In 1956, at the very dawn of Hammer horror, a British actor passed away more or less without notice at the age of seventy.
One of the most unlikely of thirties film stars, with his round, teddy bear face and tubby physique, at a first glance he seemed most suited to kindly, paternal roles, and had indeed often played such characters in his earlier theatrical days.
But in a long career on stage and screen, Tod Slaughter had established himself as the nation's foremost villain and fiend, revelling in his status as the star audiences loved to hate: for him hisses and boos were like laughter to a comic. Without him, there may have been no Hammer horror at all.
He had been born Norman Carter Slaughter – yes, Slaughter was his real name – in 1885. He made his acting debut at the age of twenty, becoming an actor-manager in the grand tradition. In the twenties he ran his own theatres in Chatham and Elephant and Castle, where his revival of many of the old melodramas of the Victorian music halls cemented his reputation as (to quote the publicity tag appended to one of his later films) “the villain they love”.
One of those imperishable one-offs who seem simultaneously to debase and enrich the culture that begets them, he is an acting law unto himself; he stalks across the screen, leaps, cackles, leers, looms, rolls his eyes and rubs his hands together.
Sometimes he addresses his lines directly to the audience rather than characters; in one film, after some especially dastardly bit of evil plotting, he looks at us and slowly nods his head. And no actor before or since has matched the glee and panache with which he delivers lines like: “Be loyal to your trust and it will repay you handsomely, betray me and I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs!”
His films invariably follow a strict theatrical pattern. He’s usually a wicked squire or some other trusted authority figure engaged in a secret life as a master criminal (often with names like ‘The Tiger’ or ‘The Spine-Breaker’). He always kills for profit or gain, yet takes clear sadistic pleasure in the act of murder, cackling and gloating beforehand. He is also lecherous, and obsessed with the conquest of beautiful virgins.
Typically, his lust for some innocent girl leads him to frame the man she loves for one of his own crimes. His villainy is usually revealed to the audience from the outset, and he shares it with them from then on, Christmas pantomime-style, even as he attempts to deceive the other characters. About half way through the hero and heroine get the true measure of him but are not believed; he is arrested, she is put in mortal or maidenly peril, and only some last minute intervention saves the day.
Then, when confronted with the often pretty flimsy evidence of his criminality, Slaughter instantly switches from swaggering arrogance to ranting, gurgling madness and screams for mercy. (Mercy which is needless to say not extended: the audience would have rioted if it were.) .
The subjects of his melodramas were the same that preoccupied the authors of penny dreadfuls and sensational ballads; that residue of grim English folklore stretching back to the highwaymen and grave-robbers, and on to Dr Crippen and Jack the Ripper.
His debut, Maria Marten, or: The Murder in the Red Barn (1935, note the bill-board theatricality of the title) was based on a notorious murder that took place in the Suffolk village of Polstead in 1827. (Maria was a mole-catcher’s daughter made pregnant out of wedlock by a wicked local squire named William Corder. On the pretext of eloping, he arranged to meet her at a red-tiled barn on his property, where he murdered and buried her. The body was eventually discovered and Corder, who had fled to London, was hanged in public in front of Bury St Edmunds jail. Visitors to the local museum can still see a selection of gruesome relics associated with the crime, including Corder’s scalp and an account of the crime bound in his skin.)
In Britain this sort of thing was considered frightfully tasteless, pandering to the worst instincts of the lowest common denominator. Indeed, the scene in Maria Marten in which he lures poor Maria to the barn and murders her is not explicit in any modern sense, but the inordinate amount of time separating his telling her she is about to be killed and his actually doing it, accompanied by her screams and pleas, give the film a prurient quality that almost anticipates the serial killer movies of the nineties.
As well as Maria Marten, many other of his films give a melodramatic gloss to real life crimes and mysteries, including the story of Edinburgh ‘ressurectionists’ Burke and Hare (The Greed of William Hart), mysterious Victorian villain Spring Heeled Jack (The Curse of the Wraydons) and, by far his most famous role, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936).
