*. Now this is really something strange. Dead of Night is usually seen as being the first “anthology horror” film, consisting of a bunch of short stories embedded in a frame narrative. Hammer and Amicus would go on to make a lot of these, and in the U.S. there were the Corman-Poe movies in the ’60s and then Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, with more recently the V/H/S franchise. But I believe Dead of Night was the first, unless you want to go all the way back to Waxworks (1924).
*. What makes Dead of Night strange, however, is the fact that in addition to being the first horror anthology, it is also widely considered to be the best (Kwaidan being perhaps the only other contender). It’s not very often that that happens. You’d think that after inventing the genre somebody else would come along and eventually do it better. But that hasn’t happened.
*. I wonder why. I think in part it’s because nobody wanted to. What I mean by that is that this was a real outlier for Ealing, and even they didn’t do anything by way of a follow up. And when its other imitators arrived on the scene they were more interested in doing something cheaper and more sensational, basically adapting old comic books and pulp fiction rather than more literary sources. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just saying that I think Ealing were actually trying to make something really good (albeit on a very low budget), while later anthology-horror movies were content to aim lower.
*. As for what makes Dead of Night a better movie than Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow, I think you have to begin with the quality of the frame story. Let’s face it, usually these are only throwaways — perhaps nothing more than an introduction by the Creep or the Crypt-Keeper. The film Asylum actually had a good idea for a frame, but it’s an exception to the general rule.
*. The frame here is wonderful. It’s not just a frame but a story with its own building narrative, so that you actually like getting back to it and seeing how the psychiatrist is gradually becoming unsettled and how the architect’s uncanny “dream” is playing out. The climax, with the architect stumbling through all of the film’s collapsing threads only for the film to implode and reset, is brilliantly handled, leaving us with a sense of mundane dread as things start up again.
*. I can’t think of any other movie that has adopted the same perfect circularity. Of course Groundhog Day is about a man reliving the same day over and over, but that’s different. For one thing, his day can change, and he has total recall. Here we really feel like we’re in an Escher-like nightmare from which there’s no escape.
*. The individual stories probably seem a little tame by modern standards. To some degree they’re not even horror stories but more weird tales of the kind later popularized on The Twilight Zone (which is where some of them naturally wound up). I think they’re all well done though, and they build nicely from the initial hearse-driver story (which is really just a quickie with a punchline) to what is generally regarded as the best of the lot, with Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy.
*. If the final story gets the most love, the penultimate tale about the golfing buddies easily gets the most hate. Basically Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their Charters and Caldicott roles (introduced in The Lady Vanishes), for which they’d become famous. I actually didn’t mind it at all. It’s silly, but I think the film needed a change of pace after the intense haunted-mirror story, before taking us into the home stretch.
*. Martin Scorsese (placing it on his list of the scariest films of all time): “Like The Uninvited, it’s very playful . . . and then it gets under your skin.” It certainly does. Rather more than The Uninvited does.
*. It gets under your skin and it stays there. I don’t think anyone who has seen this film (and today it isn’t that easy to find) has forgotten it. It has that sort of effect, burrowing down into the mind like a screw, getting deeper with every revolution.