“If only I’d left here when I wanted to, when I still had a will of my own. You tried to stop me. You wouldn’t have done if you’d have known,” says Mervyn Johns’s troubled protagonist Walter Craig to Frederick Valk’s Freud-like psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten, prior to the inevitable, nightmarish end sequence of the classic 1945 Ealing Studios portmanteau horror film Dead of Night. Inevitable, because Craig is a man who wakes each morning from the same unconscious, barely recalled terror – and because he has already informed us how events are set to play out.
At the start of the film, Craig arrives in a reverie of déjà vu at a Kentish farmhouse he’s never previously visited, summoned there by a man he’s unacquainted with to look into redesigning the place. The architect has the dawning realisation that the house forms the backdrop to his nightly recurring dream, and that his fellow guests, all uncannily familiar to him despite their having never met, might be mere phantoms in his head.
Dead of Night contains five embedded narratives recalled by the occupants of the farmhouse. The first, adapted from E. F. Benson’s short tale ‘The Bus-Conductor’, concerns a premonition of an avoided future – its most memorable moment is the fateful line uttered by Miles Malleson’s bus conductor/hearse driver: “Just room for one inside, sir.” The next, a gothic children’s Christmas party that’s haunted by the ghost of a murdered small boy (loosely based on the actual murder of Francis Kent, whose sad story is told in detail in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher), is much more atmospheric, as is the third tale, that of an antique mirror that possesses its owner. Some questionable light relief is provided by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s comedic, ghostly golf shenanigans (a reprise of their sport-obsessed cameo in Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes), before we come to the last and most celebrated of the stories, in which Michael Redgrave’s unhinged ventriloquist Maxwell Frere is driven insane by his papier mâché companion, Hugo.
However, it’s the film’s masterful, playful framing device, directed by Basil Dearden, that sets Dead of Night apart, providing both its end and its beginning. Because, at its climax we witness, once more, Craig’s identical arrival along a tree-lined country lane that followed on from the opening credits. First, though, we must spin back four minutes, to the moment Mervyn Johns’s character rises from his chair in the flickering, fire-lit lounge.
Craig saunters towards the camera and the seated Dr Van Straaten, blankly demanding why he had to set into motion what’s about to come: “Oh Doctor, why did you have to break your glasses?” (Earlier, the visiting architect remembers that the moment his dream transforms into “a nightmare of horror” is precipitated by the breakage.) Craig towers behind the psychiatrist, removing his tie and strangling the larger man with a casual ease. A voice in his head urges him to hide and suddenly he finds himself in the familiar surroundings of the Christmas masquerade of the film’s second section.
Sally Ann Howes’s teenage Sally and a group of costumed children urge the murderer to join in their game of hide-and-seek. Craig flees up the same shadowed staircase Howes herself had previously traversed en route to offering comfort to the ghostly young Victorian victim, only this time the scene is skewed at an angle that recalls another film with a similarly mind-blowing ending: Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Next, Craig pauses in front of the haunted mirror of director Robert Hamer’s third segment, which shimmers in a psychedelic haze, prior to accosting Hayes and dragging her to the attic. There, he strikes the blow to her face he earlier predicted he’d be powerless to prevent.
Without warning, Craig is seated alongside the malevolent, foul-mouthed puppet from the final story (stylishly directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, as was the Christmas party segment). Hugo urges Craig to “take a seat, sucker”, as the camera pans around the gathered cabaret faces that leer down at the guilty man – and the audience. The strangler is carried aloft to a prison cell manned by Miles Malleson from the first tale: “Just room for one inside, sir,” he once more intones, this time with added relish. On the opposite side of the cell from where Craig cowers, sits Hugo, who, in the most menacing scene of the film, takes to his feet. The crowd of onlookers grin like hungry wraiths through the bars of the door as an undersized actor in dummy make-up strides towards Johns and places his hands on the architect’s throat, before the shot pulls rapidly back to reveal a silhouetted darkness. Now Craig is lying in the bland, comforting surroundings of his own house, awakened by the sound of the phone beside his marital bed that’s ringing to summon him, once more, to that all-too-familiar cottage.
It’s a future of purgatorial dread and guilt that must hardly have been the uplifting tonic conflict-weary audiences were expecting when the film opened in London just one week after World War II had finally reached its own grim conclusion.
A version of this article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Sight and Sound magazine.