Ealing Studios is best known for its sometimes dark comedies, but in 1945 they released this early example of horror anthology — the type of film that another British studio, Amicus, would turn out regularly 20 to 30 years later.
While it’s often remembered for its final segment, there are other good and spooky stories presented here, original material or adapted from writers such as EF Benson and HG Wells. Four different directors worked on the individual segments. And the implications of the framing story are even more unsettling.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is driving along a country lane somewhere in Kent. As he approaches a rather charming half-timbered house, he stops and stares at it for a moment before going on.
Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) is waiting at the gate to greet him, and the chatty dialog informs us that Craig is an architect whom Foley has invited down to his home, Pilgrims Farm, to have a look at the house with an eye toward expanding it.
While Craig says that “I’ve never been here before. Not actually,” he seems strangely familiar with the place. He knows already that they need more than the two bedrooms they currently have and another living room, and that the converted barn, where the Foleys are currently putting their guests, has central heating and modern conveniences. When they enter the house, he knows where to go to hang up his hat and coat before Foley points the alcove out. He also knows that the other guests for the weekend are having their afternoon tea before Foley takes him into the parlor, where Mrs. Foley (Mary Merrall), Eliot’s mom, is pouring out tea for the group.
Let’s meet the rest of the party:
- Psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk). In those days, psychiatrists were all Freudians and had foreign accents, and the good doctor is no exception.
- Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird).
- The Courtlands, Peter and Joan (Ralph Michael and Googie Withers).
- A teenaged girl named Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howe) who is a neighbor of the Foleys.
I’m familiar with most of these actors later in their careers, so it’s always interesting to see them so young.
As the group is introduced to him, Walter Craig seems to find them all as familiar as Pilgrims Farm. He even says that Dr. Van Straaten will treat him; he always treats him.
This baffles the doctor, since he’s never met Walter before, and Walter at last explains his deja vu:
“I’ve seen you in my dreams. Sounds like a sentimental song, doesn’t it? I’ve dreamt about you over and over again… Everybody in this room is part of my dream. Everybody.”
“It always starts exactly the same as when I arrived, just now. I turn off the main road into the lane. At the bend in the lane, the house comes into view and I stop as I recognize it. Foley meets me at the front door. I recognize him too. And then, while I’m taking off my coat, I have the most extraordinary feeling. I nearly turn and run for it, because I know I’m going to come face to face with the six of you.”
There are at the moment five other people in the room, not counting our hosts the Foleys, but Walter predicts the arrival of one more: a dark-haired woman who will say something about not having any money. Jokes are made about this mysterious “penniless brunette,” but the group is mostly interested in Walter’s strange experience and sympathetic. Dr. Van Straaten delves into psychological reasons for the recurring dream, and there’s some discussion about when Walter might have seen photographs of any of them in the newspapers and tucked them away in his subconscious.
This is the set-up for the stories that follow. As supporting evidence against the doctor’s skepticism, each of the guest in turn tells a story about their own strange and supernatural experiences and challenges him to explain them.
The Hearse Driver
Hugh Grainger goes first, and his name should tell you than his story is going to be the EF Benson one; it or a close variation of it features in several of Benson’s ghost stories. This one is loosely based on The Bus Conductor (as was a Twilight Zone episode).
In this adaptation, Hugh is a racing-car driver who suffered a bad crash during a race and wound up in the hospital. The original text, while it has a very good punchline, is short without much personal drama; the film fills it out by developing a romance between Hugh and Joyce (Judy Kelly), the nurse who looks after him.
One evening during his recovery, Hugh experienced a peculiar “hitch” in time. The radio suddenly fell silent and his bedside clock stopped ticking; when he looked at the latter, he saw that it had jumped to 4:15. When he opened the curtains, it was broad daylight and he stared down upon a street that was completely empty apart from one hearse. The driver (Miles Malleson) looked up at him and jauntily spoke the memorable line: “Just room for one inside, sir.”
Hugh drew away from the window, and by the time he sank back on his hospital bed, everything became normal again. The radio was playing, the clock read 9:50, and it was dark outside the open curtains. No sign of the hearse or its driver.
