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Monday, March 19, 2018

When Critics Liked A Universal Horror Release

A British Way To Scare: Dead Of Night (1946)

In case you haven't watched, please do, as this is an abiding classic of chiller type where quiet UK countryside becomes stuff of nightmare thanks to five tales of terror wrapped round bucolic setting. US distribution by Universal played havoc, a couple of stories shorn altogether and doing damage to the rest (Universal oddly issued stills of the missing segments along with publicity for the film). Dead Of Night is carefully calibrated, so it's got to be seen complete. William K. Everson was a champion, naturally, him having been raised on the Isles, and he'd write eloquently about the omnibus in his Classics Of the Horror Film (published 1974), which made us long to see Dead Of Night, even as it remained difficult-to-catch until video came to the rescue. Dedicated enough horror fans generally have Dead Of Night on their Halloween plates, and evangelize on its behalf the rest of the year. Arguments tend to revolve around which is better: this, The Uninvited, The Haunting, or a handful of others among a pantheon of vintage scares.

The framing story appears to be merely that until climactic pay-off where all of what went before ties like a noose. Imitators have stole bolts from Dead Of Night cloth, but there's no duplicating  atmosphere lost to time that was immediate postwar in England, its unsettling quality lent by unique moment and place. The stories are told casually by guests at a country house with no particular set-up for ghostly mood. It isn't night, let alone a stormy or baleful one. The light outside a window is reassuring. In other words, Dead Of Night doesn't need the tropes that made so many US chillers anything but chilling. There were top talents applying themselves to spookery here, a group of directors turning hands to separate portions of the whole. Your favorite among the tales might vary according to views. I find each effective save a misjudged comedic break that we'll presume was put there for halfway relief of tension.

The stories begin brief. A racecar driver crashes and sees portent of doom from his hospital room. This one goes by quick, but packs a punch of Miles Malleson, future light presence at Hammer, as a hearse, then bus, driver issuing cheery invitation to premature death. Then there's Sally Ann Howes telling of a Christmas party where she encountered specter of a years-before murdered child. That one's effective thanks to set design of a house with many a hidden passage; you could easily imagine ghosts making their undetected place here. Third comes the Haunted Mirror, which Everson regarded best of the lot, and here's where intensity ramps up. Audiences maybe needed the light serving that followed of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as golfers competing for love as well as on links, with haunting a result of one cheating the other on a bet. It's a weak link in an otherwise taut chain, not unlike the telephone story in Black Sabbath a few decades later, this where some will find usage of DVD's chapter skip feature.

The longest and most ambitious of the lot is a story from which elements just had to have been borrowed for Psycho, so striking are parallels between this tale of a ventriloquist possessed by his dummy and later on Norman Bates by his mother. The device of a ventriloquist performing in edgy opposition to his dummy seems to me an excellent concept for modern-day performing, if such could remain an act and not tip over into reality and consequent madness. There's something inherently frightful about deadly dummies, or devil dolls if you will, these being evergreen to the service of horror, as witness more recent success and sequels in the "Chucky" series. Dead Of Night must have walloped an English public when new. When had they been served home brew potent as this? Horror films had been discouraged for a large part in the UK, so a Dead Of Night was even more a departure from norm. Word-of-mouth must have been terrific.

Universal was the natural stateside handler for Dead Of Night, but not necessarily for its horrific content. Fact is, Uni preferred selling DoN as anything but a chiller, opting instead to emphasize "psychological" elements of the package. Suggested press for newspaper use was all over suspense that came of tormented minds, with ghosts and the supernatural played down. What Universal wanted was another Spellbound, that having rung bells for Selznick-UA. Psychology being a prevailing fad put Dead Of Night into what Universal hoped would be a sophisticated column way above monsters they had but lately separated from. An early trade announcement (2/4/46) tipped Universal's enthusiasm for "dream sequences" they promised would pervade Dead Of Night, "FIVE completely separate dream stories woven into a central pattern," even though, of course, the company would end up dropping two of these before releasing the film in June, 1946.

