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Dead of Night (BBC, 1972) DVD

Rodney Bennett, Don Taylor, Robert Holmes, 1972

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Film Details

Directed by Rodney Bennett, Don Taylor, Robert Holmes

Produced in 1972

Main Language - English

Countries & Regions - British Film

MovieMail's Review

The three surviving episodes from BBC's 1972 horror anthology, including The Exorcism. It refuses to dumb down for its audience or play up to obvious genre conventions, writes Julian Upton.

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.

Julian Upton on 26th September 2013
Author of 171 reviews

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Film Description

After years of unavailability, the three surviving episodes from the legendary BBC horror anthology series, Dead of Night, finally come to DVD. Originally screened on BBC2 in 1972, and rarely seen since, Dead of Night have been highly sought by fans of the BBC and British Horror for decades.

In The Exorcism – perhaps the most terrifying of the episodes – four wealthy, middle-class friends (Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Anna Cropper and Sylvia Kay) gather for a Christmas dinner in a country cottage only to find that the past will not rest while they feast.

In Return Flight, the professionalism of an experienced and respected airline pilot (Peter Barkworth) is placed under scrutiny when he encounters the ghostly apparition of a WWII Lancaster bomber.

In A Woman Sobbing, a middle-class wife (Anna Massey – Peeping Tom) becomes increasingly paranoid when her nights are interrupted by the terrifying and unexplained sound of a female crying in one the rooms in her new house.

DVD Details

Certificate: 12

Publisher: BFI

Length: 150 mins

Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Format: DVD Colour

Region: 2

Released: 28th October 2013

Cat No: BFIVD996

DVD Extras

  • Gallery of stills from missing episodes
  • Downloadable scripts from missing episodes
  • Fully illustrated booklet with essays by Lisa Kerrigan, Oliver Wake, Derek Johnston and Alex Davidson.

Film Stills

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Community Reviews

by Barry Forshaw on 19th November 2013

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... Read on

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