Horror anthologies historically have proven both tricky to pull off and of a slightly limited appeal. The legend goes that if so much as one single story fails to hold the audience’s attention, then the rest of the film is liable to crash and burn around it. Not surprisingly there are only a few revered classics in the mini-genre, including Romero’s Creepshow and a string of concoctions from Amicus studios in the 1970s (Tales from the Crypt, Asylum). But Dead of Night has a reputation and cult following that outpaces them all. From Britain’s Ealing Studios (more famous for comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob), Dead of Night’s framing story tells the tale of a man afflicted with a mysterious case of déjà vu when he seems to recognize the inhabitants of a country manor. He’s worried about but unable to vocalize the end of his recurring nightmare, which he claims predicts his present situation. So, comically, the other guests try to calm him with their own tales of dread.
Unlike most other anthologies—which are usually directed by one person—Dead of Night divides its content between four different directors. That the end result is as cohesive and flows as naturally as it does is a testament to the strengths of all its directors. Basil Dearden handled the wraparound segments dealing with the gathering at the manor. The final four minutes of the film, an unbearably chilling whirlpool of madness, is a tour de force depiction of the man’s nightmare. First is the “Haunted Mirror,” about an ancient mirror that reflects its own deadly history. Considering this segment was Robert Hamer’s directorial debut, it is remarkably confident in its depiction of multiple reflections and spatial ambiguities and a prime example of how visual style can overcome weak material to create a uniquely haunting mood. Charles Crichton’s segment, “Golfing Story,” about a gentlemen’s golf bet that ends in suicide and a subsequent haunting, appears between two far scarier stories, and serves to dispel some of the surrounding dread. Even if it is undeniably the film’s weakest link, its placement within the anthology is a thoughtful one and serves as an intermission of sorts.
Cavalcanti’s renowned segment, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” about a ventriloquist haunted into believing his own dummy is out to get him, uses its spare running time to a distressingly scary end. It is unimpeachable in its atmosphere of psychological confusion and also boasts a very tricky timeline (it should be noted that at one point, we’re watching a flashback within a flashback). Thanks to sharp, angular Caligari-inspired sets and a legendary performance from Michael Redgrave as the disturbed vaudeville star, Cavalcanti’s contribution might be the finest single episode to appear in any horror anthology film.
Based on a novella by Russian literature giant Alexander Pushkin, Ealing Studios’s opulent adaptation of The Queen of Spades is a cult classic in search of an audience. Produced by Anatole de Grunwald and directed by Thorold Dickinson (Gaslight), this Poe-like tale of deceit and ghostly vengeance is sumptuous and effective. Penny-pinching Army Capt. Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) dreams of one day “grabbing life by the collar and making it give him what he wants” (which translates, rather mundanely, to winning big at cards). When he happens upon an old book that tells of negotiations people have made with the devil, he discovers that a local Countess, Ranevskaya (Edith Evans, wonderfully teetering between doddering camp and tacit menace), has possibly sold her soul in exchange for the secret combination of cards that will always result in victory. In order to gain entry to the Countess’s chambers and demand that secret, Suvorin wins both the trust and lust of her young beneficiary.
Though the film is suffused with macabre grace notes, Dickinson wisely chooses to keep his style from edging into highfalutin hysterics until it really counts (see the Dali-like penultimate scene where Herman begins to see the secret card numbers in the architecture of the gambling house). More often, his style is almost below-the-radar, as if the entire production were being shot on the lam. The end result is that of an accumulating stress fracture that, in the film’s climax, breaks completely apart along with Herman’s sanity. Curiously enough, the denouement attempts to put a happy spin on the entire package by showing the supposedly lovesick heiress (a blankly beautiful Yvonne Mitchell) having picked up the pieces of her ruined life and buying all the caged birds in the marketplace and releasing them. Never mind the naive, implicit notion that money ruins some and betters others (Pushkin died in immense debt, so it’s unlikely that he would approve of this sequence). It’s more distressing to witness just how much the mood of a dark and uncompromising masterpiece can be sabotaged by a producer with his eyes on the easy uplift. The Magnificent Ambersons, anyone?
Anchor Bay has developed a significant reputation as the roughneck alternative to Criterion, having produced lavish video transfers for unusual favorites like The Wicker Man and Suspiria. Dead of Night looks remarkable for a film its age. Though the print has some dust on it and blacks leave a little to be desired, the range of expressive grays is surprising and attractive. The sound, unfortunately, isn't quite up to the same level. Even though the mix is balanced well enough, some of the lines of dialogue (especially female voices) are badly distorted. The Queen of Spades, however, leaves the admittedly fantastic job of Dead of Night's video presentation in the dust. A surprisingly good print has been given a careful transfer, which accentuates the pointed brilliance of cinematographer Otto Heller's lens-job. Even better, the monaural sound mix is much less distorted and, with some music cues, warm and expansive. A fine job for a couple of films that might have just as easily ended up in acetate hell.
Unfortunately, Anchor Bay's well runs dry in this department. Though one should be glad to have the films on DVD at all, it's a little bit disappointing that an informed expert's commentary track wasn't produced for either title, though their reputations surely merit such treatment. At the very least, a booklet with brief but informative background essays was provided. (Chris Acklin's notes for Queen reveal that the source has inspired no less than six film adaptations as well as an opera by Tchaikovsky.) Aside from the liner notes, both discs offer two galleries each: one composed of behind-the-scenes photography; the other a poster and production still collection. Queen also comes with a trailer suffused with the rich hyperbole of the time ("The most fascinating characters ever to see the silver screen!").
Two classics of early British horror have been thoughtfully doubled-up on a DVD release that should be on any fright fan’s shelf.