Dead of Night

UK 1945, 102 mins
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

+ intro

Horror films or stories of the supernatural were little attempted in British cinema prior to the days of Hammer in the 1950s. There are the exceptions of course, such as The Ghoul (1933) and Dark Eyes of London (1939), but the field was, by and large, left open to Hollywood, and Universal Studios in particular. The fact that ‘H’ (for horror) films were banned by the British censor during the war years did not help matters. In 1944, Ealing encountered some success with the film The Halfway House, not a horror film per se, but a story with supernatural elements in which a group of disparate people gathered at a remote inn gradually realise that the innkeeper and his daughter are ghosts. The success of this film served as an encouragement to Michael Balcon to produce something along similar lines. Thus was Dead of Night born.

Instead of focusing on the one story, as with The Halfway House, Dead of Night comprises five, with an overall story linking them all together. Initially however there were only the five main stories. The decision to produce a portmanteau film had been taken from the outset of production but, although the wish to link them together was always present, the means by which to do so was proving elusive. The writer Angus MacPhail provided the answer. MacPhail had already co-written the screenplay for The Halfway House and the ingenious linking story he adapted for Dead of Night bears some similarities to that film, dealing as it does with another group of people gathered at a remote farmhouse recounting the five tales. The fact that Basil Dearden, director of The Halfway House, also directed this linking story only serves to emphasise the similarities.

In addition to the linking story, Dearden also directed ‘The Hearse Driver’, the first of the stories recounted within the film. Charles Crichton directed ‘The Golfing Story’ from a H.G. Wells tale, and Cavalcanti directed ‘The Christmas Story’, another of Angus MacPhail’s contributions. But the film is remembered above all for two of the stories, ‘The Haunted Mirror’ and, most famously, ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’, both from the pen of John Baines, with Cavalcanti directing the latter in which Michael Redgrave gives one of his strongest performances as the ventriloquist slowly going mad, adopting both the personality and voice of ‘Hugo’, the dummy he uses in his stage act, the fixed smile of Hugo becoming increasingly menacing as the tale unfolds.

‘The Haunted Mirror’ directed by Robert Hamer, relates the story of the said mirror’s malevolent influence on the husband of a newly married couple, eventually driving him to the point of attempted murder. Notable for excellent performances from both Ralph Michael and Googie Withers (the latter being singled out by the Monthly Film Bulletin from the film’s entire cast as deserving of special mention) the episode was the first film for which Hamer received a director credit (after some uncredited co-directorial work at Ealing) and amply demonstrates the talent he was soon to bring to bear on other films for the studio, including two further films with Withers, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). The story is also of note for one of the first presentations on film, along with Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), of an evil, malevolent ghost, as opposed to the comic or ethereal presences that predominated in the cinema prior to this, such as the Topper series, or the Boulting’s Thunder Rock (1942).

The problem with any portmanteau film, especially those with different writers and directors working on the various episodes, is that the quality of those episodes can vary alarmingly, with at least one letting the film down. Unfortunately Dead of Night is no exception, with ‘The Golfing Story’ proving to be the guilty party. This comedic story with Radford and Wayne, inserted as light relief, may have looked promising on paper, but its inclusion was a dire misjudgement, only serving to slow the pace of the film as a whole and dilute the tension.

Dead of Night was hailed on its release as ‘the smoothest film yet to come from an English studio’ by the Monthly Film Bulletin, while
The Spectator declared that the film ‘succeeds so well because it has avoided all the mumbo-jumbo traditionally associated with such subjects’. Only Richard Winnington, writing in the News Chronicle, cast a dispiriting note when he called the linking story ‘confused and illogical’. The Daily Sketch reviewer singled out ‘The Haunted Mirror’ and ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ as the better episodes, while most of the other reviews cited ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ as the best episode, but, mind-bogglingly, ‘The Golfing Story’ as the other highpoint. It was viewed as ‘very pleasant relief from so much eerie tension’ by the Daily Mail. What is generally seen as a misjudgement today was obviously not so in 1945.

Despite the box office and critical success of Dead of Night, the following years did not see any eagerness from Balcon to follow this up with films in a similar vein. There were to be no ‘Ealing horrors’ as there were ‘Ealing comedies’. David Pirie has argued, albeit contentiously, that the Victorian gothic setting seen within the mirror in ‘The Haunted Mirror’ episode was an influence on the gothic settings of Hammer’s films. It is arguably not until the 1960s however that the influence of Dead of Night actually began to be felt in British horror cinema (by way of 1950s US comics), when Hammer’s horror rival, Amicus Productions, instituted a series of portmanteau horror films, beginning with Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), and culminating in the early 1970s with such offerings as Asylum (1972), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973).

