Dead of Night (1945)

Dead of Night is a British horror anthology film with a strong frame story that shows up occasionally on lists of alternate holiday films. I first watched it a few years ago, and I'll tell you upfront I don't agree with that designation - only one of the five segments (six, if you count the frame, which you probably should) takes place at Christmas - which is why I didn't review it at the time. So why am I rewatching and reviewing now? Well, that's a little complicated.

Over time, the purpose of this site has changed, as have the questions we've been exploring. We're no longer solely focused on Christmas media, but also the history of how that media evolved and the ways media and society look at the holiday. Occasionally, that means considering media that may have been pivotal in shaping future holiday entertainment. And, while Dead of Night isn't something I'd consider a Christmas movie, it was extremely influential.

It's also a damn good classic horror movie, genuinely unnerving, with slowly building tension and an ending that remains one of the best twists in the genre almost eight decades later. All of which is to say, if you're a fan of horror who appreciates older films and somehow hasn't been spoiled on what this is, this might be a good time to stop reading until you've had a chance to see it for yourself.

The premise of the frame story centers on Craig, an architect who's been invited to a large cottage for a job. As he arrives, he seems uneasy and becomes more so as he enters and is introduced to the people inside. When he finally regains his composure, he explains his odd reaction: he's been plagued by recurring nightmares of the cottage and those inside. He begins accurately predicting incidents, such as people arriving or departing, which gives credence to his claim; however, another guest - a psychiatrist - remains a skeptic and offers to help Craig unravel the truth behind his obsession.

One by one, however, the others in the room become convinced Craig's visions are genuine and offer stories of their own about supernatural events they experienced. There's a short tale about a man who was seemingly warned of an impending tragic crash by a dream, a Christmas ghost story, a tale of a haunted mirror that reflected another time and place, and a comical tale about two golfers competing for a woman until one dies and haunts the other. Finally, the psychiatrist offers a tale of his own about a ventriloquist who seemed haunted by a possessed dummy that eventually overtook his consciousness.

The movie ends as Craig finally remembers his dream ends with him murdering the psychiatrist, which he does. He then flees, only to find himself stumbling into the other stories of the anthology, running through a sort of labyrinth of nightmares, until he's locked away with the ventriloquist dummy, which stands and strangles him, just as he strangled the psychiatrist.

All of the stories are worthy of exploration (the ventriloquist bit alone inspired countless movies and at least one Batman villain), but I'm obviously going to focus on the Christmas section. It's one of the more straightforward segments, centering on a girl named Sally attending a holiday party in a lavish old mansion along with a few dozen other children. The mansion is supposedly haunted, due to a grisly murder from the century before, in which a girl killed her young brother. She thinks little of the story and participates in a variation on hide-and-seek. She finds a passage that leads her to a room where a young boy lives. The child is sad because his sister is always mean to him, so Sally comforts him until she hears the other kids calling her name. She emerges, tells them about the kid, and - low and behold - it turns out it's the legendary murder victim.

To be fair, this likely wouldn't have registered as quite as much of a cliché in 1945. In addition, the atmospheric setting does a good job selling the whole thing as a bit unsettling, though - from the perspective of someone watching now - it's not one of the movie's more memorable segments.

It is, however, likely important to both the past and future of the genre. The setting ties to a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories, and it almost certainly contributed to that tradition escaping the more kid-friendly spin that adaptations of A Christmas Carol were moving towards. It should be noted, this wasn't the first Christmas ghost story in the genre - Curse of the Cat People came out a year earlier - though in that film the supernatural was presented as ultimately benevolent, which definitely isn't the case in this movie. And of course The Phantom Carriage came out way back in 1921.

While I don't recommend Dead of Night as a Christmas movie, it's absolutely worth seeing both for its historic contribution and simply because it's a good film. It's one of those films where, once you've seen it, you'll start spotting references across a wide range of films, television, and comics. Hell, apparently it even contributed to a significant (albeit outdated) model of the universe. I'd recommend it to anyone who's able to appreciate movies of the 1940s.