Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 150 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 28 October 2013
Cat No: BFIVD996
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Dead of Night (BBC, 1972)
Three episodes from the BBC’s horror anthology series from the 1970s. In ’The Exorcism’ the past comes back to haunt four well-off... Read More
Long unseen, just three episodes of the BBC's 1972 anthology series survive for this much anticipated DVD release; fortunately, all are representative of Dead of Night’s uniquely subversive and intelligent take on the horror genre.
Return Flight is a character study of a widowed pilot, Captain Rolph (Peter Barkworth), long embittered by a feeling of inferiority to his senior, WWII veteran colleagues. Things get worse for him when his bête-noir fuels hallucinations, while on duty, of doomed wartime missions. The series at perhaps its most subtle, Return Flight involves you quietly in its human drama before unveiling its eeriness.
A Woman Sobbing, by Robin Redbreast author John Bowen, pits another of Bowen’s strong but flawed female characters at the centre of a creepy scenario. Jane (Anna Massey), isolated, unhappy and insecure in her marriage to Frank (Ronald Hines), is disturbed at nights by the sound of a woman crying. The noise seems to be coming from the attic; but, it seems, only Jane can hear it. While
suitably unnerving, A Woman Sobbing has something more serious to say about gender roles and mental fragility; it works both as a tale of the supernatural and as a feminist psychodrama.
But the most talked about episode is Don Taylor’s The Exorcism, for many years regarded as one of the scariest hours in British television history. While it still ticks those horror boxes, what appeals about The Exorcism now is its darkly satirical quality. It begins as something like a bourgeois chamber piece, with a group of agreeable middle-class types enjoying the delights of a restored old cottage and tucking into a plentiful Christmas feast while debating socialist values and engaging in bouts of cod psychology.
But, after suffering minor (but portentous) distractions such as the hostess (Anna Cropper) feeling compelled to play a piece of music at the piano that she’s never heard before and a comprehensive power outtage that cuts off even the phone, the evening takes a darker turn when the host becomes convinced the Burgundy he is drinking is in fact blood and everyone is painfully if temporarily poisoned by the turkey.
From this point, more explicit horrors rain down on the party, culminating (in an acting tour-de-force from Cropper) in the hostess becoming possessed by the spirit of the cottage’s former occupier, a peasant woman who died of starvation two centuries before.
Rightly celebrated as the series’ high point, The Exorcism hammers home its socio-political points effectively. Its blackly comic bent echoes Luis Bunuel’s masterful, surreal satire The Exterminating Angel, while prefiguring that (admittedly more farcical) episode of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where Death turns up to lay down the law at a tediously upbeat middle-class dinner party.
And the idea of champagne socialists getting what they ‘deserve’ certainly seems to have been an enduring one; although it quickly disappeared from television, The Exorcism lived on as a stage play that continued touring well into the eighties. (Star Mary Ure famously died the morning after its opening night in 1975; a tragedy indeed, but one that boosted the play’s already dark PR.)
Overall, Dead of Night is a valuable reminder that social commentary too extreme or too strident (but no less relevant or astute) for conventional contemporary drama can be well served by the supernatural play. At least this was the case back in the seventies’ Golden Age of television horror, which refused to dumb down for its audience or play up to its more obvious genre conventions.
For those of us (such as this writer – at a young age) who saw ‘The Exorcism’ (the most celebrated episode of the TV series Dead of Night) on its first TV showing, its impact has remained powerful over the years - and it's good to report that this welcome chance to see it once again shows that time has been kind to it - it is as ambitious and effective as ever, despite an over-long monologue explaining the source of the supernatural menace. After years of unavailability, the three surviving episodes from the series come to DVD. First screened on BBC2 in 1972, Dead of Night offered a series of highly personal takes on psychological disturbances, often related to contemporary social anxieties. Rarely seen since its original broadcast, the Dead of Night series has been highly sought by fans of classic TV and British horror for decades. With The Exorcism, four wealthy, middle-class friends (played by Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Anna Cropper and Sylvia Kay) gather for Christmas dinner in a country cottage, only to find that the past will not rest while they feast.