Sunday, October 7, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 7

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

36. Dead of Night (1945- dir. Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer)

Sustaining a sensation as intense as terror is not easy, which is why brevity is the soul of horror. A skeletal ghost story related by a campfire can be more terrifying than an 800-page Stephen King tome. This is why the portmanteau has flourished with horror so much more than any other genre. Such films are like short story collections, each episode getting to its terrifying conclusion with a minimum of thumb twiddling, then moving on to the next one. Also like short story collections, they are inconsistent. The very first horror portmanteau is often ranked as the best, yet Dead of Night is as inconsistent as any of the ones that would follow. This issue is compounded by the fact that four different directors contributed episodes. Although Dead of Night was probably more of a producer’s film than a director’s, there’s no denying that Charles Crichton’s overlong comic relief “Golfing Story” sits uneasily alongside the film’s serious horrors. Robert Hamer’s “The Haunted Mirror” is a good story, but the image in the mirror is too mundane to create an effectively terrifying atmosphere. Otherwise, Dead of Night is a strong portmanteau that gets better with each viewing. On first viewing, Basil Dearden’s “Hearse Driver” seems too short to register, but its simplicity gives it the staying power of the classic ghost story on which it’s based. The best episodes of this British portmanteau belong to Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. “Christmas Party” is predictable but beautifully staged and shot, the dreamy visuals complimenting both its period setting and it ghostly themes. Even better is “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, in which Michael Redgrave comes unhinged when he thinks his dummy is… steel yourself… alive! This theme would become a veritable sub-genre in itself, creeping up in E.C. Comics, “The Twilight Zone” (which would also adapt “Hearse Driver” as an episode called “Twenty Two”), Magic, and elsewhere. These other variations often trumped the one in Dead of Night (Rod Serling’s “The Dummy” is the best), but it has the distinction of being the first to mine ventriloquism for scares, and Redgrave’s crazed expression while speaking in Hugo’s squeaky voice at the piece’s climax is utterly unnerving. However, all of these episodes are sedate compared to Basil Dearden's wraparound story. Compelled by a recurring nightmare, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) meets the tellers of these tales at a house party in the English countryside. He listens patiently to each scary story, experiencing uncanny chills through it all. Craig has good reason to feel uneasy, as all of those horror tales reprise in a climactic concerted attack on him. He moves from scene to scene, trapped in his labyrinthine nightmare, until coming face to face with Hugo the Dummy in the most traumatizing flourish. A last minute twist finishes the film in a fog of cyclical dread. Whether or not Dead of Night is the best horror portmanteau may be a matter of debate, but the status of its terrifying wraparound sure isn't.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1940s here.
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