Gold as the Grave: Horror Honor Roll Classics

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

The continuing technological improvements that home video undergoes has come eons since the now-ancient, but one-time state-of-the-art, laser discs.  Even DVDs are now frequently referred to as a relic from the past (they really aren’t).  Blu-Rays and 4Ks are where the various companies are pointed – a move never more appreciated than when they turn to their classic movie libraries.  Thus, it is with great joy that I can announce the recent Blu-Ray re-masters of a pair of groundbreaking post-war British fright masterpieces, 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT and 1949’s QUEEN OF HEARTS, now available from the gang at Kino-Lorber (in cahoots with Studio Canal).

Interestingly enough, both pics have often been paired together as a horror double-feature – although, while to many U.S. fans, the former is instantly recognizable, the latter still maintains an aura of obscurity.  This is understandable, since DEAD OF NIGHT had a major studio release (Universal-International), albeit in a shamefully abbreviated form (suffice to say, the Kino edition is complete and uncut).  Expertly mixing psychological elements (a big deal after WWII) and supernatural nightmares, each pic is a triumph of a literate narrative intertwined with atmosphere, art, chills and suspense.  Unlike many horror movies, both flicks achieved high critical kudos to match the audience appreciation.  Since their 1940s releases, DEAD OF NIGHT and QUEEN OF SPADES have influenced a plethora of motion picture and television writers, directors and cameramen including Rod Serling, Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, Quentin Tarantino, Masaki Kobayashi and continue to do so to this day.  How great to be able to add 1080p 35MM transfers to our library shelves!

DEAD OF NIGHT is, in a myriad of ways, one of the most misunderstood horror movies ever made.  Not in anything negative – I mean, it’s a great flick all-round.  Mostly, the confusion comes from inaccurate press and distribution faux pas.  For one thing, it’s heralded as the first omnibus horror pic.  Ain’t so.  As far back as 1924, the Germans did an Expressionistic pip with WAXWORKS, featuring a framing story of nefarious figures in history (including Jack the Ripper) whose tales are told via flashback one night in a Madame Tussaud’s-esque museum.  More bizarrely, Universal-International, who took on the American distribution for DEAD OF NIGHT didn’t argue that point even though they themselves released a trilogy of terror just several years earlier (1943’s Flesh and Fantasy)!  Yank critics were also perplexed by the references that seemingly made no sense to a pair of haunted golf buddies.  That’s because Universal, thinking the segment unnecessary, simply chopped it out of the U.S. prints (even more astoundingly, as the author of the piece was the most well-known to American audiences, no less than H.G. Wells!).  Notably, the movie spurred the later efforts of Amicus to create their series of omnibus horror movies in the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.  Oft imitated (and entertainingly so) but never bested.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Suffice to say that the new Kino-Lorber Studio Classics release is (as mentioned) the complete, uncut version.  The movie, the only Ealing horror venture, began shooting as the war wound down.  Its release in 1945/1947 (Europe and the U.S.) was of the blockbuster kind (horror really intrigued the postwar audiences; in the U.S., RKO’s modestly budgeted Body Snatcher was one of their biggest hits of 1945-46).

DEAD OF NIGHT was carefully constructed to cover all grounds.  Every type of nightmare was to be chronicled, in as many emotional colors as possible:  foreboding evil (a race car driver’s escape from death), creepy (ghostly participation invading children’s hide-and-seek playdate), suspenseful (a haunted mirror wields its influence upon a pair of honeymooners), comic (the aforementioned golf sequence) and terrifying (a ventriloquist’s dummy has a life of its own).  All of this is beautifully framed by a weekend outing at a country estate.  Architect Walter Craig arrives at the manor and disturbingly relates how he knows everyone there from a recurring nightmare he can’t shake.

To capture these frightening elements, Ealing relied upon four of the finest directors then working in the British motion picture industry (Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Alberto Cavalcanti).  Their endeavors were appended by a top-notch script (individually written by T.E.B Clarke, John Baines, E.F. Benson, Angus MacPhail and the aforementioned H.G. Wells) and spectacular atmospheric photography by Douglas Slocombe and Stanley Pavey.  A perfect accompanying tense score was composed for the fest by Georges Auric, and adds just the right macabre crescendos needed.

