A Movie A Day: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977) It has nothing to do with time… The dead of night is a state of mind.
Published at: Oct. 23, 2009, 1:53 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
I must admit that I bought this title out of frustration. I was looking for the 1945 Dead of Night after a recommendation from a talkbacker last run of Halloween AMAD. I believe I posed the question in my BLACK SABBATH review… “I wonder what the first anthology horror is.” And I heard about the British horror flick Dead of Night.
However when I went searching for it on DVD all I found was one out of print double feature DVD from 2003 that was going for over $50 used.
I was frustrated and saw the cover for this 1977 Dead of Night… that coupled with a nice price and cool cover had me clicking the One Click Shopping button on Amazon. Fuck you 1945 Dead of Night. Like hell you’re getting my $50. I’ll give a tenth of that price to 1977 Dead of Night!
Now 1977’s Dead of Night is a TV movie, but a high quality TV movie. Much like it’s more expensive 1945 counterpart it is also an anthology. Get this… it’s directed and produced by Dan Curtis, director of TRILOGY OF TERROR, BURNT OFFERINGS and the Dark Shadows series and written by Richard Holy Christcakes Matheson (The Holy Christcakes part was my own addition, not his real middle names).
Unlike most horror anthologies (like the ones from Amicus and Hammer) this movie covers a lot of genre territory. The first segment (called Second Chance) plays like an episode of Amazing Stories. It has that early-career Steven Spielberg blown out white and hazy look and follows a young Ed Begley Jr. as a college student and car enthusiast.
He gets wind of a local farmer with a rare body in his garage. Not a body body, of course, but a car body, a 1926 Jordan Playboy to be specific. The car comes with a story… it was used new, but the guy who owned it was racing a train, miscalculated and he and his girl died. The wrecked car is all that is left.
Christine! Nope, not a haunted car story. Instead it’s a time travel story.
Begley painstakingly restores the car to all its default parts, even keeping the original license plates. When he finishes up he decides to take it on a nice summer drive in the country, using only the roads it would have driven on… by doing so he ends up back in 1926.
There’s nothing particularly scary about this story, which is fine. It’s all about awe and wonder at the supernatural as Begley gets to tour around the distant past, effecting a small change in the process.
The second story, called No Such Thing As A Vampire is the drag as 90% of the middle stories in anthologies tend to be, but still worth watching for Patrick Macnee (The original Avengers series, The Howling, Spinal Tap, etc) and Elisha Cook Jr. (great character that was in everything from THE MALTESE FALCON to SALEM’S LOT).
It’s a GASLIGHT tale. If you’ve seen Gaslight I just ruined the segment for you, but it’s not that good anyway. Set in the old timey horse and buggy days a woman wakes every morning with two puncture marks on her neck and blood covering her sheets. She’s convinced she’s being visited by a vampire every night, scaring off the help and frustrating her practical-minded doctor husband (Macnee).
Elisha Cook plays a servant that is scared to death of vampires, but claims to have killed one before.
Finally, Macnee decides to call in a friend of the family, a handsome young man, to help him stay awake and watch his wife to find out what the hell is going on. The end is predictable, but not horribly executed.
The whole story just lacks any sort of finesse. It’s a cannon shot, but you need a little more than just the big plot points to make a cohesive story.
The final segment, Bobby, is the best of the bunch and also the only purely horror section of the movie. It concerns a grieving mother (Joan Hackett) who turns to black magic after her son drowns. In the age of Pet Semetary you know that if she resurrects her child it ain’t gonna be pretty and that’s what we get.
She completes her ritual and her kid comes back. I recognized the kid playing Bobby, but couldn’t place him immediately. But he was in BEN, the Willard follow-up… a movie I happen to like a lot (and it also features a great solo young Michael Jackson title song) and he was also in the odd and not completely awesome, but still cool BURNT OFFERINGS, also directed by Dan Curtis.
Bobby starts off acting normal, but soon the façade drops and it becomes a horror movie chase through the house with a great, creepy “Fuck that!” finale.
I just found out the really crappy looking mid-90’s Trilogy of Terror sequel is a remake of this movie and rewatched the Bobby story on youtube… pales in comparison. The 90s version is beat for beat (using the same Matheson script) the same, but the difference between ‘70s photography and editing and ‘90s photography and editing is night and day. The new one looks like a Red Shoe Diaries episode whereas the original looks more like Kolchak. And the make-up effect at the end of the original is a million times creepier.
