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An architect is invited out to the country home of a client to do some consulting work. There, he runs into a group of people he swears he's seen before. Turns out, this cast of characters has appeared in a recurring nightmare that haunts him greatly. One of the guests, a prominent psychiatrist, scoffs at such omens but the other guests are intrigued and share their own moments with the macabre. One young man, a racecar driver, has premonitions of an accident that will kill him. A young girl attending a children's birthday party runs into the ghost of an abused child. The mirror purchased by one couple seems to hint at a homicide to come by referencing and reflecting one from the past. And one gentleman tells the tale of a golf match that ends in suicide and stiff upper lips on all sides. Still, the doctor is not convinced, but he does offer his story of a murderous ventriloquist whose dummy seemed more alive, and violent, than he was. As this evening of terror tales wears on, the architect grows more agitated and anxious. Seems he knows something evil awaits him within this secluded setting and this group of people. And the secret sits beyond the edge of dusk, dwelling deep in the Dead of Night.
Herman is an indignant, indigent army captain who is deathly jealous of his fellow well-bred and wealthy officers. He would give anything to be one of them, or even beat them at their favorite card pastime, Faro. While visiting a weird old bookstore, he stumbles across a strange book about people who have sold their soul to the Devil for riches and renown. He is particularly taken with one story about the Countess Ranevskaya, who just so happens to live in his town. She supposedly learned the secret to the gambling game and made a vast fortune. Hoping to improve his position, Herman investigates and discovers that the Countess has a ward/slave named Lizaveta Ivanova living with her. He starts sending her doting love letters. He finally convinces her to help him enter the Countess' brooding mansion. There he hopes to find the cheater's code, but a confrontation with the aging Countess results in tragedy and Liza learns that Herman was using her all along. Still, it's possible that helpful hints can come from beyond the grave. As a result, Herman takes all his money and gambles it on one final hand of cards. All he needs is a three, a seven, or an ace. But he should beware of the unluckiest of all the cards, for it spells doom and destitution: The Queen of Spades.
Dead of Night is considered by many to be one of the first original anthology style horror films. At the time of its release (1945) such a compilation format with many filmmakers was indeed unique, but as a direct result, the vignette approach means that the movie can and will only be as successful as the individual stories told. Unfortunately, of the six or so narratives provided, only one is a complete triumph with a couple others more being at least halfway suspenseful. The rest are dull and unusually disappointing. Naturally, it's Michael Redgrave's manic turn as the ventriloquist (much celebrated by critics then and now) who may or may not be under the emotional and mental control of his "dummy" that succeeds on all counts. The performance is pitch perfect and the story told is open-ended and genuinely creepy. It's just too bad that the previous 80 minutes of build-up to this climatic tale are so deadly dull. The golfer's jokefest is in the "say wot" school of proper British wit and probably had them rolling in the aisles between the wars. But for the modern audience it plays as one long setup that never reaches a decent punchline. The opening yarn, with its premonitions of death and interconnected coincidences, works well, but is ultimately too short to have a lasting impact. All the other tales seem like sketches, tidbits of ideas for something scarier that never does materialize. The use of four prominent British directors to helm the separate segments again appears like a great idea, but just like Twilight Zone: the Movie, the styles don't always mesh and you can tell when one filmmaker is taking over for another. Dead of Night may have been one of the first, but it is definitely not one of the best omnibus presentations. Still, it's worth a look just to watch Hugo and Sir Michael battle for a man's mind and sanity.
On the other hand, The Queen of Spades is one of those laborious costume dramas that gives period pieces their decidedly deadly cinematic rap. Set in Russia and revolving around a group of army captains, a rich eccentric countess, and a strange card game, this movie aims to be the sordid saga of a desperate man's desire to sell his soul to the Devil for affluence and influence. It turns out to be an exhausted, interminable tale of overly long dramatic pauses, romantic entanglements, and endless static sequences of symbolism. Indeed, there really isn't much to the story here except the question of whether Herman will learn the secret to Faro and then use it. Any fan of film has already figured out that the answer to both doubts is "yes" and "yes." So then, we are stuck with the character dynamics to hopefully engage us. And that's a shame, because The Queen of Spades is superficial on those counts. Except for Dame Edith Evans' peculiar old bat Countess Ranevskaya, who looks like John Tenniel's illustration of the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland and acts like she only occasionally visits our planet, the rest of the individuals here are out of the handbook for old-fashioned hackneyed movie players. Herman is a cowardly crackpot hoping that money more than morality or motivation makes the man. Lizaveta is so victimized in her abused and tortured twitter that she can't gain our sympathy, especially when she acts like she doesn't understand she'd be better off without the crazy old coot. And the Leslie Howard-in-training Ronald Howard (who was Ashley Wilke's real son) is duller than a Russian rutabaga. The Queen of Spades takes too long to get started and eventually there is nothing well played about this badly dealt hand of ersatz history.
Anchor Bay has done a nice job with this double DVD two-disc set. The black and white looks especially good, with Queen winning the overall transfer title. Dead has some very faded and defective sections that really stand out alongside the other remastered material. Sound on both films is a problem through, with Queen once again taking the crown for worst aural issues. Seems that the music is pumped up so loudly in the mix than it drowns out everything, and since this is a movie where people speak way too softly, lots of dialogue and double crossing plot machinations are missed. Dead is slightly better, but it too has a cast of whispering white people to contend with. As for extras, we get nice galleries of stills, posters, and behind-the-scenes snapshots for both movies. They are extensive and interesting. On the Queen disc, we also get a trailer that tries to sell the movie as a crowning achievement of monumental Western filmmaking; indeed, The Queen of Spades was nominated for a 1950 British Academy Award for Best Film (!?!).
But no amount of handsome hype can save these movies from what they are: incredibly outdated drawing room drone fests that substitute manners for the macabre and gentility for genuine scares. Michael Redgrave and his insane thrown voice vehicle just barely brings Dead of Night back from the dearly departed. There is no such wooden wonder around to resuscitate The Queen of Spades. That is, unless you consider that once this moldering movie plays its trump cards, it ends up being the dummy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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