Tuesday, October 11, 2011
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*
It's always puzzled me that 20th-century British cinema was so slow to exploit the pleasures of scary stories, given that the culture boasts some of the best-known masters of the fictional frisson, ranging from novelists like Stoker and Shelley to those better known from spooky short tales, like M.R. James and E.F. Benson. Whatever the reason, Ealing Studios's 1945 anthology film DEAD OF NIGHT finally translated the quintessential feel of the British horror-tale into celluloid. That it included adaptations from two British prose-authors, the aforementioned Benson and H.G. Wells may have helped guide the filmmakers (despite the fact that one doesn't ordinarily think of "H.G. Wells" and "horror" in the same sentence).
DEAD OF NIGHT begins with a dream, and to some extent, one never definitively knows where dream and reality part company. Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) journeys to a country house to investigate a business prospect, only to find that he has a hazy recollection of his host and all of the man's guests from his dreams. Craig's tormented fear that his dreams may come true in some way sparks the guests to start relating their own brushes with the supernatural, with one noteworthy exception. Three of the stories related deal with ghostly survival ("Christmas Party," "Haunted Mirror," and "Golfing Story,"), a fourth, "The Hearse Driver," deals with a timely premonition, and the last, "The Ventriloquist," is told by psychologist Dr. Van Stratten (Frederick Valk) about a ventriloquist whose mental problems cause him to take on a "dual identity" with his dummy. Throughout the framing-sections of the anthology Van Stratten functions as a foil to the others, who tend to show some tentative belief in the supernatural. Van Stratten is never decisively converted by the anecdotes, but when one aspect of Craig's dream comes true-- with deadly results for the psychologist-- he comes to regret his staunch materialism.
That "quintessential feel" I mentioned above is the film's ability to convey how hints of the supernatural slowly infiltrate the cultural belief-systems of the protagonists. Because all of them exemplify stereotypical British traits of reasonableness and common decency, the eruptions of the incomprehensible into their worlds becomes all the more effective. Ironically, the doctrine of scientific materialism is exemplified by a character given a Germanic-sounding name, which may have allowed the original British audience to "distance" themselves more from materialism and to believe in parapsychological events as being more true to common experience.
It's ironic that the final story in DEAD is not, strictly speaking, marvelous as the others are; since there's never any strong conviction that the rebellious ventriloquist's dummy is actually alive, I would label the story by itself "uncanny." Yet "The Ventriloquist" is for many fans their favorite story. On my earlier viewings, I found it creepy enough, but not nearly as persuasive as some later "dummy-horror" outings. In addition, the character of the maybe-schizophrenic ventriloquist isn't drawn nearly as well as some of the other characters. "Haunted Mirror" manages to play on the unease between a man and woman planning on joining their lives together, as a ghost slowly possesses the husband and turns him against his new wife, with nearly fatal results. "Christmas Party" also deals with the sins of the past, albeit in more mournful, less scary fashion. "Golfing Story" (the tale adapted from Wells) is an amusing tale of two golf-rivals bickering with one another from beyond the grave, giving the viewer a brief respite from the doom and gloom. But for my money, "Hearse Driver," in which the tale-teller describes a near-brush with destiny, had the creepiest vibe, although the final dream-sequence in Craig's head-- in which he encounters all the figures from everyone else's stories-- is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
In terms of phenomenality the film presents some problems. In the end, it seems as if everything the viewer has seen has been part of Craig's dream. If this was the entirety of the film I might label it with the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments." Yet, because Craig seems to be in diegetic "reality" for the last frames of the film-- because it seems that he is finally about to have a "real" encounter with all these people narrating stories of "real" encounters with the supernatural-- I've labelled the film as dominantly "marvelous."
The Campbellian motifs here depend on the focus of each particular story. I would judge most of them dominantly psychological, particularly "Haunted Mirror," but the framing-story supplies some simplified debates about the nature of the metaphysical. And to the extent that DEAD OF NIGHT conveys the sense of British commonplace rationalism breaking down, the film also incarnates a minor sociological-cultural conflict.