Final Thoughts: Dead of Night is definitely a product of its time, but that’s a good thing. It was originally produced as a pilot to a new series that I desperately wish had been made. I love horror series… be it Tales from the Crypt, Tales From the Darkside, Monsters, Outer Limits or Twilight Zone. Those were the gateway drug that got me into real deal horror. And some of those are scarier than most genre movies made these days.
Luckily for me I see that TCM is running the 1945 Dead of Night on Halloween, so I’m gonna fire up the ol’ DVR and finally watch that fucker.
For the recommendation title the obvious choice is what I’m going with. Richard Matheson scripted anthology movie? How about:
The Twilight Zone Movie has a lot of controversy surrounding it because of the famous onset accident that killed two Vietnamese children and actor Vic Morrow. There is still a hardcore group of people who have not and will never forgive John Landis for that.
I’m of the opinion that the dude can’t shoulder all the blame. Accidents happen. It’s not like he wanted the chopper to crash. Could it have been avoided? Absolutely. Landis was cutting corners to get his shots, but no more than most directors have to when under the gun. In fact, if what I’ve read of the incident and court case Landis was right there when the chopper crashed. If it had fallen the other way it would have killed Landis instead. The dude was tried and found innocent of negligence. What he was guilty of was gaming the system so that he could have minors working longer than they typically are allowed to.
In any event, that’s all interesting Hollywood Babylon type stuff, but what counts is the movie.
Like most anthologies this one isn’t wholly successful, but I’m not ashamed to admit that even so I love every minute of this movie. Call it nostalgia if you want (you might be right), but it’s true. Yes, even the Kick The Can segment.
So, we have four segments and a wrap-around. The directors are John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller. Great talent pool.
Landis’ segment is a little sad to watch, but Morrow gives a helluva performance as a pissed off racist that fate decides to make walk in the shoes of those he detests. He leaves a bar, after insulting every minority he can, of course, and finds himself in Nazi occupied Germany… not knowing what’s going on, not speaking the language, having no identification.
He is pulled out and placed in another time, this time the Deep South surrounded by the KKK, then Vietnam as a villager… We never see Morrow as he is seen by those filled with prejudice and hate, which I really like. It allows Morrow to act out his arc. It’s not a glitzy happy segment with a Scrooge-like second chance. This is a hate-filled man that is put through hell and we don’t know the end of his story, but given the last shot of him I’d venture it doesn’t turn out well.
Landis also directed the prologue, which is one of the best scenes of two guys getting to know each other ever. It’s Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks driving at night, playing trivia games that give us a quick idea of their personalities and also make us feel like we’re there. The “Do you wanna see something reaaaaalllly scary?” line from this scene is quoted frequently.
Spielberg’s segment, Kick The Can, is always frowned upon and I grant you it’s slow and uplifting, which isn’t exactly the tone people expect or want out of a Twilight Zone movie, but it’s got magical Scatman Crothers! Maybe I’m partial to old people stories, but I do love the joy of this segment. It looks like a million bucks, totally Spielberg framing and focus, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score (one of the only movies Spielberg ever filmed not scored by John Williams, by the way) is particularly touching.
Joe Dante’s piece is probably the most flat out fun of the whole movie, an extremely cartoony (literally) bit that has a Kathleen Quinlan playing a teacher who is pulled into the dysfunctional family life of a young boy (Jeremy Licht) who seemingly has the power of God. There are crazy creatures, Tex Avery and Max Fleischer inspired set design and Kevin McCarthy. And, being a Joe Dante movie, the great Dick Miller makes an appearance.
George Miller’s segment is probably the most well-known re-do of an original episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, about a skittish man flying during a real bad storm who swears he sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane.
In the original TV episode this was William Shatner, in the movie it’s John Lithgow and he goes for broke here. Of all the segments this is the most complete package I think. It delivers the suspense, entertainment and full on Twilight Zoney feel. Also, keep an ear out on Goldsmith’s awesome score for this scene. You might hear the beginnings of his iconic Gremlins theme.
So, yeah… both anthologies written by Richard Matheson and both sharing at least one story that feels Spielbergian… and the latter actually feels that way for a reason!
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Friday, October 23th: THE SERPENT’S EGG (1978)
Saturday, October 24th: THE SWARM (1978)
Sunday, October 25th: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
Monday, October 26th: COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970)
Tuesday, October 27th: THE SADIST (1963)
Wednesday, October 28th: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Thursday, October 29th: DEVIL DOLL (1964)
Closing in on the final week of Halloween AMAD! Tomorrow we move from TV horror anthology to a gosh darn honest to god Ingmar Bergman movie that’s supposed to be surreal and creepy as all hell. Looking forward to it!
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