Of the film’s episodes ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ has enjoyed the most lasting influence. The same story has been used in at least two films since 1945, Devil Doll (1963) with William Sylvester, and Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978) with Anthony Hopkins. It also resurfaced yet again in an episode of the American TV series Tales from the Crypt (no relation to the Amicus film) with Don Rickles this time being the unfortunate ventriloquist. And what is Chucky in the unjustly reviled Child’s Play series of films if not an extension of ‘Hugo’? The episode may have even been an influence on Hitchcock. The conclusion of Psycho, with Norman Bates in custody and finally dominated by the mother personality, bears striking similarities to the conclusion of ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ when Michael Redgrave is in custody and has succumbed totally to the ‘Hugo’ character, voice and all.

The popularity and influence of this film lives on, and as a portmanteau film it remains unsurpassed. As Charles Barr stated in his history of Ealing, Dead of Night is ‘after the comedies, the Ealing film most frequently revived and remembered, remaining one of the key films of the whole output’. John Oliver, BFI National Archive

Directed by [2/4]: [Alberto] Cavalcanti
Directed by [5]: Charles Crichton
Directed by [1/6]: Basil Dearden
Directed by [3]: Robert Hamer
©: Ealing Studios
Presented by: Ealing Studios
Made and Recorded at: Ealing Studios
Produced by: Michael Balcon
Associate Producers: Sidney Cole, John Croydon
Unit Manager: Ronald Brantford
Production Supervisor: Hal Mason
Screen Play: John Baines, Angus MacPhail
Additional Dialogue by: T.E.B. Clarke
Based on original stories by [5]: H.G. Wells
Based on original stories by [3/4]: John Baines
Based on original stories by [1/6]: E.F. Benson
Based original stories by [2]: Angus MacPhail
Lighting: Stan Pavey, Douglas Slocombe
Camera Operators: Jack Parker, H. Julius
Special Effects: C. Richardson, L. Banes
Editor: Charles Hasse
Art Director: Michael Relph
Dresses: Bianca Mosca, Marion Horn
Make-up: Tom Shenton
Music Composed by: Georges Auric
Played by: The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by: Ernest Irving
Sound Supervisor: Eric Williams
Recordists: Len Page, A.E. Rudolph
Assistant Directors: Billy Russell, Rowland Douglas
2nd Assistant Director: Norman Hipwell
3rd Assistant Directors: Claude Hudson, P. Potter
Continuity: Elaine Schreyeck, Gwen Bartle
Assistant Continuity: M. Hamilton
Focus Pullers: Michael Shepherd, Gerry Turpin
Clapper Loaders: Gerry Levy, John Winbolt
Stills: Roy Gough
Assembly Cutter: Leslie Allen
Assistant Editor: Daphne Heathcote
2nd Assistant Editors: F. Thomson, E. Leverett, Seth Holt
Assistant Art Director: Jim Morahan
Draughtsmen: Heather Armitage, Len Wills
Boom Operators: N. Boulatoff, Tom Otter
Dubbing Editor: Mary Habberfield

The Hearse Driver
Mervyn Johns (Walter Craig)
Anthony Baird (Hugh Grainger)
Robert Wyndham (Dr Albury)
Judy Kelly (Joyce Grainger)
Miles Malleson (hearse driver)

The Christmas Story
Sally Ann Howes (Sally O’Hara)
Michael Allan (Jimmy Watson)

The Haunted Mirror
Googie Withers (Joan Cortland)
Ralph Michael (Peter Cortland)
Esmé Percy (Mr Rutherford, antique dealer)

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy
Frederick Valk (Dr Van Straaten)
Allan Jeayes (Maurice Olcott)
Michael Redgrave (Maxwell Frere)
Elisabeth Welch (Beulah)
Hartley Power (Sylvester Kee)
Magda Kun (Mitzi)
Garry Marsh (Harry Parker)

The Golfing Story
Basil Radford (George Parratt)
Naunton Wayne (Larry Potter)
Peggy Bryan (Mary Lee)

The Linking Story
Roland Culver (Eliot Foley)
Mary Merrall (Mrs Foley)
Barbara Leake (Mrs O’Hara)
Renée Gadd (Mrs Craig)
Peter Jones (Fred the barman)
Barry Ford

UK 1945©
102 mins

Experimenta Mixtape: Secret Santa Edition
Fri 16 Dec 18:20
African Odysseys: The Woman King + intro & Q&A
Sat 17 Dec 14:00
Art in the Making: News from Nowhere + intro by Rowan Bain, Principle Curator at William Morris Gallery TBC
Thu 5 Jan 18:20
African Odysseys: Hussein Shariffe: A Life Between Exile and Homecoming
Sat 7 Jan 12:00-17:00
Seniors’ Free Matinee: UK Theatrical Premiere: Wild and Free, Twice Daily + Q&A
Mon 9 Jan 14:00
Silent Cinema: Metropolis + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI Curator
Sun 15 Jan 14:40
Projecting the Archive: Thunder in the City + intro by Jo Botting, BFI Curator
Tue 17 Jan 18:20
Experimenta: Nation’s Finest, Putting Down Roots and Birthing + Q&A
Wed 25 Jan 18:15
Relaxed Screening: The Hidden Fortress + intro & discussion
Mon 30 Jan 18:00

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email