Interview with 'Dead of Night' Co-Author Jez Conolly
A new book from Auteur Publishing, written by Jez Conolly and David Owain Bates, marks the first time a single book has been dedicated to an analysis of the film. Co-author Jez Conolly has also written a monograph on John Carpenter’s classic chiller The Thing and is co-editor, with Caroline Whelan, of three books in the World Film Locations series (Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool) published by Intellect. He regularly writes for The Big Picture magazine and website and has contributed to numerous other cinema books and journals. He very kindly agreed to have a quick chat about Dead of Night.
What made you decide to write a monograph on Dead of Night?
Even before I wrote my first book in the Devil’s Advocates series (on John Carpenter’s The Thing, published 2013) I’d thought that if I were to get a second bite of that cherry I’d pick Dead of Night to write about. In fact I remember having a conversation with David, co-author of the Dead of Night book, in which we both thought it would make for a great entry in the series. I think we felt that it really deserved its own volume, it’s such an important film in the horror genre and we discovered that surprisingly little had been written about it previously, at least not in the form of a substantive dedicated monograph.
What is your method of approach to each writing project?
In the case of the Devil’s Advocates books I have to love the film I’m writing about, so my starting point is consciously subjective. I do seek to avoid taking an ostensibly academic approach, that way lies a dry read. Not that the books lack rigour or research, but I guess I try to capture as much of my emotional response to the films as possible. My aim is to either encourage people who haven’t seen the film to seek out their first viewing of it, or to help devotees of the film find something new in it.
You’ve co-authored a number of books. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with other writers?
I co-edited three books in another series - World Film Locations published by Intellect - with my wife, Caroline. Those books were highly collaborative, using the talents of dozens of writers. I really liked the community feel to those projects; each book focused on a city location, in the case of our three books 'Dublin', 'Reykjavik' and 'Liverpool', and each provided an opportunity for people actually living in those cities to write a little bit about their home in relation to film. It also felt right to work with David on the 'Dead of Night' book, partly because the process reflected a little of the multi-director collaborative nature of the film itself. It also proved expedient to share the process of writing it to ensure completion within the timescale that we had to work to.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this monograph?
Lack of time. I have a full-time job and tend to allot myself an hour of writing time between 7am and 8am each morning, Monday to Friday, before my day job hours begin.
We talk quite a bit about our first time with Dead of Night in the book's introduction. For both of us it was one of those old movies screened late on a Friday or Saturday night during our early teens when staying up late to watch the midnight movie was a rite of passage. Without revealing our ages, that was back in the days before video recorders, so we were watching these films 'live' as it were. It was one that clearly made its mark on us all those years ago. I remember the film's 'Moebius strip' story loop freaking me out a little bit!
Given the various segments they’re comprised of, portmanteaux films can be tricky, and they’re often criticised for their uneven tones. What does Dead of Night get right in this respect?
Crucially, its linking story works brilliantly. In fact it’s arguably the strongest story element in the film. Without wishing to be unkind to the numerous Amicus horror anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s, which were hugely inspired by Dead of Night, the link stories in those films were frequently fairly routine affairs that served to glue the succession of nested stories together. By comparison, Walter Craig’s story in Dead of Night is sustained brilliantly. Each time we return to it between the other characters’ stories, our understanding of Craig’s predicament is enriched and each link propels us forward.
Is there a particular segment within the film you find to have the most impact?
People usually say either the 'Ventriloquist’s Dummy' story or the 'Haunted Mirror' story, with good reason, but my favourite has always been the first individual story, 'Hearse Driver'. It’s very brief compared to the other stories but it sets up the kind of scares that we then expect from the rest of the film. It has the film’s first real ‘goose bump moment’, when time seems to freeze and the protagonist has his strange vision. The creepiness starts there.
What is it about horror cinema that appeals to you so much?
My father was a cinema manager for many, many years, which meant that I got in to see quite a lot of films for free from a very young age. I recall once seeing a trailer for one of the later Christopher Lee Dracula movies - I couldn't tell you which one although I vividly remember a close-up of his bloodshot eyes - I couldn't have been much more than 9 or 10. I can't remember what the main feature was that I was there to see, probably because I couldn't stop thinking about that Dracula trailer! So from then on it was horror all the way. I got given a copy of Denis Gifford's 'Pictorial History of Horror Movies' soon after - some of the images in that flipped my lid - and I was down the joke shop most weeks buying stick-on scars and various other horror make-up effects. I had a whole collection of lopped off plastic body parts; from memory I had a finger, a thumb, a hand and even a whole arm, which I used to brandish in front of my easily startled aunties! I do have a broad and abiding interest in most areas of cinema but I keep coming back to horror. For many it will never provide anything other than lurid cheap thrills, but I think horror movies reveal a great deal about the times in which they were made.
I mentioned the Amicus anthologies previously, which owe a great deal to Dead of Night. It's not so easy to spot a link to the Hammer horror films that started appearing a dozen or so years after Dead of Night, although the dark Gothic sumptuousness of 'the room in the mirror' in the 'Haunted Mirror' story has elements of typical Hammer set dressing. You can certainly see aspects of the film in more recent horror films; the idea of cheating death in 'Hearse Driver' is there in the Final Destination films, the horror of sleep and dreams informs the Nightmare on Elm Street series, haunted mirrors keep cropping up - check out Oculus for a good recent example - as do dummies - directly in Richard Attenborough's Magic, but also, in a way, through the Child's Play/'Chucky' films, Annabelle and very recently, The Boy. We also suspect that Hitchcock was influenced by Dead of Night when making Psycho; dual personality and mirrors feature prominently, but also the whole 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' story is a big influence. Look at the way that story ends and compare it to the ending of Psycho.
In his recent review of your monograph, Stephen Volk described Dead of Night as “An unforgettable classic of the genre.” In your own opinion, what elements of the film combine to give it its ‘classic’ status?
Coming out of the Ealing Studios stable doesn't hurt its reputation. Many of the people who made it either already were, or subsequently became synonymous with a golden age of British filmmaking. Within the horror genre it deserves to be highly regarded as a major precursor of what would come later. So we'd certainly argue that any budding horror film historians should recognise it as a key stone in the architecture of not just British, but also world horror cinema.
What’s next for you?
I've just pitched a proposal to Auteur, publishers of the Devil's Advocates series, to write a monograph about a specific film for a forthcoming companion series of books that will focus on Science Fiction Cinema. Early days on that one but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!
'Dead of Night’ by Jez Conolly and David Owain Bates is available now and can be purchased here. It is published by Auteur, a leading independent Film and Media Studies publisher, and part of the Devil's Advocates series devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema.
Contributors to Devil's Advocates come from the worlds of academia, journalism and fiction, but all have one thing in common: a passion for the horror film and for sharing that passion.