.Slaughter played this role countless times on stage, and was still recreating it in novelty spots on tv in the fifties. The film version catches him at his very best, telling his customers how they have “a beautiful throat for the razor”, and concluding with relish “I’ll enjoy polishing you off!” before sending them plummeting through the trap door that takes them to the basement of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop…
But unlike on stage - where Tod delighted the crowds with a prop razor that spurted gore - the British censor has here insisted that the horrors be toned down to a point where it would be difficult for audiences unfamiliar with the story to be sure what is going on. The trap door under the barber's chair is operated before Todd cuts the incumbent's throat, and the ultimate destination of the corpses is never stated outright. The closest we get is an innuendo, as a sailor chomping on a hot pie wonders aloud what the killer does with the bodies.
Just as Maria Marten had begun, rather like Olivier’s Henry V, as a modern stage production which gradually becomes a film; so the narrative of Sweeney Todd is recounted in flashback by a modern day barber, whose horrified customer ends by fleeing, still lathered, into the street and bumping into a hot pie vendor. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), meanwhile, is staged as an episode of the radio show In Town Tonight, beginning with a comic song from the musical comedy duo Flotsam and Jetsam and other irrelevant items before Slaughter is brought on, his interview segueing into the narrative. (Asked about his favourite methods of murder, he replies: "I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter.")
Of course, the chief purpose of all these odd-seeming additions is to distract the censors. After all, Hawke proper begins with a scene in which Slaughter lures a small boy into the bushes and callously breaks his back - were the film to begin that way it would never have been passed.
Perhaps the cleverest of all these tricks can be seen in It's Never Too Late To Mend (1937), which opens with a rolling-caption disclaimer claiming that the book upon which it was based was directly responsible for prison reform, and was read and approved by the Dear Old Queen. As additional insurance, the film is presented in association with something called the Dawn Trust ("under the direction of the Reverend Brian Hession"), at whose instigation, one must presume, the film has been landed with a heroic priest character, who confronts Slaughter at the end Dracula-style, with only an outstretched crucifix for protection.
With this cover safely in place, Slaughter runs riot as Squire Meadows, a sadistic magistrate who gets his jollies visiting prisons and taunting and flogging the prisoners, who he calls "my children".
His film work goes through two distinct phases. At first he is Slaughter the novelty, in films that deliberately emulate the look and atmosphere of the stage plays on which they are based.
Then, from about 1937 onwards, he is Slaughter the bona fide film star, in (comparatively) cinematic vehicles crafted around his new movie fame.
He was even picking up support work in other movies around this time: a clear reflection of his new legitimacy as a film actor. He turned up as guest villain in a Sexton Blake movie, Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, in 1938, and as a sex-pest gypsy in Song of the Road (1937), a lugubrious drama about a middle-aged freelance farm labourer and his beloved horse struggling to find work after the invention of the tractor. (And they wondered why British films lacked international appeal.)
If Sweeney Todd is the defining film of his first phase, the best-remembered title among the second crop is surely The Face at the Window (1939, subtitled “a melodrama of the old school, dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy”), remembered chiefly for receiving a glowing review from Graham Greene in his days as a film critic. (He even went so far as to compare Slaughter approvingly with Charles Laughton.)
The film casts Slaughter as ‘The Wolf’, a killer in nineteenth century Paris, who stabs his victims while their attention is distracted by the horrifying face of his hulking halfwit brother pressed against their window pane. When he's not out staring through windows, Slaughter keeps him locked in a cage. .
Less famous, but even better in many ways, is the last and most impudent product of his golden era: Crimes at the Dark House (1940).
By Slaughter's standards it's a prestige production, as befits its unprecedentedly highbrow source. The film is in fact an adaptation of Wilkie Collins's classic Victorian novel The Woman in White, but don't worry: it begins with Slaughter hammering a tent-peg into a sleeping man's ear, and follows it up with him impregnating and then murdering a helpless servant girl. ("So you wanted to be a bride, my dear Jessica did you? So you shall be : a bride of death! He, he, he! Heh, heh, heh!")
