Two Ealing Ghost Stories
"Just Room For One Inside Sir..."
There were no real horror films made in the UK during
the Second World War, this was in compliance with government's censorship, but there were borderline fantasies,
that included The Halfway House, that found moderate success. However, Ealing
Studios were already working on Dead of Night (1945) when peace was announced in that same year. This film is a serious study
of the supernatural and it captures all the nuances that go to make up the classic British ghost
story with an omnibus of five tales linked by the nightmare of Walter Craig.
Architect Walter Craig, (Mervyn Johns), visits an isolated farmhouse that
he has been asked to redesign, but when he arrives at Pilgrim Farm, he is surprised to find that the guests he is introduced
to are all the subjects in his reoccurring dream. Although he only has faint memories of his nightmare, events seem to be
unfolding in a very familiar way. Intrigued, the visitors relate their own tales of the supernatural.
Hugh, (Anthony Baird),
tells of a vision he suffered after a near fatal race car accident while he was in hospital of a hearse driver, (Miles Malleson),
complete with a horse drawn hearse who announces that there is "just room for one inside". Later when he is about to board
on a bus, the conductor, (Miles Malleson), utters the same phrase. The man decides to miss the bus and watches in horror as
it drives away, narrowly misses a lorry and plummets off the road.
Young Sally O'Hara, (Sally Ann Howes), at the cottage
relates that while at a party when playing hide'n'seek, she wandered into a small forgotten room at the large house and found
a little boy crying in the darkness. She spends some time with him, but when she returns downstairs to the party and explains
where she was hiding, she is informed that the child she met was the ghost of Francis Kent who was murdered by his sister
some years ago.
By now Walter Craig is becoming increasingly agitated as he confirms that the events are unfolding just
as he predicted and announces that he will soon try to murder Dr. Van Straaten, (Frederick Valk), who has been sceptical of
Craig's claims since he arrived. Joan, (Googie Withers), explains how her husband, Peter, (Ralph Michael),
became possessed by the spirit in an antique mirror that she bought for him as a birthday present. Slowly Peter becomes a
jealous, homicidal maniac as he observes a much older, Victorian room in the mirror. Concerned Joan learns of the mirror's
history from the antique dealer, (Esme Percy), where she purchased it, but when she returns to Peter's flat he tries to strangle
her. In a moment of inspiration, she smashes the mirror and ends the spell.
In the weaker of the stories two golfing partners,
George and Larry, (Basil Radford & Naunton Wayne), play a round of golf for the love of Mary, (Peggy Bryan). Larry loses
and drowns himself, but returns to haunt his partner when he discovers that he had cheated.
Increasingly sceptical of Walter
Craig's claim that they are all living out his dream, Doctor Van Straaten, a psychologist, relates a past case history that
he was unable to solve. His patient was Maxwell Frere, (Michael Redgrave), a ventriloquist who was slowly becoming the nasty
alter ego presented by his ventriloquist's dummy, Hugo. When Maxwell mistakenly believes that fellow ventriloquist Sylvester
Kee, (Hartley Power), is trying to steal his dummy, he shoots him and is arrested. In prison Hugo completely takes over his
Walter Craig enters a nightmarish world of images from each of the stories and then suddenly awakes when he
receives a phone call to visit a farmhouse.
Already unnerved after the experiences of World War II, audiences and critics
alike made the film a success, except in America where it was released without the "The Golfing Story" and "The Christmas
Story". The absence of the former, the weakest of the quintet, no doubt created a better paced film, but without the latter
it lacked the necessary humour and charm that aided the growing sense of menace within the film as a whole. Not only did American
audiences see this at 77 minutes, but many cinema projectionists further weakened the film's impact by turning up the house
lights and drawing the curtains just as soon as the credits appeared. Of course the last scene is played out as the credits
roll when the full circle of the narrative is completed.
Unlike most modern horror compendium tales, the framing story
involving Walter Craig is embedded into the narrative and is not just a device to link the tales.
Also deserving of praise
is George Auric's score that is as equally restrained as the narrative and never intrudes where it isn't needed. Indeed, the
moments of silence are scored with as much forethought and intensity as the music itself.
The two strongest episodes are "The Haunted Mirror" and "Ventriloquist's
Dummy", both of which take the implied horror elements one more notch up the scale before reaching the horrendous climax.
The former is a cleverly executed ghost story that creates just the air of mystery needed. The audience never experiences
anything beyond the strange room in the mirror, but the other worldly presence is felt through the eyes and mannerisms of
Ralph Michael's superb performance. When we are finally told of the mirror's past by the antique dealer, it comes as no surprise,
but his chilling account is nevertheless a memorable moment.
