Cinema is a reflective (and refractive) medium in all manner of ways. Inherently linked to the majesty of projected light itself, live-action motion pictures simply cannot exist but for the rather complex act of physically capturing the visual reflections of scenes manifested in real life, and then further refracting and refining those through the technological processes of modification and editing.
However, the art of filmmaking is also replete with the "images and distorted facts" that are part and parcel of the specific creative process required to craft such works. Long before "sampling" came into the popular vernacular, filmmakers - sometimes clandestinely, sometimes openly - nicked and plundered from earlier (or contemporary) movies, adding layer upon layer of subtext to what otherwise might have emerged as a solidly one-dimensional creation.
This entrenched manner of creation and presentation is so inextricably linked to the cannibalistic nature of popular (read: mainstream) cinema that it's sometimes difficult to discern where the encomiums end and the new, original works begin.
Case in point: Genre movies, which, by their very nature, are rooted in a set of norms and filmic tropes. These tropes evolve over time, but excel when hewing closely to their origins. Such is the case with the format which has come to be known as the "horror anthology." Anyone who follows scary movies or television has likely come across numerous examples of this genre, wherein some sort of literary device or framework is used to connect (sometimes extremely loosely) a number of short tales or vignettes, all designed to scare, or at the very least, unsettle, the viewer.
Leading examples of this multi-story approach would be the 1982 Stephen King and George A. Romero collaboration "Creepshow," 1969's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man," 1965's Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee team-up "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors," 1983's "Twilight Zone: The Movie," 1975's made-for-TV "Trilogy of Terror" and the recent "V/H/S" (2012) and "V/H/S 2" (2013). Long-running TV series such as HBO's "Tales From The Crypt," and the syndicated "Tales From The Darkside" also fall into this category, for although the overarching framework connecting their disparate short films is played out over the course of one or more seasons, the presentational device remains the same.
Throughout these (and dozens more) horror anthology films and shows, there are a handful of seminal storylines which crop up again and again (usually in slightly modified or modernized forms). It's hard not to view some of these oft-repeated conceits as shopworn or cliched. But at some point, such spooky plots had to look and feel new to viewers. Most film academics agree that as far as horror anthology films go, the "shot heard 'round the world" was 1945's "Dead of Night," a pioneering British fright flick considered to be the first (and perhaps finest) horror anthology ever made.
Released by the overlooked Ealing Studios (whose notoriety pales in comparison to an outfit like the iconic Hammer Films) and starring a veritable who's who of U.K. stage and screen stars of the time (including the great Sir Michael Redgrave, father of both Vanessa and Lynn), "Dead of Night" is one of those truly important and influential films that has regrettably fallen through the cracks. It's rarely seen or even mentioned in the U.S., despite being the jumping off point for virtually every horror anthology made since.
In fact, when viewed today, it's easy to feel like you've seen the film before, as many of the key plot points of its four interwoven stories have been so mercilessly ripped off by later screenwriters and directors that viewers may find it beneficial to remind themselves when watching this particular film that they are actually witnessing the very first celluloid appearance of such tales. Somewhat tame by today's standards of what constitutes a "horror film," it remains an incredibly creepy and eerie viewing experience - two key aspects of horror that have been rather lost in today's onslaught of jump-scares and graphic gore.
The framing story concerns an architect who travels to the country for the weekend, only to come upon a group of strangers he swears he has met before, and whom he regularly sees in a recurring dream. While discussing this phenomena with the men, each offers a personal tale of a brush with the supernatural. It's inventive and highly unpredictable (at least it was in 1945), so if tracing the roots of artistic conventions is your bag, this rare public screening of "Dead of Night" in its original, uncut form is a chance to imagine what it must have felt like to see and experience something truly fresh and innovative almost 70 years ago.
The film will screen Dec. 4 at The Sentient Bean on Forsyth Park. Showtime is 8 p.m. and admission is $6.
It's also not too late to make plans to attend The Lucas Theatre's screening of director David Lean's legendary, Oscar-winning Russian epic "Doctor Zhivago" at 7 p.m. Dec. 6. Tickets are $8 and are on sale now online and at the Savannah Box Office.
This historical romance set against the backdrop of war is tailor-made for the Lucas' giant screen and state-of-the-art projection system, and should draw a massive crowd. We'll have more details on that film next week.
See you at the movies, and don't forget to turn off that cellphone.
Jim Reed directs the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah. Read more at www.filmsavannah.com.