This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
This is another year of varied, eclectic horror output, with a good number of thrillers, mysteries and dark noir films hanging around the periphery of the horror genre, although there are fewer films that stand out here as particularly notable in a historic sense. Karloff continues to churn out low-budget horror flicks, with both the (pretty decent) The Body Snatcher and the (somewhat less so) Isle of the Dead, while Basil Rathbone continues his Sherlock Holmes run with another horror crossover, in The House of Fear. The Spiral Staircase is a taut thriller that both calls on Old Dark House tropes and presages the format of minimalist Twilight Zone episodes like “The Invaders,” sans the tiny aliens. Finally, this year’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is often considered the superior adaptation of a story that has been adapted numerous times, noted for its Citizen Kane-like deep focus and impressive black-and-white cinematography.
House of Dracula, meanwhile, is a low point for Universal’s classic monster series, rushed into production after House of Frankenstein and once again assembling all of the monsters in one place, without so much as an explanation for how some of them have been resurrected since they perished a year earlier. Shoddy in appearance and cynically calculated as a cash grab for the lowest common denominator, it certainly feels like the time of these monsters being taken seriously has long since passed. The fact that Dracula’s motivation in this outing is to find a cure for his vampirism so he can live a normal life is perfectly indicative of how much the series had lost its way, and the Universal monsters essentially slunk from the cinemas afterward with their tails between their legs, to lick their wounds and hibernate for the next few years.
1945 Honorable Mentions:
The Body Snatcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Spiral Staircase, House of Dracula, Isle of the Dead
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
The most spectacular thing about Dead of Night, rather than any of its individual stories, is just how neatly and satisfyingly the film’s four directors managed to tie together the connective tissue of their tales via a beautifully executed framing device, at a time when the concept of a “horror anthology” was almost entirely alien. In the decades since, there have been dozens of horror films made using the anthology format, but few have ever looped all of their stories together in a way that made them all feel equally important and ultimately indispensable to the whole. This might be the rare case where the film that did it first, did it best.
Dead of Night was a rarity as soon as it arrived on the scene, given that the U.K. had all but entirely ceased horror film production during the war years, but it went a long way in reenergizing interest in British horror. The framing device follows a nervous architect as he arrives at a small country estate, only to realize that he recognizes every one of the other visitors … from his recurring dreams! All the guests are charmed to some degree by this bizarre coincidence, and begin to share tales of their own apparent encounters with the supernatural, even as the architect slowly becomes certain that a terrible incident is creeping up on them all.
The individual tales vary a bit in effectiveness, as in almost all anthologies, from a light-hearted farce involving a ghostly golfer to a much more atmospheric (and scary) story centered around a mirror possessed by a malevolent spirit. The most famous sequence is justifiably the final one, which revolves around a ventriloquist who may or may not be taking orders from a living dummy—a now stock horror premise that has been repeated in numerous films (and multiple Twilight Zone episodes) in the decades since, although rarely so creepily as it is here. That little doll, “Hugo,” will be in your dreams after a viewing of Dead of Night, we can assure you—particularly after you see what happens to him in the film’s closing moments.
In general, though, this is a film of unusual cleverness for the era, and some sly social commentary to boot, as when a wife opines that “you know how difficult it is choosing presents for a man—they always seem to have everything they want.” Each story grabs the viewer’s attention, but how well they work together only really becomes apparent in the frenzied build to the film’s conclusion, which inverts the story on itself in a way that is thoroughly modern, unexpected and delightful. The last 10 minutes or so of Dead of Night play as if they’d been directed by the likes of Christopher Nolan, cementing its status as one of the most creative horror films of the era. It set a very high bar for future horror anthologies, which only a handful have managed to match.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.