However, it is Tommy, the protagonist, that kills any potential engagement. Does Tommy enjoy working the ranch his parents (presumably) left to him, or does he tolerate it for their sake? Does he like June’s better half and just hates that she’s moving so far away, or does he not like that person specifically? The writer has no idea, or if he does, he fails to put it into the script. This leaves Tommy without a discernible personality.
Well, that is not entirely true as he is a moron; not the best sole characteristic to have, granted. Knowing full well that he is a person of interest in the murders, what does Tommy do? He goes for a walk by himself and investigates his neighbor’s house after hearing a ruckus, only to discover a dead body, getting his DNA all over the place. How dumb can one person be?
Now, let’s be clear, none of this is the actor’s fault, Jake Etheridge, who is appropriately stoic and mad, given the situation. In fact, the entire cast deserves better written, more engaging roles, as everyone is trying their darnedest. Henriksen is only in a few scenes, but he genuinely is excellent, reaching depths the film only dreams of achieving. However, it is Matthew Lawrence who steals the entire production in every scene he’s in.
“…it is Matthew Lawerence who steals the entire production…”
Lawrence brings an anger to the role that is evident in even the smallest gestures. The way he holds himself, the manner he leans in to talk to Tommy about the murders is both unsettling and captivating. If one is only familiar with him from the sitcoms that made him famous, it might be a bit jarring to see Lawrence in such a role. However, he nails every line, though his character is just as one-dimensional as everyone else’s.
The Dead of Night does have two more elements working in its favor. As a writer, the wisest move Dean makes is keeping the killers as unnamed entities. They communicate only in growls and grunts as if feral, and their motivations and backstory are never brought up. This serves to make them far creepier than any drawn-out monologue ever could. The other thing that makes Dean’s first film watchable is his directorial style. While the viewer will never care about whether June or Tommy live or die, the scenes depicting the grisly murders and shocking violence are filled with tension. He sustains an atmosphere of dread and intensity the whole time, even as characters come and go, barely leaving an impression.
The screenplay for The Dead of Night is dead on arrival with its poor characterizations and by-the-numbers plotting. This makes a lot of the film rather dull and frustrating, as everyone is an idiot. However, the cast, lead by a remarkable turn from Matthew Lawrence, does what they can, and the style is truly impeccable. While the film cannot be recommended as a whole, some elements work, which might be enough for undemanding audiences. Here’s hoping Robert Dean gets a better script for his next project.
"…the killers...communicate only in growls and grunts as if feral, and their motivations and backstory are never brought up."