Hugh told his doctor that it couldn’t have been a dream, since he didn’t fall asleep, and Joyce confirmed that no more than 5 minutes had passed since she left his room. A hallucination brought on by his nearly deadly accident? No better explanation available, until Hugh was discharged from the hospital a couple of weeks later. It was 4:15 in the afternoon as he stepped out to the street to catch a crowded bus. The bus conductor was the same man as the hearse driver and said exactly the same thing: “Just room for one inside, sir.”
Well, Hugh didn’t get on that bus and a good thing for him — it only got a few blocks down the street before a truck broadsided it and knocked it off a bridge. Although as Sally observes at the end of this story “Bit thick for the other passengers!”
The party discusses this event, and Hugh’s proof that it happened, when a dark-haired young woman comes in, kisses him quickly, and asks him to pay the taxi driver; she hasn’t got a penny on her. We’ve seen this penniless brunette before, in the story above: it’s Joyce the nurse, now Mrs. Grainger.
While Hugh pays the taxi and Mrs. Foley shows Joyce to her room and explains what’s going on, Walter Craig recalls something else that happens in his dream:
“We’re having drinks. You break those glasses of yours and then, quite suddenly, the room goes dark. And then, Foley, you say something about the death of a man I’ve never heard of. And that’s where my dream becomes a nightmare. A nightmare of horror.”
There’s talk of sending Sally home, but she insists on staying. After all, she’s had a ghostly encounter (or “subconscious thingamajig”) too.
The Christmas Party
It happened at the house of a family friend, where Sally was visiting last year. She was helping out with a group of children at a holiday costume party, mostly younger children; the only other teenager present was Jimmy Watson, the boy who lived at the house. After a few other party games, Jimmy proposed a game called Sardines — which is similar to Hide and Seek, except that when the seekers find the one person who hides, they cram into the hiding place like sardines in a tin.
Sally was chosen to hide, and Jimmy was the first to find her. While they sat alone together, he said that the house was haunted. A horrible murder had happened there in 1860. Sally didn’t take the story seriously, and both kids laughed and made jokes about it.
When Jimmy began to get handsy and tried to kiss her, Sally dodged him and ran down a corridor until she came upon a small bedroom and a little boy sitting along, sobbing. Since it was a costume party, his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit with ruffled shirt and floppy tie didn’t strike her as strange. There were other children in more outlandish clothes. His name, he said, was Francis Kent. Sally didn’t recall seeing him at the party, nor the big sister he said was sharing the room with him. Being a kind and sensitive girl, Sally dried the little boy’s tears, sang him a lullaby, and put him to bed, then went back downstairs where Jimmy and the younger children were still looking for her.
She spoke to Jimmy’s mother about the little boy she met upstairs. When Jimmy heard the name of boy, he accused her of playing a joke and knowing about the murder all along. Francis Kent was murdered by his half-sister Constance.
Sally concludes that her mother still thinks she imagined the whole thing or made it up, but she believes she met the ghost of the murdered boy.
It’s a good short story, if I take it as simply as a piece of fiction about a young girl comforting a murdered child. But since I know something the real Kent murder case, it irritates me on a factual level. Frances Kent wasn’t yet 4 years old when he disappeared from the nursery where he was sleeping; the nursemaid’s bed was only a few feet away, and his infant sister was in her undisturbed in her cot. The nursery wasn’t tucked up at the top of the house and down a long corridor, but on the first-floor landing; his parents’ room was just across the way. 16-year-old-old Constance did not share a room with Francis, but had a bedroom on the top floor, where her two older sisters, another teenaged brother, and two of the household servants also had rooms. And though Constance did confess to the murder 5 years later, there was and still is some doubt that she actually did it. Charles Dickens for one, and a number of crime historians since, believe that the Kent’s father was having an affair with the nursemaid and the two accidentally killed the little boy while trying to keep him quiet and hid and mutilated the body to make it look like a kidnapping.
After Sally has told her story, Walter remembers something else from his dream. He says that he will strike Sally violently later… but that doesn’t make sense, since he also knows that she will be leaving suddenly, very soon.