The cast, too, is a 1940’s Who’s Who of British cinema stars:  Mervyn Johns (as the tormented Craig), Roland Culver, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Anthony Baird, Sally Ann Howes, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Esme Percy, Peggy Bryan, Hartley Power, Garry Marsh and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Parratt and Potter (the two elusive golfers, who had become an unofficial UK comedic team since their standout appearance in Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes).  Most prominently is the tortured and truly scarifyin’ performance by Michael Redgrave (as the ventriloquist).  Speaking of that episode, Universal-International again made a decision that changed the narrative of this segment (the most famous in the movie).  Elisabeth Welch, the wonderful African-American actress/songstress, and a recent ex-pat to the UK, plays the owner-operator of the nightclub where much of the action unfolds.  In the original American version, her non-singing scenes were shortened to imply that the woman was merely an entertainer at the club – and not the owner.  No doubt this was done to appease the Southern theater circuit (again, this is the unabridged 103 minute edition).

DEAD OF NIGHT, in the 75 years since its release, has lost none of its power to ghoulishly invade our post-screening dreams (even the original poster is goosebump-raiser – see the Blu-Ray cover below).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal High Definition platter of DEAD OF NIGHT is the best incarnation yet of this chilling classic.  Crystal-clear with terrific contrast, the generally excellent 35mm  transfer (from a new 4K restoration) gets a big bow. Only an intermittent emulsion scratch that lasts for a bit midway through the proceedings prevents the results from being pristine.  Extras include audio commentary by Tim Lucas, and a documentary Remembering Dead of Night.

LSS, DEAD OF NIGHT is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and deserves to be included in any classic Blu-Ray/DVD collection.  It’s the stuff screams are made of.

THE QUEEN OF SPADES, a blood-freezing tale told in epic proportions, is a 1949 classic that almost plays like a feature-length spinoff told by one of the guests in DEAD OF NIGHT (possibly why they’re often paired together in revival screenings).

The frigid, icy background of 1806 Russia perfectly complements the narrative.  Herman is an impoverished officer in a military where gambling has become the rich man’s pastime of choice (in fact, it has swept the nation).  He is also a sociopathic specimen with a large superiority complex that more than makes up for his miniscule bank account.  The captain is, thus, the subject of ridicule.  When he does achieve modest success at cards, it only fuels his gambling addiction.  Soon, he learns of a tale regarding the Countess, a noblewoman, who, as a young beauty, caved to adultery – and lived to regret it ever since.  It’s the kind of living Herman would kill for.  While robbed of a portion of her riches, she replaced it by recouping it in a high stakes game of chance where she holds the winning cards – the result of a Faustian bargain.

Now decrepit, lonely, miserable (but filthy rich), the aged royal lives to taunt Lizaveta, a young woman she has adopted as her ward.  Herman, stunned to discover that this story is true, vies to seduce Lizaveta, gain access to the Countess, learn the secret of the cards and accrue untold wealth.  But fate is likewise playing, and the events fail to go to plan – taking a dark, hellish detour.  It’s a thoroughly Lewtonesque offering from the UK, with period trappings that precede the type of stuff that made Hammer so fiendishly delicious.

One of the finest ghost stories ever written, poet Alexander Pushkin’s iconic nail-biter is also one of the most filmed literary adaptations (possibly as many as 100 movie versions worldwide, since an early 1910 rendition to the latest evocation –  a 2011 television film).  This, however, is the best of them all, due largely to the excellent direction of Thorold Dickinson, the superb black-and-white photography of the brilliant Otto Heller, a fine script by Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys and the magnificent performance of lead Anton Walbrook (best known as the tyrannical ballet head in The Red Shoes).  The supporting is equally impressive, and includes Edith Evans (as the Countess), Yvonne Mitchell (as Lizaveta), Ronald Howard, Anthony Dawson, Mary Jerrold, Miles Malleson, Michael Medwin, Valentine Dyall, George Woodbridge, Athene Seyler, and Pauline Tennant (as the young Countess).  A tense music score (once again, by DEAD OF NIGHT’s Georges Auric) perfectly appends the visuals – a matchless production supervised by Anatole de Grunwald (with Jack Clayton serving as associate producer).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray is in beautiful shape with razor-sharp images and a strong mono soundtrack.  Excellent supplements include audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton, an analysis by Philip Horne, a 1951 interview with director Dickinson, as well as Dickinson’s 1968 introduction at a special screening, plus a current introduction by Martin Scorsese.

A must for horror fans, THE QUEEN OF SPADES is the ideal Halloween Eve (or any eve) choice for an engrossing, devilish good time.

DEAD OF NIGHT. CAT # K23632.

THE QUEEN OF SPADES. CAT # K24012.

BOTH TITLES: Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.  SRP: $29.95 @.

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