Michael Redgrave's virtuoso performance as the neurotic ventriloquist
is also extremely memorable, but this is a story of madness as ventriloquist Maxwell Frere slowly, but surely becomes completely
insane when he adopts the personality of his dummy Hugo with whom he is completely at odds with. (John Maguire portrays the
ventriloquist's dummy when it comes to life. He was 25 and only 4 foot high). Although this episode is frequently praised,
and has been copied several times since including MAGIC (1979) starring Anthony Hopkins, this elaborate episode fails to invoke
quite the same foreboding as "The Haunted Mirror". The reason lies in the fact that Redgrave's character is already highly
strung and neurotic from the start, so his complete insanity is not entirely unexpected.
Overall Dead of Night works well due to the juxtpositioning of humour and
terror, elements of which can be found in each of the stories, even though different directors were responsible for their
own episode. This suggests a strong guiding hand by producer Michael Balcon who helped bring this experimental idea into full
A Film That Is Both Charming and
The Halfway House (1944) opens in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales where David Davies, (Esmond Knight), a renowned musician,
is being scolded by his doctor, (John Boxer), for working too hard and his subsequent ill-health that will soon lead to death
if he is not careful. The doctor convinces David to take a break.
Young Joanna French, (Sally Ann Howes), waits at a solicitor's
office where her parents are attempting to reconcile custody matters in light of their impending divorce. Mr. French, (Richard
Bird), agrees to take their daughter with him for a short holiday while his wife, Jill, (Valerie White), plans to get away
for a while. Joanna conspires for both her parents to end up at the same place.
William Oakly,a black marketeer, (Alfred
Drayton), organises a fishing trip for himself after making a deal to distribute a shipment of illegal tea and stockings.
Captain Fortescue, (Guy Middleton), is released from prison after being convicted for stealing a shipment of regimental
Captain Meadows, (Tom Walls), and his wife Alice, (Francoise Rosay), are grieving over the loss of their son. He
decides to become a farmer despite his love for the sea and she turns to spiritualism to the exclusion of her husband in the
hope of contacting her son in the afterlife. Irishman Terence, (Pat McGrath), proud of his nation's neutrality travels with
his girlfriend Margaret, (Philippa Hiatt), on a train bound for Carmarthen where they indulge in their fellow passengers'
Welsh Cakes and a rousing chorus of Sosban Fach.
All the characters find themselves in the tranquil setting of the Halfway
House at Cwm Bach in Carmarthenshire, but what they don't know is that a year previously the inn was bombed by a German plane
and the landlord Rhys, (Mervyn Johns), and his daughter Gwyneth, (Glynis Johns), were killed in the blast.
The inn appears as it was to the guests, but slowly they realise the truth of their surroundings when they
notice that all the newspapers are a year old, the radio plays year old news and the landlord and his daughter cast no shadow.
The time slip and the guiding words of the ghostly owners affords each in turn a chance to redeem themselves and mend their
ways as they await the ghostly bombing of the inn to reoccur. They leave the ruins of the inn with a better understanding
of their lives and their faith.
This extremely enjoyable film does tend to end rather too neatly, but the cast and crew excel themselves
by maintaining an other worldly atmosphere. Basil Dearden, (1911-1971), began his career as an editor before becoming a co-director
on the later Will Hay comedies for Ealing. He later co-directed on Dead of Night
(1945), Ealing's second and highly successful supernatural release.
Welsh actor Mervyn Johns appears for the first
time with his real life daughter Glynis. Born in Pembroke on February 18th., 1899, Mervyn attended Llandovery College before
abandoning his dentistry studies in 1923 for the lure of the stage and married Alys Steele, an Australian pianist that same
year. Glynis was born in Durban, South Africa on October 5th. 1923 and took to the London stage in 1935. In 1948 Glynis found
fame in Miranda, as a mermaid who enchants Griffith Jones and by 1954 she was voted one of the top money making British
stars by the Motion Picture Herald-Fame Poll.
Also in the cast is Francoise Rosay in her first British film after fleeing France when the Nazis invaded.
This fiercely patriotic, but internationally renowned star married French director Jacques Keyder and followed him to Hollywood
where she made twelve films. In Britain she enchanted audiences with her one woman show at the Haymarket as well as her several
The Halfway House is both charming and chilly, perfectly capturing the many facets
of society during wartime while weaving a satisfying supernatural yarn that was strongly supported by The Church of England
for its spiritual message.
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