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Dead of Night (Cavalcanti, Crichton, Dearden, & Hamer, 1945)

   

    Though quite obviously possessing both structure and content  that has been influential to its genre, thereís something about the British horror anthology Dead of Night that makes it fail to rise very far above its legions of imitators. The picture begins as an architect arrives at an estate, only to discover that the place, and each of its inhabitants, has previously haunted him in a recurring nightmare. As he slowly recalls premonitions from that dream, the group begins recounting their own previous brushes with the supernatural, each of which is detailed within an episodic flashback. A skeptical psychoanalyst attempts to explain each of the tales away with scientific theory, but as more of the architectís predictions come to be, suspense builds and a sense of dread becomes more palpable among them. With a connecting story thatís far more elaborate and clever than that of earlier macabre tale collections like Waxworks, and frequent bouts of witty repartee, Night ostensibly is the sophisticateís horror film, but that works against it. Since theyíve been so thoroughly polished with taste and production values, the anecdotes are far less frightening than they might otherwise have been. Then again, Japanese Director Masaki Kobayashiís eerie Kwaidan is even more lavishly produced than Dead, but still manages to unsettle viewers, so perhaps the presence of good taste is not alone to blame.

   

    Due to Dead of Nightís plot structure, the viewer is made acutely aware that the narrator of each tale must have survived whatever horrors they faced. As a result, thereís something a bit inappropriately comforting about the approach, and it undermines much of the terror. Worse still, a slightly humorous story about a haunted golfer does precisely what its teller intends to do: kills the spooky mood. If the film doesnít quite manage to steadily increase in tension, at least itís successful in fits and starts. The vengeful ghosts, killer dolls, and flirtations with death make for inherently exciting material, and itís tough to declaw it entirely. Nonetheless, there are times when the movie doesnít seem fully engaged by itself. Because the cameras never linger on anything long enough for boredom to set in, the film doesnít test patience, but thereís a whiff of wasted potential floating about, and that disappoints.  Ultimately, thereís the sensation watching Dead of Night that the countless spin-offs that itís inspired in film and television have sapped away most of the freshness that it once had. Though very little here doesnít work on its own terms, knowledge of other films in the horror genre will undoubtedly reduce any surprise that it has to offer. Countless scenes are effective enough to move things along, and the looping, nested narrative is a doozy, but the only sequence that still truly wows is the wild, surreal climax. Itís odd, and somewhat disappointing, that more of the films that ripped this one off havenít incorporated avant-garde touches as well as this one does in its final moments.

 

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05-20-03 

Jeremy Heilman