Sunday, October 26, 2008

Isn't this where we came in?

... deja vu all over again. Any fan of Pink Floyd's The Wall knows that the album loops itself. As the album begins the listener hears the quiet strains of a concertina, mandolin and clarinet and as soon as it starts one also hears the spoken words "we came in." This makes little sense at first until one reaches the end of the album and that same music is present again. Just before it abruptly cuts off in mid-note, the listener hears, "Isn't this where..." And now the loop, the cyclical nature of the story, is clear. It's a nightmare that keeps repeating itself in the mind of its lead character, Pink. I can't remember if I heard The Wall first or saw Dead of Night first, it's been so many years since both of those firsts occurred, I just know that one always makes me think of the other.

I watched Dead of Night again recently and was surprised by my reactions. I've seen it several times but the last time I saw it was years and years ago. And what I liked about it changed. Funny how that happens. But first a little background.

Recently I did a post on Rod Serling's landmark television show, The Twilight Zone, and if any one movie can be seen as its precursor it's this one. Dead of Night tells several tales, all given just a few minutes with the longest being around twenty. Several different directors were assigned to the stories and each has a twist ending, just like Serling's later television series. Some of its stories were even given their own variations years later on that very show. Holding the stories together is the central story, in which a group of guests at an old English Mansion are swapping tales of the supernatural, the paranormal. They've been inspired to do this by a guest, architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), who insists all of this has happened before. He tells them he's dreamt of this afternoon many times over and by the end of the night, someone will be dead. They entertain his notions by recounting experiences they have had that couldn't be explained away with logic and reason. The only doubter is a psychiatrist, who tells his story last.

If you've seen it, this is all academic and if you haven't seen it you know from my introduction that the story loops in on itself but that doesn't give anything away to be honest. It's how it loops that provides the twist, not the loop itself. After all, Craig alerts us from the beginning that he has foreseen these events in his dreams so the idea of a loop is planted early on. The question is, can he get out of it and if he tells everyone everything that will happen, can he prevent a murder from taking place? That you will have to see for yourself. All I will say to those who have not seen it is this: The last seven minute montage that propels the movie to its ultimate conclusion is one of the best representations of a nightmare ever put on film, and the filmmaking of the sequence is downright electric. It's most definitely worth the wait to get to that ending.

So what surprised me this time around? Which stories I liked best, that's what. Everyone, even those who have not seen it, is probably aware of the story the psychiatrist tells. That story stars Michael Redgrave, who is excellent, as a ventriloquist whose dummy has, possibly, developed a mind of its own. This is the story I remembered being the best but watching it again I took a different view. I still like the story, but of all the stories told, this is the one in which it is fairly clear that nothing supernatural is happening and, therefore, kind of halts the pace of the film. For a little over an hour we have been watching short supernatural vignettes and then suddenly, at the end, we're presented with what feels more like a character study than a tale of the paranormal. And it's almost twice the length of the other stories. Of course, it works well within the story because it is told by the doubter and makes sense that this story would be of questionable supernatural origin. Nevertheless, it didn't work nearly as well for me as I remembered all those years ago. Partly because it was only another story and felt like it should have been its own movie. Excellently shot, acted and written but a little too fully developed as a story compared to everything around it. But this is a minor quibble for Redgrave and his dummy make for an engaging tale nonetheless.

There is in fact only one story I didn't care for at all, a comedic golfing tale that I didn't like the first time I saw it and was unsurprised to discover I still didn't like. It's silly and doesn't fit, as if the producers felt the audience would become unhinged by all the spookiness if they weren't given some levity right in the middle of the film. It breaks the mood and the viewer has to re-adjust for it, an unfortunate mistake on the part of the movie.

But aside from that I can't think of anything to stop me from wholeheartedly recommending this film. It's an enjoyable and spooky two hours to spend with a group of likable characters sharing tales of the unexplained. And like The Wall it gives one that feeling of...