I've read and heard about DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) for years but had never seen it until the other day (thanks to a recent airing on TCM). This classic British horror film has a reputation as being a must-see film and, while I certainly agree that it's worth seeing, it's an uneven movie that doesn't entirely hang together.
That's mainly because of it's format. It's an anthology/omnibus (or portmanteau, if you want to get fancy) type of film comprised of several short segments stitched onto an framing narrative. An architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), is invited to the country estate of Elliot Foley (Ronald Culver) for a weekend of consultation on some upcoming renovations. When Craig arrives and meets the people already assembled at the estate, he has an unshakable feeling that he's been there before, in that very room with those very people. And he knows exactly what's going to happen next. All of this is, of course, impossible and is chalked up to either deja vu or a particularly vivid dream that Craig had the night before. Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a man of science and medicine, especially discounts any supernatural or paranormal explanation for Craig's behavior.
The guests set about recounting their own personal weird tales and it's here where the short segments begin. The Hearse Driver and Christmas Party sequences are short, "gotcha" type stories with twist endings that are seen from miles away. They're relatively tame and offer no real scares whatsoever. They're the types of stories that later appeared in the DC's mystery comics. Heck, they're mild enough to have run in any Gold Key mystery anthology title.
The Haunted Mirror sequence, with a longer running time, is a good one that anticipates and prefigures the type of stories that would find a home on the Boris Karloff hosted THRILLER television series of the early 1960s. The Golfing Story sequence (from a story by H.G Wells) is the weakest of all. It's more of a "Topperesque" fantasy, light-hearted and whimsical and frankly, a waste of time. It just doesn't fit into the overall tone of the film and the other stories. It could be cut entirely and the film wouldn't suffer in the least.
The final sequence is the best. It's the legendary Ventriloquist's Dummy story in which ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) is dominated by his evil dummy Hugo. It's material that would later be revisited in both the classic 1962 TWILIGHT ZONE episode "THE DUMMY" and in William Goldman's novel and film MAGIC (1978). But this segment did it first and arguably best in a story that is truly terrifying and makes up for the weaker stories leading up to it.
After the stories have all been told, Craig plays out what he saw in his dream only to find himself in an unusual situation. To say more would be to spoil the surprise narrative twist at the end of the film but suffice it to say that it's a good one.
DEAD OF NIGHT is definitely worth seeing, especially if you're a horror film fan. It's uneven but earnest and while not every story works, the one's that do, do so exceedingly well.