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...

16 comments:

Arbogast's Ghost said...

Of course, the comedic golfing characters were ported over from Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, so their inclusion no doubt made a lot more sense to British audiences back then.

A little trivia for you: when Michael Redgrave was preparing for his role in Dead of Night, he worked with a friend, actress Diana Graves, who read his lines while Redgrave read the dummy lines. Graves didn't work a lot in film and was known primarily as a stage actress. She was also, at the time, the wife of Michael Gough, who was then at the start of a long (not always distinguished) career that ended with the role of Alfred the Butler in the 90s Batman films.

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

Their inclusion does makes sense in the film, plotwise, as the owner of the house explains he made up the story to lighten everyone up, it's just that it breaks the flow. The movie builds up a tension that suddenly stops and has to start over. And The Lady Vanishes is one of my favorite early Hitchcock's and I don't think it receives enough attention. But anyway...

To connect your trivia to mine, Michael Gough was in the BBC adaptation of QBVII in 1974 as was Alan Napier, who has a prominent role in The Uninvited mentioned here two days ago and he too ended his career as Alfred.

Okay, the next commenter has to connect either Redgrave, Napier, Gough, or Graves to Michael Caine.

bill r. said...

Dead of Night is one of the biggest gaps in my horror film knowledge, but I, too, have a bit of trivia for you. Though he's not listed on IMDB, Robert Aickman -- who I recently wrote about on my blog -- was a "story consultant" on the film. I have no idea what such a job entails, but, well, there it is.

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

Maybe the job entailed being a butler for a millionaire playboy in Gotham City. Maybe. If so we have another Alfred connection.

Flickhead said...

Nice opening and closing lines.

We should compile a list of "loop" movies. Two more off the top of my head: Night of the Following Day and the '50s Invaders from Mars...any others?

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

Thanks Flickhead. I love Invaders from Mars! I haven't watched that in a while but now I feel like watching it again. I can't think of any loop movies off the top of my head other than those. Surely there are others I'm just not thinking of. However I can think of several directors whose movies all seem to be loops of the last one, but no movies.

The Nellhaus that wouldn't Die said...

Ib Melchior's Time Travelers is another loop movie. Not on DVD at this time.

bill r. said...

Finnegans Wake is a loop book. I've never read it, and never will, but it is.

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

Peter, I've never seen that one but a time travel movie that loops sounds like my idea of a fun movie.

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

Bill, I recall that. I too have not read it but here's a random passage I just snagged from the online annotated edition.

He dug in and dug out by the skill of his tilth for himself and
all belonging to him and he sweated his crew beneath his auspice for the living and he urned his dread, that dragon volant, and he made louse for us and delivered us to boll weevils amain, that mighty liberator, Unfru-Chikda-Uru-Wukru and begad he did, our ancestor most worshipful, till he thought of a better one in his windower's house with that blushmantle upon him from ears-end to earsend.

bill r. said...

Ah ha ha! Get it!?

I'm not sure anyone really reads Finnegans Wake. I think they just look at it.

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

In the beginning of "A Little Louder Please" Woody Allen's short story about the the lead character's inability to understand mimes, the character starts off by explaining how intelligent he is so the reader will understand that just because he doesn't get mimes doesn't mean he's stupid. The first example he gives is, "I knocked off Finnigan's Wake on the roller coaster at Coney Island."

Marilyn Mahoney McCarthy said...

TCM just premiered this film last night, and remembering this post, I watched it. I really liked it. Thanks, Jonathan.

Jack Torrence Lapper, caretaker said...

Marilyn, I saw that was on last night and wondered if anyone who hadn't seen it but read my piece was going to watch it. It makes me feel so good to know someone did. Thanks, and I'm glad you liked it.

Campaspe said...

This is one of my favorite ghost movies, perhaps THE favorite. I prefer the Christmas story, so moody, sad and lovely, and based on a true case. Like Marilyn I watched it again last night. The Haunted Mirror holds up very well also, despite a weak main actor. If he had switched roles with Redgrave I think the mirror sequence might be the one we remember--Redgrave was superb at conveying a mind unraveling.

Jack Torrence Lapper, caretaker said...

I love the Christmas story too. It had terrific atmosphere. I told my wife how I would dearly love to roam around one of those houses that has multiple levels and a seemingly endless number of hidden hallways and doors and privated away rooms.

Redgrave makes the ventriloquist story stand out. As a "twist-ending" tale it doesn't really have a twist like the others and stands as more of a character study. Without Redgrave the story wouldn't be nearly as well remembered.