The 13th Floor

The Scariest Ventriloquist’s Dummy Ever: 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT!

A few years ago, I was teaching a Horror Film History class at Hunter College, and I was searching for a film to show my students that was from the 1940’s. Because of the decency codes during this time and the war in Europe, most of the films became a tad drier and more moral than prior decades in film history. I needed something that enforced the squeaky clean moral code prevalent during this time, but also a film that was still startling and disturbing by today’s standards. I found this ideal combination in the UK’s 1945 DEAD OF NIGHT. And I’m proud to say there is an entire class of Hunter film students that were traumatized by the ventriloquist dummy segment. Chills. So creepy!

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DEAD OF NIGHT was produced by Ealing Studios who, at the time, were known for making docu-style war films (but have over the years made other horror films including SHAUN OF THE DEAD). DEAD OF NIGHT went on to become one of the most influential horror films in Britain. In particular, the anthology-style storytelling used in DEAD OF NIGHT was a precursor and guide for the Amicus films of the 1960’s and 1970’s, many of which borrowed the skeletal framework.

Dead of Night.

Based on a variety of source material including real-life crimes, classic literature, and other movies, the stories presented in DEAD OF NIGHT have all gone on to be either remade or been referenced in future horror works. The most memorable (and probably the most referenced) is the story about the ventriloquist’s dummy starring Michael Redgrave. Though this was not the first instance of a mad ventriloquist on screen (Eric Von Stoheim‘s 1928 THE GREAT GABBO), this was by far one of the most shocking and disturbing. Many filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese) still list this segment as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.

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Even with all its influence, DEAD OF NIGHT has always struggled with stateside releases. When it first did US theatrical screenings in the 1940s, US distributors thought the film ran too long and was just too dry for American audiences. So, large chunks of the film were cut, creating gaping plot holes and some parts that just made no sense. Even the DVD release was a daunting task. Until 2011, the only DVD copy available was a 2-picture disc that teamed DEAD OF NIGHT with the 1949 devilish thriller QUEEN OF SHADES. This double DVD set had a very limited distribution. When I was teaching at Hunter College in 2009, it cost me over $100 to get a copy of this landmark film on DVD. In 2011, DEAD OF NIGHT received another even smaller DVD distribution, but this one was of a public domain/bootleg quality and copies quickly vanished. After decades of struggling for decent stateside exposure, it seems many horror fans have missed this title and its influential stature. But like a ventriloquist’s dummy, though this film may sit on a shelf for decades, it ultimately still has a lot to say and a lot more scaring to do.

How You Can See It- You can pick up the DVD for around $80. Or if you want to dust off you VHS player, you can get a VHS copy for around $30. If you have a region free player, there is also a UK Blu-ray release that supposedly is the best version available. Also, it is rumored that DEAD OF NIGHT has played late night on the Turner Classic Movies Channel once or twice. Good luck!

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