Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: 'Devil's Advocates: Dead of Night'

Dead of Night wasn’t the first British horror film, but it was the first truly significant one, both serving as a pioneer of an important tradition of portmanteau horrors (though one that wouldn’t really take root for another twenty years when Amicus found its niche) and enduring in terms of influence, and yes, scariness. The resolution to the film’s wrap-around segment is a cold sweat-drawing nightmare that is still scary today. You can’t say that about too many other movies from or before 1945.

Historically significant and very closely knit to its own historical context, Dead of Night is a movie ripe for analysis, but its unusual format and unusual creation—four different directors were responsible for its five segments and wraparound—also indicates there’s an interesting making-of account to be told too. Writers Jez Conolly and David Owain Bates are a lot more interested in the analytical side in their new book on the film for the Devil’s Advocates series, though some interesting backgrounds on the filmmakers and actors, as well as the histories of the film’s sundry elements, work their ways into the text too. So we get quick but edifying run downs of the legacies of portmanteau films, evil ventriloquist dummies, seasonal spook stories, pop-psychiatry thrillers, and even teen horror movies. We also get discussions of the role the sets’ architecture plays in the film’s crushing air of entrapment, the significance of main character (and architect!) Walter Craig’s Welsh nationality, and most importantly, how the film is a clear product of World War II Britain that also takes odd measures to deny that fact.

While largely analytical works can be tedious reads, Conolly and Bates find so much to mill through in Dead of Night that their study never has a chance to stagnate. In fact, this is the rare analytical book I’d describe as a brisk read, as it picks up and pokes through so many ideas across its slim 113 pages.
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