Thursday, January 22, 2009

DEAD OF NIGHT (1976) d. Dan Curtis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Horror anthologies are a lot like a “grab bag” at a party, you never know what you’re going to get and whether it will be any good. Some cinematic horror anthologies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT were excellent and delivered a rich variety of shocks and surprises, while others of the same genre like TORTURE GARDEN were a little more inconsistent despite strong visual elements and some good performances. The same was true of television-based horror anthologies. While DARK ROOM may not be as well remembered as NIGHT GALLERY, it may have been more dependable in its delivery of fright-filled entertainment, despite the fact that NIGHT GALLERY was a Rod Serling production and often had a lot more star power. DEAD OF NIGHT is probably one of the least well-known of the TV horror anthologies, but it has an impressive pedigree. Director Dan Curtis is probably best remembered for his long-running series Dark Shadows, but he was also the man behind THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER television movies, as well as TRILOGY OF TERROR, CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW, BURNT OFFERRINGS and many other masterpieces of the macabre on the Big and Small Screens. DEAD OF NIGHT is a splendid return to a time when people would watch television and expect to be entertained in an adult fashion, with adults in the starring roles and dealing with adult concepts that required some thought and reflection.

DEAD OF NIGHT (not counting the Bonus Features) is a set of three stories described as a foray into “imagination, mystery and terror”. Each segment was shaped or crafted in some manner by the inestimable Richard Matheson, who wrote a screenplay for one tale from a Jack Finney story, adapted another story of his own creation to a screenplay, and penned the teleplay for the third narrative. The first installment is called “Second Chance” starring Ed Begley Jr., which is a tale about a young car enthusiast who restores a 1926 Jordan Playboy to mint condition and then takes an auto trip through a slip in time back to the days of the car’s glory. In the process, Frank initiates a series of cause & effect paradoxes sending ripples through the Time Stream. The second story is “No Such Thing as a Vampire” starring Patrick MacNee, which is a yarn about a wealthy nobleman and professor whose wife and manor are plagued by a “vampire”. Finally, Peter is forced to turn to violent methods to solve the problem he is really wrestling with. The last story is “Bobby” starring Joan Hackett, a nightmarish account of a bereaved mother who resorts to occult practices to restore her dead son to life. Her actions bring unforeseen consequences that underscore the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”.

Right from the introduction which felt so very typical of “Dan Curtis Productions” and had that wonderful, modern/Gothic aura, I knew I was in for an enjoyable stretch of time and I was not disappointed. Of the three stories, “Second Chance” is the tale that has no relation to horror but it may be the most interesting of the bunch. Time paradox stories have been around for ages and this breaks no new ground, but the loops and twists of the plot are still compelling and force a degree of introspection onto the viewer. The air of nostalgia is heavy with an aroma of “lost youth” and that is certainly aided by the soft focus camera work and gently modulated color scheme against a fairly simple collection of mostly summery exterior sets. The cast is small but effectively used in a story that is on one hand patient and yet relatively tight in its construction. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” has the most recognizable cast, for beyond Patrick MacNee, there is the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr. and Horst Buchholtz, all three of which were regulars in film and television throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. Of the three tales, “No Such Thing as a Vampire” has the most lavish sets, costumes and props and it is well lit and well shot, depending heavily on some pretty classic “vampire imagery” to propel the narrative. What seems to be a simplistic story takes a nice left turn at the end and leaves us with a mystery rather than a true horror story. Lastly, “Bobby” is the most reminiscent of 70s TV, for the luscious California seaside setting and the fascination, bordering on obsession, with the occult is so evocative of that decade. Of the three stories, “Bobby” is the most atmospheric and is replete with heavy shadows, dim lights, a spooky house and a “cat & mouse” game that is the nightmare of any parent. Despite having the weakest performances of the three stories, this tried and true tale of terror is classic Dan Curtis, with even a few moments where Dark Shadows stock footage is utilized. What may be one of the slickest choices was to arrange the stories as they were, building the intensity slowly and carefully like a wave cresting towards its curl or an orchestra gathering power as it approaches the crescendo. After such a satisfying ride, one would not expect much in the Bonus Features menu, and there you would be terribly wrong.

The extras on DEAD OF NIGHT are diverse and splendid. First up is a 15 minute segment of a Deleted Scene and Extra Footage from “No Such Thing as a Vampire”. The first deleted scene has audio, but the rest is subtitled since no sound was included with the extra footage, which was typical of that time period. From a simple film history vantage, this tidbit is a real surprise and quite interesting. Next is “Robert Cobbert’s Music Score Highlights” a series of 36 incidental and musical score tracks set over a looping series of stills from “No Such Thing as a Vampire”. Anyone who likes 60s/70s style mood music will delight in this addition. Skipping the third segment to leave it to the place of honor, the fourth section is a sizable “Photo Gallery’ of color and black & white on-set and promotional stills from all FOUR features, for there is a FOURTH feature. The third bonus feature is the 52 minute original pilot of DEAD OF NIGHT titled “A Darkness at Blaisden” from 1969 and starring Kerwin Matthews and Marj Dusay. “A Darkness at Blaisden” is a story about psychic phenomena in an old house tracked by a small group of investigators. The opening credits give your some idea of the superbly spooky vibe that will dominate this feature throughout and it does. The wonderful mix of mod fashions, incredibly ornate Gothic sets and props, lurid colors mixed with some very creative camera angles makes this possibly the most ambitious and rewarding of all the features on this disc. Many people of today who have been raised on the sharpness of DVDs may be put off by the grainy and dissolute nature of the 40 year old video and the tinny mono sound, and the plot is occasionally “talky”, which was typical of earlier Dan Curtis work in particular and late 1960s drama in general, but I found this pilot to be the “jewel in the crown” in some cases. While not as well made as the other three installments in some ways, the feel that steadily enmeshed me and soaked into my soul swept me back to a time when I was younger and happier.

DEAD OF NIGHT is probably not for everyone, which is a brutal condemnation of the state of our nation today, for this trilogy is wonderfully enjoyable. If you are the type of viewer who needs bangs and flashes every thirty seconds, who thinks “jump scares” are what make a horror film frightening, or confuse action films with horror and expect outlandish special effects in every scene, you will probably be disappointed. One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed this disc was for the reason that it reminded me pointedly of a time when writing and production of such fare thundered across the airwaves with greater force than any herd of buffalo. The evening network lineup featured many shows like DEAD OF NIGHT from the late 1950s all the way into the early 1980s when anthologies began to disappear from the broadcast landscape. Beyond being a set of stories that is perfect late-night fodder with all the lights turned off, a thick fog shrouding the windows and creaking sounds haunting the halls of your house, this is television history that must be preserved at all costs. Nothing like this is being made anymore in the U.S. and that is to our great detriment. If you don’t pick up DEAD OF NIGHT, more gems of the past like this are likely to slip through our befuddled fingers and vanish with the streams of time down a river from which there is no returning.

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