The horror anthology film has been around since the silent era. German cinema began the trend with Robert Oswald’s EERIE TALES (1919), Fritz Lang’s DESTINY(1921), and Paul Leni’s WAXWORKS (1924). Things were quiet on the anthology front during the first talking horror cycle of the 1930’s, but the format was revived by Julien Duvivier in his 1943 FLESH AND FANTASY, linking three tales of the supernatural. Britain’s Ealing Studios came up with one of the best in the genre ever when they released 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT. This influential classic chiller is still the gold standard for horror anthologies, with many of its themes and its wrap around storyline being used by horror filmmakers for years to come.
Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is summoned to a countryside home by Eliot Foley (Roland Culver). Craig has the strange feeling he’s been here before, and is filled with a sense of dread. He recognizes the people gathered at the house: race car driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), psychiatrist Dr. Van Stratten (Frederick Valk), married Joan Courtland (Googie Withers), and young Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) from dreams he’s had, dreams that are “forecasting the future…but why?”. Van Straaten is skeptical about the whole idea, giving a psychological explanation about Craig’s deja vu, but the guests speak up about strange phenomena that have happened to them in the past.
The film uses the talents of four different directors to tell the guest’s tales. Basil Dearden (who also does the linking segments) directs Grainger’s story, about happenings that occurred after a near fatal car crash. Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti gives us Sally’s recounting of her meeting a ghostly child at a Christmas party. Robert Hamer handles the tale of Joan and a cursed antique mirror. Charles Crichton’s segment is played for laughs, as Eliot recounts what happened when two golfing buddies (Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne) vying for the affections of a woman play a deadly 18 holes. Cavalcanti is back again with the film’s most famous segment, as Dr. Van Straaten recalls the strange case of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and his almost human dummy, Hugo.
The twist ending may not surprise horror lovers anymore, but still manages to seem fresh. Screenwriters John Baines and Angus MacPhail pull out all the stops, using material based on short stories by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, and their own original ideas. The ventriloquist story is justifiably the most well-known, having been hashed and rehashed over the years, but I particularly liked the one about the antique mirror. DEAD OF NIGHT scores high on the list of best horror anthologies. I know everyone has their favorites, and I dig BLACK SABBATH, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, and CREEPSHOW as much as the next guy. But DEAD OF NIGHT was there first, and would be a first-rate choice for your Halloween watch list. For that matter, this film deserves to be seen any time of the year.