Mrs. Foley suggests that they “break the spell” by having Sally stay for dinner. Sally is happy to accept this invitation — but just then her mother shows up and takes the girl home.
The Haunted Mirror
After Sally is dragged off, it’s Joan Courtland’s turn to tell a story about something odd that happened to her and Peter. Shortly before they were married, she bought him an antique mirror for his birthday.
This is my favorite story of the set. The bantering dialog of the couple is funny, before things turn dark. It’s more Peter’s story than Joan’s and we see much of it from his point of view even though her voice provides the narrative.
Whenever Peter looked into his mirror, he saw his own reflection, but the room behind him wasn’t a reflection of his plain little modern bedroom; instead, it was an elegant Victorian bedchamber with an ornate four-poster bed with red curtains and ivy vines carved on it and a fireplace with a fire blazing.
At first, Peter assumed that Joan had given him a trick mirror or that he was experiencing some kind of weird optical illusion. Even when Joan was standing next to him, he couldn’t see her reflection. The longer he gazed into the mirror, the more strongly he felt that something evil was lurking in that other room in the mirror, drawing him in. It seemed more real than his own room.
When he explained this to Joan, she just wanted to get rid of the mirror — but Peter was sure that the problem was in his mind and not in the glass. He wanted to put off their wedding, but Joan wasn’t having that. By the force of her own will, and with some firm hand-holding, she made the reflection of the ornate room disappear. For once, Peter could see her.
After the two married, Peter began to grow suspicious of Joan and jealous of Guy, a mutual friend who followed Joan around like a puppy, but whom she never cared about.
Joan was concerned by her husband’s changed behavior, but not seriously disturbed until she revisited the antique shop where she bought the mirror and saw an ivy-carved poster bed exactly like the one Peter had described. When she asked about it, the antique dealer told her that both the bed and the mirror came from an estate sale, taken from a room that had been locked and unused for more than 100 years. Mr. Etherington of Marsden Lacey, partially paralyzed and invalid after a riding accident, sat in that room and stared into the mirror, and developed the most terrible suspicions about his wife until he strangled her in a jealous rage. Then he cut his own throat.
Peter is the first person to use the mirror since then.
Joan rushed home to tell Peter about this history and found that Etherington’s spirit had fully taken over Peter’s mind. In a jealous rage, he tried to strangle her. As she struggled with him before the mirror, Joan saw the reflection of Etherington’s room for the first and only time…
Well, since both Joan and Peter are in the Foley’s parlor, both survived the experience. Joan smashed the mirror and Peter had no idea what had happened. But they had seen that room in the reflection. Can Dr. Van Straaten explain that?
The Golfing Rivals
Dr. Van Straaten does have an explanation involving a shared folie a deux hallucination, but Walter Craig isn’t interested any more. He wants to leave before the nightmare starts.
Foley gets him to stay a little longer by telling a silly story about two ardent golfers who are in love with the same woman. They play a round of golf to compete for her and when one man wins (he cheats), the other walks into the nearest pond to drown himself. The woman doesn’t seem to care very much which man she marries, and hijinks ensue on the living couple’s wedding night when the ghost of the drowned man shows up.
Mrs. Foley calls her son’s story “totally incredible and entirely improper,” and it’s the part of this film I usually chapter-skip.
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy
Dr. Van Straaten has listened to each remarkable story in turn and indulgently provided rational explanations when challenged by the storytellers (not counting the golfing joke). But now he’s got a story of his own to tell and it’s a good one. It’s the one most people remember when they speak of this movie.
In 1936, the doctor was called in by a lawyer friend for a psychiatric assessment of a client accused of attempted murder. This leads to a double-nested flashback narrative — within the Dr. Van Straaten’s story is the written statement of the victim, an amiable American ventriloquist named Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power), who was shot and wounded by another ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere.
Sylvester first met Frere and his dummy Hugo the year before at the Paris nightclub belonging to his friend Beulah. Beulah is an unusual character in a British film of this era, an American expat black woman who has found success in one of the few cities where such opportunities would have been open to her in the 1930s. But Sylvester Kee is unique in all of film and television history: a sane and mentally well-balanced ventriloquist with no bizarre emotional attachment to his dummy.
