Back in the days when men smoked pipes and wore flowery scarves without a hint of embarrassment, what scared us? Dead of Night was a series from the 70s and these 3 surviving episodes give us an insight into the concerns of the time.
First up is The Exorcism, by far the scariest of the 3 tales, which follows 2 couples attempting to have Christmas dinner together in a cottage in the country. Things rapidly take a sinister and frightening turn as wine tastes of blood, guests keel over in pain and the hostess becomes possessed. If like me you find Christmas a trial this gives a good impression of how I feel at that time of year. Anna Cropper is superb as Rachel the hostess as she becomes increasingly terrified. This is really a social commentary on the class and wealth divide which is a subject for discussion before the lights go out and more relevant as the cause of the haunting is revealed. The suburban setting and lack of soundtrack adds to the atmosphere of creeping horror and with all the characters facing it together this feels quite modern. As Clive Swift’s character Dan says “Throw a few switches and we’re back in the dark ages”, how close that feels to 2013.
Return Flight is a much more ambiguous affair. Airline pilot Hamish Rolph (Peter Barkworth), recently bereaved returns to work only to find himself haunted by his dead wife’s former husband who died in the war. This is a slow burner to the point of tedium at times with the only memorable part being the final 10 minutes; if you need a clear cut ending this will disappoint. This is an episode which feels pretty dated, one notable line being “You can’t spend every day dunking blacks in the upper Zambezi”, uh right.
Finally we have A Woman Sobbing with the excellent Anna Massey as Jane Pullar a bored frustrated housewife stuck in the country going slowly and inexorably out of her mind because of the sound of a crying woman which only she can hear. This is a delight; the plight of women in the 70s seems not very much different to today. There are some very funny/sad dated sexist moments as her husband and his work colleague discuss how wives need pills because they get bored and how they have to have sex with them to stop them getting tetchy. There are also strains of xenophobia in that her husband Frank (the velvety voiced Ronald Hines) is happy to employ a Dutch nanny but not a French one “You know how the French are, she was caught shoplifting on Oxford Street”. You really feel poor Jane’s distress and she tries everything she can to fix the situation at one point calling the Samaritans who advise an exorcism, I spat my tea across the room right there.
Ultimately all these tales do not end well for our protagonists. The themes around which the horrors are based are just as relevant today; class and wealth divisions, women’s rights, attitudes towards mental health, lost love. The more personal hauntings show inside fears and paranoia as outside manifestations and there is nowhere to hide from creations that live inside you.
The extras are for fans of the original with photos from missing episodes and an interesting leaflet giving the background of the episodes and of some of the major creative talents behind them. I was unable to access the pdf scripts of the missing episodes but am assured they are on the disc.