me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
(from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night)
"You must be kidding," said Zombos, tossing the DVD over to me.
"No, really, it's a hoot," said Paul Hollstenwall. This time he brought along the straight to DVD movie The Blood Shed. The man has gone too far this time.
"Your average inbred, hillbilly, cannibalistic family," I read out loud from the DVD cover. "Paul, I'm not sure this is appropriate. I can't imagine watching this while sipping my hot chocolate and Sambuca. How about we start with something more apropos of the holiday season? A cozy journey into hysteria and terror by a roaring fireplace might be good. And a twist ending. There's nothing like hysteria and terror with a twist ending."
"Something with a touch of ghosts and evil spirits, I think, and British accents," added Zombos.
"Dead of Night," we both volunteered.
"Well, okay. But then will you watch The Blood Shed afterwards?" asked Paul eagerly. "It goes great with popcorn."
We grimly nodded yes. Such are the vagaries of the horror movie fan's life. Maybe I’ll have the League of Reluctant Reviewers deal with The Blood Shed. They are my go-to people for reviewing the most questionable (or is that objectionable) in horror cinema. But for now, the Dead of Night beckons.
It is the starched collar, stiff upper lip in the face of the irrational that gives this British horror entry an unusual cadence, which still works its devilish magic today. Mervyn Johns, the quintessential Bob Cratchit in 1951's Scrooge, plays architect Walter Craig. His modest appearance, his earnest demeanor, and his nightmare-bedeviled mind come up against the weird at a country estate where he unexpectedly meets those persons, now real flesh and blood, rattling him in his sleep. Is it déjà vu, or is something more sinister afoot?
Assembled in the living room of the country house he's come to remodel, they are, at first, surprised by his assertions of familiarity. They quickly warm up to his odd precognition, however, and eagerly describe their own brushes with the preternatural, one by one, including the pooh-poohing psychologist, who saves the most chilling encounter for last.
This sets up the movie's stories within a framing narrative, with each tale delivering a stronger jolt of the inexplicable intruding into the mundane world; culminating in a whirligig ending, with Craig smack in the thick of it, twisting back to the beginning. But the beginning is the main question he desperately puts the puzzling pieces together in search of an answer.
The caliber of acting is A movie. Michael Redgrave caps off the strong cast with his portrayal of a frazzled ventriloquist whose vent dummy won't shut up. In the last and strongest story to be told, this one by the psychologist who admits he's baffled by the encounter.
Ventriloquist Maxwell Frere no longer does all the talking in his act. When his dapper but nasty alter ego, Hugo, goes looking for a new lap to sit in, Frere goes off the very deep end and winds up bashing the dummy's face to pulp. But you just can't keep a bad dummy down in horror, so Hugo returns to run the act his way. Madness? Perhaps. But there's still an air of the weird with Hugo appearing larger than his wooden life would normally allow.
Another strong segment involves a three-panel mirror bought in an antique shop. Old, ornate, and decidedly evil in its reflections, the mirror bodes ill to the poor fellow who receives it as a birthday present from his wife. Obviously not a watcher of the Antiques Roadshow, she decides to learn the provenance of the damned thing after she buys it, much to her regret. Of course, when the shopkeeper tells her about the mirror's previous owner's misfortune, prefacing his horrifying story with his hope she's not superstitious, the chill-to-her-bone realization of what's happening to her husband sends her straight away to set matters right. This story’s mood of impending doom comes from the mirror's reflection of a sinister-looking Victorian room, and the deleterious effect it has on her husband who only sees himself standing in it even when his wife is by his side.
Separating these two tales of stark terror is a pawky romantic rivalry between two quirky golfers and their infatuation with a woman who can't decide which to marry. Loosely based on H.G. Wells' The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost, it is often criticized as the weakest of the five stories. However, it does provide an absurd humor interlude from the more serious scares. Told by the host of the country house who doesn't have a real supernatural encounter to relate—but makes one up anyway—it's an Alfred Hitchock Presents-styled twist ending involving an unwanted haunting and the need for fair play. Its whimsical nature fits in with the host's personality, and provides contrast to the overall narrative of Craig's predicament. It also provides a showcase for the British comedy duo of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (Charters and Caldicott in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes).
As each story is told, Craig and the psychiatrist argue over their true supernatural experiences. More and more, the architect becomes trapped by events playing out according to his dream, leading him to an inescapable compulsion. But what is real, and what are whispers and shadows heard and seen only in the dead of night is anyone's guess; especially Craig's.
This portmanteau movie's five segments were handled by four directors, and each story supports the main narrative of Walter Craig's nightmare dilemma. In its initial American release, the opening Yuletide ghost story and the lighter golfing interlude were cut, muddling the pacing and leaving one lodge guest without a story to tell.
This classic compendium of the macabre had a strong influence on subsequent horror movies because of its eerie moodiness and is well worth a view, especially in the dead of night.