Friday, October 30, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #24 & Papa Mike's Video #11: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

"And then the dream became a nightmare...."

I've been meaning to see this for years, hyped up by a number of sources, not least of which Slavoj Zizek in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema documentary.  This is none other than what was the Granddaddy of all horror anthology movies, Dead of Night.  The premise is simple enough: a man goes to a house upon invitation, and he finds that there are a group of people already there, talking and having a good time with drinks and such.  There's also a psychiatrist there, and he tries to help this man, Walter Craig (Mervyn Jones), in figuring out if what he thinks as being his 'dream' is a 'nightmare', or even that real at all.  The problem is this: everyone he sees at this house gathering has been in his dreams.  Why is this?  This will be the mystery to crack open - but first, it's STORYTIME! 

Some 'Spooktaculars' ago, I wrote about the documentary Nightmares in Red White and Blue.  In it, John Carpenter talked about the two types of horror stories: those told around the campfire, about those horrors "out there" or of the other, and then the stories about how the horror is within us, which is a harder story to tell.  You can't get more "campfire" like than this group of folks in this movie, and I also wonder with the sorts of tales told here - those of the macabre and ghosts and psychotic personality disorders and other odd and certainly malevolent things to do with death - were an influence on Rod Serling.  It's hard for me to watch Dead of Night and not think of The Twilight Zone and, for better or worse (mostly better), I'm sure that for those who might fret watching some creaky British (Ealing) film from 1945, these stories really would be right at home in the "Submitted for your Approval" category, and I mean that as a compliment (mostly).

Here are the stories told by the people present in this room, all leading up to the doctor and his tale of his 'patient', which is the story most people have heard of likely going into DoN: 1) a man was a race car driver and got into an accident.  He wakes up in a hospital and is being treated, and things seem ok (he's even flirting with the nurse), but when he looks outside he sees a rather sinister figure (one of those guys with a double chin but no regular chin at the same time and a goofy/pleasant smile that ills) sitting at a carriage.  What is he representing?  He also pops up when the man tries to board a bus, and he makes some comment to make him seem even more sinister.  Is this race car driver dead?  It's deduced that no, he's not, but that he may be getting a warning of some sort; he had the feeling right before he got into the accident that he might die (split second earlier sort of thing), so it's likely this figure is a Masque of Death of .... some sort.

Story 2 is from a young lady who was part of a hide and seek game with some children in a large house party at night.  She goes up stairs to hide and keeps going further and further.  She ends up finding a room where a small child is crying.  She puts the boy to bed and to try to calm his nerves.  When she returns to the party downstairs she tells one of the older ladies about this young boy who she discovered and tried to calm down and make better with some singing (yes, she sings, one of those songs that no one remembers 70 years later).  The old woman is shocked... who is up there?  No one that we know, that's for sure.  This story, as the first one before it, are the shortest in the film, but they are effective enough as little anecdotes that cut right to the chase of death and the after-life: the question is, can they see ghosts, or are these freak occurences?  Are they just in their dreams? 

Pay it no mind, there's the three main stories to tell still (these were more like horderves): #3 is about Peter Cortland who marries a woman and she comes upon an old mirror that she buys for her to-be-husband.  He puts it his room and, uh oh, it turns out whenever he looks at it it reflects black an entirely different room than what he is in: it has a fireplace and is cloaked in darkness with a bed that can be described in no other word than foreboding.  Oh, and it fills some dark thoughts in his head, which happened to the previous owner.  If it weren't for the knock-on-your-ass power of the final short, this would be the best/favorite one of the lot of stories in Dead of Night.  I loved how little by little Cortland got worse the more he looked at the mirror and what was surrounding him, and yet there's also a wonderful moment (before the wife finds out what's really wrong from a second source who had the mirror before - one of those 19th century gothic sort of deals) where the two people connect. 

