I wish it were as easy as that. But trying to remember a dream is like, how shall I put it, being out at night in a thunder-storm. There’s a flash of lightning and, for one brief moment, everything stands out: vivid and startling.
An architect drives to a country house to consult on some renovations. Upon arrival he meets a number of guests, and despite never having met any of them he reveals that he has seen them all in a recurring dream and is able to predict spontaneous events in the house before they happen, such as another guest turning up late and a pair of glasses breaking. He also partially recalls with some apprehension that something awful will later occur, and becomes increasingly disturbed.
Dead of Night is the legendary 1945 British anthology horror film made by Ealing Studios. The individual stories were directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, wrapped in a framing story that explores the recursive nature of dreams. It stars Mervyn Johns (as the architect Walter Craig), Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave and stands out from British film of the 1940s, when very few horror films were being made. It had an influence on subsequent films in the genre when horror later regained popularity. The Amicus portmanteau films of the 60s and 70s were directly inspired by Dead of Night (characters recount their dreams in The Vault of Horror (1973) and a haunted mirror sequence appears in 1974’s From Beyond the Grave). There’s Creepshow (1982) as well. The recurring nightmare theme was also used to good effect in a 1980 episode of Hammer House of Horror and a good chunk of Twilight Zone stories. The idea of various characters recounting supernatural tales remains an enduring plot device to this day, used most recently in Neil Gaiman’s Unlikely Stories, and the circular narrative has been well employed too; I recall the 1970s children’s TV series Children of the Stones applying it for good effect.
Although regarded as a horror classic (regularly cited so by Martin Scorsese), none of the Dead of Night directors were subsequently linked to the genre, with Basil Dearden only ever really coming close; their work staying more aligned to traditional Ealing comedy fare.
The framing story is directed by Dearden and is effective thanks to Johns’ wonderful performance as the increasingly disturbed Craig. The house guests attempt to test his foresight and set him at ease, while entertaining each other with various uncanny tales:
A racing car driver sees a hearse outside his house, realises a premonition and later avoids a fatal bus crash. This is also directed by Dearden and based on The Bus-Conductor, a short story by E. F. Benson which has also become something of an urban myth story with its catchphrase “room for one more”, with the bus being substituted for a lift or an aeroplane in some stories. Dearden went on to make countless British films including The Blue Lamp (1950). I have previously reviewed his final film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) starring Roger Moore as a man who meets his own double, which plays out not unlike an extended Dead of Night segment.
A ghostly encounter during a children’s Christmas party. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti; story by Angus MacPhail. I know Cavalcanti best for the excellent wartime drama Went the Day Well? (1942). Unfortunately this is one of the less effective parts of Dead of Night, although helps to nicely place it as a Christmas film and hence this posting.
A haunted antique mirror. This one is quite creepy, directed by Robert Hamer, probably most famous for Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and written by John Baines. Baines also wrote the screenplay for the 1960 horror The Hands of Orlac, where a famous pianist inherits the hands of a murderer.
A comic tale of two rival golfers, one of whom becomes haunted by the other’s ghost. Directed by Charles Crichton and based on a story by H.G. Wells. Another Ealing perennial, Crichton made The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Too light for the genre and over long, the golfing sequence is another weak part, although serves to set things up appropriately for what is to come.
The film is best-remembered for the final story told by psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten of an unbalanced ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who believes his amoral dummy Hugo is alive, leading to murder and madness. Directed by Cavalcanti, story by Baines, Redgrave is excellent and, next to Johns, his performance is the most memorable in the film. The theme of the troublesome ventriloquist dummy is echoed in William Goldman’s novel Magic, but the Redgrave sequence also reminded me of the psychological theme of Psycho, mostly notable the ending of Hitchcock’s film.
The framing story completes when Dr. Van Straaten accidentally breaks his glasses and the power goes out, the nightmare continuing with Craig escaping into a montage of scenes and characters from the house guests’ tales. The dummy Hugo is seen strangling him when he wakes up to the sound of a telephone ringing. It is an invite to the country to consult on some renovations. As the film ends, he is again seen driving up to his host’s house as he did in the opening scene…
Dead of Night is at times an uneven film, a symptom of multi-director anthologies. A touch overlong, the party and golf sequences were cut for the US release. It cleverest aspect is the Chinese Box plotting and circular narrative, and whilst some of the performances appear dated, the script is very well written. And the effectively odd ending must have been quite a shock for the immediate post-war audience, who perhaps left the cinema not sure if they were coming or going.
A recent find for a reasonable price in a second hand bookshop – The Wham! 1967 annual. I imagine this would have appeared on many a wish list drawn up in the winter months of 1966. This annual came out before I was born – so even though I am an annual obsessive I didn’t know very much about Wham! until now. The comic launched in 1964 and it ran for four years, and one of the people behind it was Leo Baxendale, the legendary Beano artist who in the 1950s created The Bash Street Kids.
