Monday, January 05, 2009


In the 20's and 30's, Tod Slaughter was well known in England as a hammy star of stage and screen melodramas, most associated with the role of the killer barber Sweeney Todd (long before the Sondheim musical). As far as I can tell, the B-movie thrillers he made through the 30's and 40's didn't take off here in the States, but with the availability of the public-domain films on cheap DVDs, he has something of a cult following these days, and I was pleased to catch up with him over the holidays. The movies are stilted and low-budget but fun if you're not expecting too much. My problem with Slaughter (pictured below) is that he looks too much like Paul Ford, the jolly actor who played Mayor Shinn in THE MUSIC MAN, so it's difficult to take him seriously as a villian at first.

MARIA MARTEN, OR MURDER IN THE RED BARN, Slaughter's first film, is based on a play which was part of his regular repertory. He plays Corder, a well-liked village squire who throws dances for all the townsfolk, even the outcast gypsies, in his big red barn. He dances and flirts with lovely young Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart) but she is loved by Carlos, a hot-blooded gypsy boy (Eric Portman). An old gypsy fortune teller sees a hangman's noose in Slaughter's future, which rather puts a damper on the proceedings, but a few nights later, Maria sneaks away to be with Corder—it's unclear what the attraction is, as she looks sweet, virginal, and about 20 years old, while he looks a bit plumb and every bit his 50 years—but their rendezvous that night results in her pregnancy. By the time she tells Corder, he's on the verge of marrying a rich woman in order to pay off some gambling debts. When she threatens to expose him, he lures her to the barn and kills her (great line, delivered with blood and thunder by Slaughter: "You shall be a bride--a bride of DEATH!") and buries her there. Carlos helps the police figure out what's what, and Slaughter gets a good gone-round-the-bend climax. Gerard Tyrell is memorable as the comic relief village idiot who keeps getting cheated out of loose change by Slaughter.

THE FACE AT THE WINDOW is set in 1880 France, where the police are stymied by a series of murders and robberies supposedly committed by a wolfman, whose horrible face appears at the window just before the murder occurs (a good special effect for the day). When a bank is robbed by the monster, the rich Chevalier (Slaughter) agrees to make a large deposit to help save the bank, but in return he asks the bank manager for his daughter's hand in marriage. However, the young lady is in love with a lowly bank clerk (John Warwick), so Slaughter incriminates Warwick in the robbery. Meanwhile, Warwick knows a doctor who is experimenting with re-animating dead beings; this plot thread comes into play in the main narrative when Warwick proposes bringing back a recently dead victim of the "wolfman" so they can identify the killer and clear his name. It's no spoiler to note that Slaughter is behind the "wolfman" racket, though the secret of the face at the window and the way in which Slaughter is unmasked are both worth sticking around for. Neither of these are exactly horror movies; they're more Gothic-tinged crime thrillers, but they're fun discoveries, especially the first one, and I may delve further into Slaughter's work in the future. [DVD]

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