Lift-off was at New York's Winter Garden, where Dead Of Night played four successful weeks. Universal prepared special ads quoting critics and promising something "Thrillingly Different" in screen entertainment, a picture that was "One in 10,000." The campaign was farmed to urban centers where there was potential for highbrow attendance. Universal knew Dead Of Night was deep-dish, but didn't want to sell it as an art film, their intent from a beginning to tender the import as "one of its top releases for the year," result being somewhat schizophrenic salesmanship, which may have been appropriate considering the psych push Uni had on the pic. Some territories chose a more lurid approach, Chicago's first-run pairing Dead Of Night with Desi Arnaz in Cuban Pete and using a scantily-clad cartoon to further boost Universal's elevated shock show. "Here is the picture that has New York movie-goers agog," said ads for the RKO Grand, positioning Dead Of Night as an "Adults Only" attraction. The pressbook got down to bally basic with ideas tried-and-true: having a "brave" couple watch Dead Of Night alone after midnight and rewarding them accordingly, building shadow boxes in the lobby through which "ghosts" could be seen, etc. In smaller markets, a greatest obstacle Dead Of Night had to overcome was the fact it was British and therefore less of a lure to rube patronage.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

DEAD OF NIGHT is such a perfect movie as well as all of one piece. I have to wonder at the thinking behind the people who cut it for American release.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You can take all the graphic slasher films- this, along with The Night of the Hunter, is the one that made me afraid to go out in the dark, thinkng that damn dummy would get me. It scared the hell out of me to such an extent I still prefer to watch it with others. Michael Redgrave gave such an intense, eerie performance you believe is he possessed (I thought he deserved an Oscar, or maybe two of them for this masterful schizo performance). The wrap-up nightmare is also chilling, along with Miles Matheson's "just room for one inside" cameo. And somewhat off-subject, this "Hearse Driver" segment's storyline also frightened me to no end growing up, as it was included in a short story anthology for kids as "The Elevator Operator," wherein the narrator recounts a tale similar to the race car driver's story in the film, with him meeting a grotesque man carrying a coffin (as in the movie) while the narrator is staying out in the countryside (the man disappears), then later upon starting to enter an elevator, he notices the operator is the same man with the horrific face. The startled man backs out of the elevator, which crashes, killing all inside, with no trace of the operator among the bodies, of course. I think this book was marketed as a fun, scary child-friendly book you could buy in a school book catalog, but the editor must have been as perverse as Disney could be in scaring kids, as a terrfying illustration of the operator was included with the story that makes that aged potrait of Dorian Gray in MGM's 1945 film look like Cary Grant.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Radford and Wayne were cozy, familiar faces for British audiences, but their ghost yarn also gives us the payoff of a skeptic among the framing story characters, which helps sells the supernatural stories more effectively by giving a nod to our own skepticism before overriding it with increasingly grim stories. In the end, even if it seems a bit off tonally compared to the rest of the film, it's effective construction.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Universal handled DEAD OF NIGHT not because the studio was the natural place for horror movies, but because J. Arthur Rank was bent on getting American distribution for his British productions. He bought into Universal, using the studio's network of exchanges as his outlet. The original merger betwen Rank and Universal (United World Films) ultimately failed, but a second merger involving Rank took hold, resulting in Universal-International.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said... that's how that came about. A long way from Uncle Carl Laemmle.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Scared the pants off this kid when it was shown on TV.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'm afraid I must disagree. Until you described the entire movie, the ventriloquist sequence was the only one I remembered. In fact, I'm having a hard time remembering one or two of them. That most of the stills you use are of that self-same sequence makes me think that "Dead of Night" would be forgotten without it. My daughter, then 12 or 13, screamed in terror at the sight of the dummy walking across the jail cell. It's still scary as hell.

11:16 AM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

I love this film (from which at least one episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE was ripped-off) a lot. The ventriloquist sequence and the framing stories are the ones that strike me as the most potent. However the Christmas ghost story with Sally Ann Howes somehow seems to affect me more each time I see it. It contains no actual threat to the protagonist (Sally Ann Howes) and very little actually happens. The setting, with the luminous photography creates a very strong other-worldly mood. It feels like a genuine exposure to the uncanny. Of course … it may be "just me."

12:55 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

The final shot as the credits roll still gives me butterflies in my stomach. A brilliant end to the film.

Was happy to find you can download this from Amazon for about $3....its not restored or HD quality...but its fine until something better comes along.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Good point, Opticalguy. Just how many Twilight Zones swiped ideas from DEAD OF NIGHT? There were two different ventriloquist episodes with overbearing dummies, one 'room for one more, honey' reworking and, I'm sure, plenty of more casual pilfering with ghosts and mirrors and such.

10:09 AM  

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