Baxendale’s stamp runs through the 1967 Wham! annual very much; the cover alone you will agree is a joy. Reading it now, Wham! comes across as a freer, weirder, lost alternative to The Beano. Strips include The Tiddlers, a school story clearly in the vein of The Bash Street Kids and The Wacks, twins not dissimilar to Dennis the Menace with a very 60s flavour to their adventures, when their “super-charged” record player goes out of control and launches a set of beat records that run amok.
A stand out strip is Frankie Stein, a humourous horror character who following monetary problems is forced to rent out his home Mildew Manor to a group of modern artists. The strain they put on him leads him to visit a psychiatrist called Doctor Von Schnoogle and he later clashes with a character called Gideon Ghoul who has similar anxieties. Best of all is the Baxendale drawn and quite surreal Eagle, Eye Junior Spy where the baddie Grimly Feendish is thwarted in his attempt to engulf London in sleeping gas and rule England. It’s switched to laughing gas without him knowing it, although with no sense of humour this doesn’t affect him. Frankie Stein survived into several later comics, including Shiver and Shake and Monster Fun Comic which I can remember from the mid 1970s. Grimly Feendish, who looks a little like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, also appeared in other comics after the demise of Wham! and was immortalised in a 1985 song by The Damned.
Wham! was part of the Power comics strand that also included Pow!, Smash, Fantastic and Terrific. As well as the traditional cartoon strips the comics also included the first UK reprints of Marvel stories, predating the first true UK Marvel titles that emerged in the early 1970s Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly. Power comics printed many X-Men stories, although strangely the X-Men did not appear in the later UK Marvel titles. Although coming to an end in 1968 when it merged with Pow!, like many other discontinued weekly titles Wham! continued as a Christmas annual for several more years. Where the quality of some annuals can be dubious, the Wham! annuals are wonderful (I also have 1968). The majority of the strips are printed in colour, well worth the eight shillings and six pence price. The stories feel much fresher and more inventive than the better known Beano counterparts and those from the much longer lived Whizzer and Chips, Buster and Whoopee!.
Other notable 1960s Christmas annuals I’m looking out for include the other Power comics titles, The Beano (my collection of Beano annuals only goes as far back as 1971) and any of the IPCFleetway titles that included Lion and Valiant. Sadly, apart from Beano and Dandy still going strong, for Christmas 2016 comic annuals are largely no more. In fact some comics, such as 2000 AD, have continued to thrive with their weekly publication but have long ceased to produce an annual. These days annuals are largely a mixture of TV, film and pop tie ins.
Incidentally, Christmas 1966 had Tom Jones at the top of the UK hit parade with Green, Green Grass of Home. Not particularly very Christmassy a song and the first time in four years that the Beatles hadn’t topped the charts at the end of December. Perhaps least remembered as a “Christmas song”? And at the same time television viewers were able to enjoy The Highlanders, Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor Who adventure. But with television being blamed as the major factor in the decline of British comics, including the Power titles, we won’t talk about that.
The last part of my 2016 round up with two Christmas shows.
Low, St. George’s Bristol, December
It was a treat to see Low performing their 1999 Christmas collection of songs. St. George’s in Bristol was the perfect venue to see one of my favourite Christmas albums live, the striking old church suiting their music perfectly. There was a mixture of covers and original songs, including Long Way Around the Sea, Blue Christmas, Silent Night and the first set finished with Just Like Christmas. The second set featured mostly songs from their last two albums, including No Comprende and Lies. They finished by playing their new Christmas single Some Hearts.
Stuart Maconie on 6 Music describes Low’s music as beautiful but with something darker always lurking in the corner of your eye. That was very much the feel on this evening, their cover versions always adding a slight menace to the original songs – particularly with their slowed down version of Blue Christmas. The most striking aspect of Low’s music if the vocal harmonies between guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker.
Their was excellent support from Erik Koskinen and Harkin. Unfortunately I only caught the end of Koskinen’s set, but he joined Low on stage and also performed his own brilliant On Christmas Day, one of the many highlights of the evening.
Location to view: various tried as there is some restricted viewing; we settled upstairs, third row.
The Coral, O2 Academy Bristol, December
The Coral are a band who deserve better attention than they get. This year they released their eighth album Distance Inbetween, and their Bristol set stretched back to their 2002 debut which included Dreaming of You. Pass it On, Jacqueline, In the Morning; The Coral have written so many memorable songs. But their talent goes deeper than that – brilliant musicianship and sound; one of the technically best bands I’ve seen. Their music is very Byrds influenced, and The Coral have grown up considerably over the last 15 years, their look now encompasses the full gamut of beards, hats and long hair. But it’s not just appearance; they’ve grown into a band of fine skill and stature.
Location to view: bar area.
That’s it for 2016. Next year is already looking good, with King Creosote, Bon Iver, Laura Marling, Simple Minds, The Who and Pretenders booked in.