The big cliffhanger: will he or won't he rape the heroine? ("Back in Australia I used to break in fractious horses - now I'm going to break in a fractious mare!") In a scene that would surely have been impossible in a Hollywood film under the Hays Code, we begin by seeing him downstairs, preparing to deflower the young bride waiting unwillingly in his bed. We cut to her, crying pitifully. He goes to join her, and a series of disembodied close-ups emphasise his intentions: his feet slowly climbing the stairs, his hands gripping the banisters, then her face again, suddenly lit as the bedroom door opens... Slaughter's joyless laugh fills the soundtrack, and the scene fades. Heh, heh, heh...
The majority of the pre-war vehicles were produced and directed by George King (1900-66), maverick producer of quota quickies and second-features, and one of those enterprising and energetic chaps in which the early British cinema abounds.
The war, however, gave him a chance to raise his game: British Aviation hired him to produce propaganda films like The First of the Few and Tomorrow We Live (both 1942). But while King scampered upmarket, his former star, in a corresponding reversal of fortune, was prohibited from producing such unwholesome films during the war years, though he was allowed to tour army camps with his Sweeney Todd stage show.
He returned to the screen for two last barnstormers when the war was over but he was sixty now, visibly older, even rounder, and time had moved on. Neither The Curse of the Wraydons (1946) nor The Greed of William Hart (1948) really compare with the pre-war films except in fleeting moments, such as the beautifully scary close-up of his leering face in Wraydons, filling the screen as he advances on the woman he is about to strangle in a leafy, sun-dappled forest.
William Hart, meanwhile, is most notable for its ingenious response to Slaughter's last ever set-to with the censors.
The British censors declared that no film could be made about the Burke and Hare murders that used the killers' actual names. The only trouble was that by the time the producers realised this, the film was already in the can. Obviously it would have been impossible to go back and reshoot every scene in which the names 'Burke', 'Hare' and 'Knox' are mentioned, but the solution they hit upon seems scarcely less difficult: to laboriously post-dub every individual use of each name.
This was plainly a labour of Hercules: hardly a scene goes by that doesn't mention at least one of them, and the sudden substitution of the new names (Moore, Hart and Cox), with tell-tale errors in intonation (rather like those piecemeal voice messages you get on railway stations and telephone answering machines), is often distractingly comic in its obviousness.
(Further evidence of this policy can be seen in the British release print of Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher, where every reference to Burke and Hare - though not to Knox - has been crudely excised, from the single word 'Burked' in Karloff's line "This is how they Burked 'em!", to the entirety of his song ["Nor did they handle axe or knife, To take away their victim's life / No sooner done than in the chest, They crammed their lately welcomed guest"]. The version of the film released on video in Britain in the late eighties by VCI is of this British cut, and I had watched it for years in ignorance of what was missing and why, until the revelation of the recent Lewton DVD box set. Note also how, though not filmed until 1985, the film of Dylan Thomas's forties screenplay The Doctor and the Devils retains substitute character names: Fallon and Broom, and Dr Rock.)
After William Hart, Slaughter returned to the boards, supplementing touring versions of Sweeney Todd and his other great roles with occasional bit-work in supporting films and tv.
He died of coronary thrombosis in 1956, after a good meal and one last performance as the wicked Squire Corder in Maria Marten, a role he had been technically too old to play in 1935, and had never stopped playing since.
Slaughter was, without doubt, the founding father of the British horror film. In the later examples his spirit is everywhere: you can imagine slipping him into, say, Baker and Berman's madly stylised Jack the Ripper (1958) and it hardly missing a beat. Can't you seem him as Dr Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958)? Or the head of the Grisbane clan in House of the Long Shadows (1983)? Or any of the ranting deviants essayed by Michael Gough in the films of Herman Cohen?
Wasn't he born to play Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)?