Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Dead of Night (1972)

Horror can sometimes be a confusing business, so before this review gets started, I’m just going to clarify that the DEAD OF NIGHT I am talking about here is not the 1945 Ealing anthology film, nor is it the 1972 Bob Clark picture that also went out under the title DEATHDREAM, about the chap who comes back from Vietnam. It’s also not the 1977 Dan Curtis anthology TV movie featuring Bobby the dwarf in its memorable final story. What’s interesting is that the title DEAD OF NIGHT seems to be something of a mark of quality, or at least a good luck charm. All of the above titles are well worth checking out, and so is the subject of this review.
DEAD OF NIGHT was also an anthology TV series made by the BBC in 1972. It ran for seven episodes, and offered ‘a series of highly personal takes on psychological disturbances, often related to contemporary social anxieties’, at least according to the press release. Actually what viewers got was a cross between PLAY FOR TODAY and a low key HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR. Four of the stories have been lost forever, but the remaining three are presented here on the BFI’s new DVD release.
First up is probably the most memorable, and certainly the most effective. The Exorcism alerted many viewers to this obscure TV series when it received an airing on BBC4 at Christmas a few years ago. It’s written and directed by Don Taylor (not the director of DAMIEN - OMEN II or THE FINAL COUNTDOWN and not the one married to actress Hazel Court - see? I said horror could be confusing) and concerns that mainstay of the 1970s BritDrama, the dinner party. Dan and Margaret (Clive Swift and Sylvia Kay) visit their posh friends Edmund and Rachel (Edward Petherbridge and Anna Cropper) in their out of the way country farmhouse. Anyone with any experience of these things will know that at the first suggestion of such a setting everyone involved should beat a hasty retreat to the nearest nice safe city. Instead, as they settle down to eat, the power goes, the food tastes strange, and what’s that weird harpsichord music that’s playing in the background? 
The Exorcism has plenty of political subtext, but the message never gets in the way of the atmosphere, which is present to an almost deliciously unbearable degree as the four discover who is trying to communicate with them and why. And as if the story isn’t grim enough, there’s a bleak coda from newscaster Kenneth Kendall that provides the icing on this especially scary cake.
The other two stories on the disc aren’t quite as effective. Return Flight stars Peter Barkworth as Captain Hamish Rolph, an airline pilot who loses his skills as a pilot when he encounters the ghostly apparition of a World War II Lancaster bomber. Writer Robert Holmes keeps things ambiguous in the story of a man’s long-suppressed feelings of inadequacy, both personal and professional. John Bowen’s A Woman Sobbing stars Anna Massey in yet another isolated country house (when will these people learn?). She’s haunted by the sound of a woman crying at night time. It’s another worthy John Bowen piece to accompany his previous ROBIN REDBREAST. Anna Massey’s Jane is much more psychologically unstable than Anna Cropper’s Norah from ROBIN, and the story is much more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper than ROBIN REDBREAST’s folk horror feel.
Extras on the disc include a booklet containing essays on each episode, and a couple of stills from some of the missing stories. The real gems here, though, are downloadable pdf files of the scripts from the missing episodes, Bedtime (about a woman who begins to spend entire days in her bed), Death Cancels All Debts (a famous novelist has sunk into alcoholism over regret regarding a relationship he is still literally haunted by), Smith (set in a waxworks and a reworking of the Bluebeard story - it sounds marvellous) and Two in the Morning, which has a theme strongly reminiscent of Basil Dearden’s THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF.
The BFI’s presentation of the surviving material is as good as you might expect for a 1970s show that was more than half trashed. Enthusiasts of early 1970s BritTV horror will find much to keep them both fascinated and entertained. I certainly did.

The BFI will be releasing DEAD OF NIGHT on DVD on 28th October 2013

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