Horror’s Forgotten Man


Slaughter as the notorious Sweeney Todd.

For today’s generation it’s Jigsaw from the Saw movies; for another it’s Freddy Krueger. Many film buffs still dote on Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing from the Hammer Films of England. For me, the kings of horror are still Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Nearly forgotten in this realm, except by the staunchest of film buffs, is Tod Slaughter, larger-than-life star of barnstorming British melodramas and frightfests. Born in 1885, he was a ham of the old school who toured the length and breadth of England, beginning in 1905 and continuing right up to the time of his death in 1956. He was the star of his own touring troupe, playing the villain in Victorian plays and stories of the macabre. A handful of his film vehicles of the 1930s survive, including the first screen version of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which gives you an idea of his wide-eyed, lip-smacking approach to performance. You can practically hear the audience hissing out loud.

Now, thanks to the British Pathé newsreel library online, you can meet Tod Slaughter “as himself” in—

—an amusing screen interview:

Slaughter is great fun to watch, in films like The Face at the Window and Crimes at the Dark House (in which he utters the immortal line, “I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs!”). They’re around, if not always in the best prints, on DVD, and worth a look. I was introduced to Tod Slaughter by my mentor and hero William K. Everson many years ago when he screened Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn, which I remember liking a lot. The story was inspired by a notorious murder case and trial of 1828. As Bill explained in his program notes, the film “is played much straighter than any of his other movies, due partly to the utilization of actor-director Milton Rosmer, who was a better craftsman (and took his theater more seriously) than George King, who normally directed the Slaughters. Not that Maria Marten is intended to be taken entirely seriously—it doesn’t go after laughs nor is it ever deliberate burlesque. It’s a wholehearted Victorian theatrical melodrama certainly—and starting the film off by presenting it as a play within the film emphasizes this—but it merely tries to duplicate old-time theatricality, rather than exaggerating it for laughs. In this sense, it more resembles Tod’s stage work in England, where plays like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Chinese Bungalow were played with all the stops out, and where laughter was tolerated and even expected, but never really courted. The sheer bravura performances and marvellous lines automatically produce for Maria Marten—even seen alone one can’t help but revel in its evil and the sadly unremitting course of justice following crime—but it is NOT a lampoon, and it is quite surprising how much of it still seems to work within its elaborate framework.”

Re-reading these notes after forty (!) years makes me want to travel back to Bill Everson’s Theodore Huff Film Society and relive the experience of discovering so many rare films and unsung actors and directors. The paragraph above also gives you some idea of Bill’s great knowledge and purposely perverse sense of humor. No wonder he appreciated Tod Slaughter so much!

Other Halloween odds and ends: Universal has re-reissued Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for its 50th anniversary on BluRay for the first time, in a new high-definition transfer with Dolby 5.1 sound (and, thankfully, the original mono track as well). There are many bonus features, including behind-the-scenes looks at the remastering and remixing process.

Speaking of Norman Bates, if you’ve never read Stephen Rebello’s landmark book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, it’s now available as an e-book from Open Road Media. You can learn more here:

The “man who would be Hitchcock,” schlockmeister and showman William Castle, is celebrated in Jeffrey Schwarz’s highly entertaining documentary Spine Tingler!, which is making its television debut on Halloween, Sunday night at 8pm on the Documentary Channel. As someone who discovered Castle movies as a boy, I’ve always had a soft spot for him, and I’m one of the interviewees in the doc.

Finally, Kerry Gammill and Monsterverse Entertainment are releasing a much-awaited 48-page comic book next week called Bela Lugosi’s Tales From The Grave. This sounds like fun just on the face of it, and you can preview the debut issue of the new series in this YouTube video:

Happy Halloween, everybody.

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July 2024