The same can’t be said for Maxwell Frere (a young Michael Redgrave, whose performance as the deeply disturbed ventriloquist is what really sells this story).
Frere’s nightclub act is mildly naughty (“What would I be doing at the Folies Bergere looking at faces?”) but nothing out of the usual for the Parisian demi-monde. Nevertheless, Kee soon picked up clues that the man wasn’t right in the head. In the middle of the act, Hugo refused to sing; he would rather talk to Sylvester, and Frere seemed unable to stop him. When Hugo insulted Frere, the man shocked Kee and the nightclub audience by slapping the dummy with what looked like real anger.
When he accepted what he took to be an invitation from Frere, via Hugo, to join him in his dressing room after their act, Sylvester had a chat with the dummy while Frere was in the washroom. Hugo confided that he was interested in leaving his partner, and Kee was just the man he wanted to team up with. Sylvester assumed it was a strange joke at first, but Frere became very upset when he heard about it and accused Kee of trying to take Hugo away from him. He tried to silence Hugo by putting a hand over his mouth; when Sylvester saw that the dummy had bitten Frere’s hand hard enough to draw blood, he decided he’d had enough of this weirdness and left.
Kee next saw Frere at a London hotel where they both were staying. Frere was getting drunk at the hotel bar; Hugo, seated on the next barstool, insulted some other people in the bar and provoked a fight. Kee observed the whole incident from the other end of the bar and, after Frere got punched and landed on the floor, escorted both ventriloquist and dummy up to Frere’s room to put Frere to bed. Before he left, the drunken Frere told him that Hugo was ruining his career deliberately and repeated the accusation that Kee wanted to take Hugo from him.
Later that night, Sylvester was awakened by Frere pounding on his door. Frere said that Sylvester had taken Hugo. Sylvester protested, saying he left Hugo at the foot of Frere’s bed, but Frere went through his luggage until he found Hugo hidden under a pile of clothing, to Sylvester’s astonishment and bewilderment.
With mad laughter and cries of “dirty thief!” Frere pulled out a pistol and shot Kee.
Kee’s statement ends there. Dr. Van Straaten tells his lawyer friend that he hopes to get the rest of the story, not from Kee nor Frere… but from Hugo. He and the lawyer visit Frere in his cell and bring the dummy with them.
After an unsettled moment, Frere takes up the dummy and they begin to converse. Hugo is obnoxious as ever and tells Frere that he’s going to team up with Sylvester while Frere is in the looney bin. Maybe they’ll come and visit him. The dummy keeps pushing, until Frere grabs a pillow and smothers him. It’s very disturbing to hear the dummy’s muffled screams until Frere has “killed” him.
But that’s not the most disturbing part. At the very end, after Frere has been committed, the doctor brings Sylvester Kee to the institution where the catatonic Frere is being kept. They hope that the sight of Kee will provoke the mental shock Frere needs to start speaking again.
Which he does, in Hugo’s voice: “Hello, Sylvester. I’ve been waiting for you…”
“He’s still there,” Dr. Van Straaten concludes to the stunned group in the Foleys’ parlor, “one of the most complete examples of dual identity known to medical science.”
Foley wonders how Hugo got into Kee’s room. The doctor replies that Frere put him there, but of course they might all prefer to believe that Hugo went there on his own.
That’s when the doctor breaks his glasses, the lights go out, and Walter Craig’s nightmare begins. One story begins to bleed into another as Walter flees from one to the next — hiding in the mirror room, striking Sally at the costume party, and eventually ending up in a prison cell with Hugo.
He wakes up at home in bed with the telephone ringing. The phone call is from a Mr. Foley, who wants him to come down to Pilgrims Farm for the weekend to see about improvements to the house.
A weekend in the country, Mrs. Craig approves. It’ll be just the thing to help her husband get rid of those horrible nightmares he’s been having.
Under the end credits, the movie concludes as it began, with Walter driving up to the house to be welcomed in by Foley…