She stands next to him and makes him look again, and he still sees what Cortland's seen before... then she holds his hand and gives her a compassionate, loving look and demands he look again, and it's back to normal.  It's not one of those sweepingly romantic things that may or may not work out - this is a real moment of love, and it helps to anchor the characters into the horror that is happening here.  We never get a full explanation of what the mirror is from, but its power comes in what it represents: a medium to make you see the worst in you - such as what you dread/suspect may be with your significant other and another man(!)

Unfortunately, the fourth short is not my favorite, though it is enjoyable on its own terms and as a kind of 'hoot' of a story, which probably shouldn't have a place among the other shorts here.  This is about two men and a lady who go golfing and one of the men dies while looking for a golf-ball - deep in the lake right by they golf.  But lo and behold, this guy is back as a ghost to this friend still plugging away on the golf course - and at a moment when he (Larry Potter his name) appears to him in the "flesh" he finds he can't do the, uh, combination hand-signals to come back to his invisible netherworld or whatever. 

I do enjoy a story that skewers people who play golf - at one point Larry Potter tells his friend that he has to stop playing golf and to straighten up, to not go after this lady who the two men kind of fancied - but it's rather light and while some jokes work, others don't.  Where it leads up to is a nice ironic punch, and the actors have a lot of fun in the parts (seeing a grown man doing hand-signals is amusing on its own).  Yet it feels like a calculated attempt to make things a little "light" and funny - to get Walter out of his funk by the storyteller in the room - when it doesn't really need to be.  Again, not bad at all, it's actually well acted and put together, but it doesn't hold up against the other shorts.

 Certainly not, I should transition now, into the story of a man and his "Dummy".  This segment, 'The Ventriloquist's Dummy/, and the whole Party sequence, are directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, and something about these scenes has a wilder flavor, just a little more chance taken with the pacing of shots and how intense things get with the characters.  In the 'Dummy' story, here we get the classic split-personality story, a man, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) with his puppet who seems to have a "mouth" on him at a show they put on at a club.  Already something seems 'off': the ventriloquist looks surprised at the things the Dummy says to people in the club - he gives lip to people and it is not the sort of thing that seems planned (there's a musical number the dummy should be a part of that gets cut short and not in a way that feels planned).  And backstage things still seem... weird. 

Maxwell looks mild-mannered enough, but it's whenever the dummy gets in his hand that the 'thing' becomes alive.  This was where Zizek came in with his documentary and where I first saw this scene; how does one control the "other" voice that comes out of some place that is in the nether-region of the brain?  This may not be as traditionally shocking as a ghost story, but it really got to me in a big way.  This is seeing a guy going completely unhinged - and with the twist that, well, what if that thing IS possessed, in its way?  Redgrave is magnificent in the role, mostly because of how lost he makes Maxwell look: he is drained away, in this sort of state of being where he is kind of low-key until... the dummy goes away. 

The story builds to such a point that involves the dummy being "taken" (it is not... or is it, who knows!) in a hotel and murder happening.  I won't say who or how, but it all leads up to a scene in a prison that has the air of major WTF.  It's not scary so much as terrifying and mortifying at the same time, at how human nature can suddenly become so completely unglued and seeing a person who should be in control completely lose it (the one moment that really does shock is when the puppet is finally "gone" and Redgrave's voice is... what the fuck is that anyway!)

In terms of direction and super-black-dark humor - there are a few moments where it's difficult not to laugh at what this goddamned silly puppet with a mouth at the ladies like in certain bars (yes there is a scene) - this one tops them all and is one of those towering moments in horror movies from the period, or any period, all leading up to what Walter discovers in that house with Dr. van Straaten, and what all of those nightmares involving all those people 'means'.  Does it mean he'll be violent himself, or it's all just a dream. 

What IS a nightmare, after all?  The power of Dead of Night, and at times when these tales are being told by these characters in the living room there's a nervous energy I can't quite place but is hard to ignore, is in what you believe in and get absorbed into when hearing a story around the campfire, so to speak.  Some stories are greater than others here, but the masterpiece ones (3 and 5 for me, The Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist's Dummy) are worth seeking out the entire work alone.

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