1961) and A Place to Go (1963) and based on a short story by E F Benson first published in 1906. A racing driver, Hugh Granger (Anthony Baird) suffers a serious accident. Opening the curtains of his hospital room, he is surprised to see daylight and, in the street below, a hearse. The driver looks up at him and smiles, saying "room for one more inside." Granger's doctor reassures him that it was a delusion brought on by the accident, and he recovers well. Leaving the hospital, however, he is about to board a bus when the conductor, who has the face of the hearse driver, turns to him, saying "room for one more inside." Unnerved, Granger lets the bus go. Further down the road, the bus crashes, killing all the passengers.
The next story, Christmas Party, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is narrated by the youngest member of the group Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes). At a friend's Christmas party, she takes part in a game of 'sardines' - a version of hide and seek. But one boy soon finds her. When the boy tries to kiss her, Sally runs into a side room. She comes upon a small child, Francis, sobbing. He tells her his half-sister wants to kill him. She comforts him, singing him to sleep. Re-joining the others, she discovers that Francis was the ghost of the murdered boy who died at the hands of his sister in 1860.
|Sally O'Hara relates the Christmas Tale.|
The third sequence directed by Robert Hamer, who was responsible for directing one of British best film’s It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), is a story written by John Baines called Haunted Mirror. Houseguest Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys her fiancé, Peter, an antique mirror for his birthday. But one evening Peter sees another room reflected in the mirror. The visions continue and he fears he is going mad. Joan forces Peter to confront the mirror with her, but this time it is even worse: Peter sees only the other room, an ornate bedroom with a log fire and four-poster bed - but no Joan. With Joan's help, Peter regains control and sees the room as normal. The wedding goes ahead and Peter loses his fear of the mirror. Visiting her mother in Chichester, Joan visits the antique shop where she bought the mirror, and learns its history. It belonged to a wealthy man, crippled in a riding accident, who became insanely jealous of his wife and finally strangled her, before slitting his throat in front of the mirror. Joan returns home to find Peter angry; he accuses her of having an affair. He tries to strangle her. In desperation, Joan smashes the mirror, breaking the spell.
Golf obsessed George and Larry, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, better known as ‘Charters and Caldicott’ who appeared as two cricket mad Englishman in several films from 1938 -1949, are bitter rivals on the green but the best of friends off it, that is until Mary comes between them. The Golfing Story is directed by Charles Crichton, whose body of work included Hue and Cry (1947), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Hunted (1952) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988), and is very loosely based on a story by H G Wells, this penultimate tale is told by the farm owner Eliot Foley. When Mary refuses to choose between the two men they decide to play a round, the loser agreeing to disappear for good. At the final hole, George wins, but only by cheating. Larry accepts defeat and, to George's amazement, walks calmly into the lake to his death. Larry returns as a ghost, threatening to haunt George forever, unless he gives up Mary. George reluctantly agrees but Larry has forgotten the code to return to Heaven. He is still trying to remember it on George's wedding night, as Mary waits upstairs. Desperate, George tries to help find the code but ends up disappearing himself. Larry gratefully takes his place.
The final sequence is the most memorable. Directed by Albert Cavalcanti and again has an original story written by John Baines. Ventriloquists Dummy is narrated by the Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten who tells a story about one of his patents. Maxwell Frere is a ventriloquist who entertains audiences with a very talkative and cheeky dummy called Hugo Fitch and van Straaten describes the relationship between master and dummy that makes you question the sanity of the pair!
At the end of each sequence the story diverts back to Walter Craig and Pilgrim Farm when we learn more about his reoccurring nightmare. Until the very last scene and with the credits rolling we learn our stories ultimate outcome! Basically a chamber story about a group of people collected in a large English country house telling stories of what could be described as weird occurrences but it has an ingenious way of linking all the stories together with Dearden’s framing narrative which holds the whole film together.
|The most disturbing of the stories.|
As for each individual story they do vary. The Christmas Story being the most insignificant of the five and the Golfing Story is the least effective, an absurd comedy that is a parody of English emotions. The Hearse Driver is a chilling tale that reminds us of the nearness of death. The best two are the disturbing Haunted Mirror that has a stylish plot that would be repeated in one way or another in many films. But the best one, and most memorable, is the creepy unnerving Ventriloquists Dummy where Michael Redgrave gives the best performance of any of the actors involved as the demented ventriloquist who looses his grip on reality, a man with true fear in his eyes. The only story that is not quite in the Victorian tradition of supernatural tales, more urban and psychologically layered than the others. Again it’s a plot that will be reprised in a great many narratives that involve mystery and horror themes. Overall it manages to give us a ‘total’ movie and not just five linking stories. As it turned out this film was the template for all subsequent horror anthology movies. Truly classic British cinema.