Dead of Night

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Dead of Night (1945)
Dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden

The architect comes up the drive and stops for a minute because he recognises the Tudor cottage, and we’ve seen it too, a million times. He walks into the room and says he’s been in here, met you and you, and we say Yes, and us too. The psychologist doesn’t believe him (or us) and thinks we’re transferring delusions between one another to create a mass delusion. He tries to find the culprit by having each of us tell our story.

This of course backfires, we know these stories, they’re in our bones, we remember being there and we remember them being told to us by others. The narrative act is partly to blame- the dredging up of collective fears and creating work after work that remembers the last one- every story’s haunted. But then do these stories dictate our memories of them, or do we watch read listen to them because we recognise something within them? We understand the political motivations for making a collective memory, a collective boogeyman, and telling us there’s been a collective exorcism, but there’s something personal about Dead of Night, like we ask who’s telling it (and so what’s the agenda) but we come out with nothing.

It is a distinctly British occurrence to take a step onto what one thinks will be solid ground, only to find oneself sinking into a cold muck. To go for a walk is to find some ancient evil burrowing its way out of the sand and rock. It’s two thousand and something and this movie is over seventy years old, but we go back a hundred and fifty years and every manor’s decaying and every person’s daydreaming about the past that was, with ghosts over their shoulder. “Ghosts aren’t attached to places but to people, to the living,” of course, but it’s hard to make distinctions when we’ve got the same damp nightmares and endless pastures and crumbling castles appearing now then and forever. Politically manipulative nostalgia tends to look like a nationalistic Eden, but Dead of Night is a kind of heritage horror.

The screenplay bounces with a radio play intensity of rhythm, its characters reflecting and adding bits and casting doubts swiftly, and we basically enjoy spending time with them and want things to go well for them, and so we empathise with them when they tell their/our stories. With longer nights our ghosts and demons are more likely to find us, hence Christmas having to allow for the telling of ghost stories. Ghosts and demons have got us through more winters than Christmas carols, and their oral tradition is much older than that holiday. Whether this tradition is the letting of some ancient pain, or a necessary response to a particularly haunted time of year is the debate that Dead of Night feigns interest in, settling for both and either.

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