January 2, 2017

Tod Slaughter: Barnstorming Butcher of Melodramatic Menace

Several years ago, a young ‘expert’ (or so he seemed intent on telling everyone) on the British Horror genre, who shall remain nameless, held a lecture at an also-unnamed UK film festival, at which his opening gambit consisted rather bravely and foolishly of the assertion that British Horror had begun in 1956 with Hammer’s The Curse Of Frankenstein. The fact that he had overlooked the same company’s groundbreaking The Quatermass X-periment a year earlier, and had similarly glossed over the previous decade’s seminal Dead Of Night and The Queen Of Spades, was bad enough, but several informed personages, at least one of my own acquaintance, also gave the same resounding cry – “What about Tod Slaughter?”

I should point out that this is all second-hand information to me, as I was not actually at the aforementioned festival myself – but it comes as no surprise to hear of this occurrence, because, put simply, Tod Slaughter was the- accept no substitute, no, not even you, Marius Goring – undisputed master of horror, suspense and melodrama of the black and white age. At least in the UK, that is. Obviously the mighty Karloff remains the unchallenged king of the genre worldwide, but he, like fellow Sarf Landan boy Claude Rains, had long forsaken his homeland for the Hollywood sound stage and would remain there for nearly another three decades before the British arm of AIP flew him home to shoot the likes of Die, Monster, Die!! and Curse Of The Crimson Altar.

But for those who prioritised viewing home-grown productions (not that resentment had set in by that point of course), ‘the Slod’ as he was never known at the time, was, put simply, ‘the man’. A barrel-chested, often moustachioed, cackling, scenery-chewing (sometimes literally), cane-wielding hulk of an individual, who despite his own limited thespian abilities was often the only one in his films who could actually act, Slaughter was the kind of performer for whom the expression ‘once seen never forgotten’ was invented. Not so much a bad actor as a great over-actor, he will never be remembered as an all-time cinematic great, because, put up against the likes of Donat, Niven or Olivier, or indeed the aforementioned Karloff, he obviously wasn’t. Not only that, but he occupies a strange place in the chronology of British cinema, as he didn’t appear on the big screen until 1935, by which time he was almost 50 years old, meaning that he missed by eight years the silent era which would have seen him rival Novello for popularity, but was far too old to be a matinee idol like many of those who are regarded- often inaccurately- with hindsight as his contemporaries.

What Slaughter will be remembered for is the gusto, bravado, relish and sheer entertainment factor he put into every film he appeared in- even if the majority of them were cheaply produced rubbish by anyone else’s standards. Although, to be totally fair, part of this is due to his association with directors such as Milton Rosmer and George King, neither of who would ever rival a Hitchcock or even a Thorold Dickinson for creative talent. What these men – the Poverty Row exploitation filmmakers of their day – were good at was harnessing Slaughter’s presence, and making the most exciting fare quickly and cheaply out of the limited materials available. As a result, many of the films they directed and/or produced for Tod have the impression of being nothing more than filmed plays- and indeed, the opening scene of his first entry into the canon, Maria Marten Or The Murder In The Red Barn, takes place as if it were onstage, with an MC introducing the characters to the audience – which has led to the oft-quoted comment that had the Victorians had cameras and been able to transfer their melodramas to celluloid, this is what they would have looked like. For this reason if no other, Tod Slaughter is important – he provides a link between the stage and the screen, the 19th and the 20th century, and the fact that he died in February 1956, just as Terence Fisher was beginning to arrange casting and finance for what would become the aforementioned Curse Of Frankenstein, symbolises the end of one great era of English Gothic and the start of another. In short, Tod is a name that should be known and a tale that should be told.

Not that it was his real name of course. Well, not the Tod part anyway. The great man was actually born Norman Carter Slaughter on the 19th March 1885, to working class parents in Newcastle Upon Tyne, where surnames derived from the profession of one’s family were still commonplace. But whilst the blood and viscera of the abattoir and the knackers’ yard obviously fascinated him, the workaday world was obviously not for young Norman and very soon he was off to be that most dreaded of things – a ‘theatrical’. By the time he was 15, he was treading the boards of Northern England’s fleapits to an ecstatic audience reared on penny dreadfuls and pulp comics. By the time he was 20 he had formed his own theatrical company and was paying other people (although probably not too generously) to do it with him. Always the baddie, never the good guy, stalking both stage and stalls often armed with buckets of blood, liver and entrails and delighting in terrorising audiences who were not always aware of what was coming to them (not that it would have deterred those who did), the newly rechristened “Tod” Slaughter was every respectable theatregoer’s worst nightmare and every schlock-lover’s wet dream in glorious, flesh-crawling 3D. And don’t forget, this was real life theatre, not cinema, so it would have been in colour.

Shamelessly plundering all the classic terror tales of the preceding fifty years- Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Spring Heeled Jack, Burke and Hare. and of course his almost-namesake Sweeney Todd, and delivering them to packed houses with all the subtlety of a giant luminous steamroller – even during his service in World War I, which must have seemed at the time the ideal channel for his mixture of gung ho and gore – it was inevitable that at some point someone would come up with the idea of transferring the giant loon to the movies and seeing what would happen. And so it was that in 1935 he strode in front of the cameras for the first time to make Maria Marten a slice of celluloid history.

Anyone familiar with melodrama will know the story by now, as it’s been filmed umpteen times (several preceding this one, even) and has formed the basis for a squillion others. Squire Corder (Slaughter) fancies Maria, Maria fancies gypsy (Eric Portman, appearing for what would not be the only time alongside the great fiend), her father (DJ Williams, again setting a precedent) doesn’t approve. Being a bit daft, as women were often depicted back then, she accepts wicked Squire’s invitation round for drinkies, whereupon he rapes her (I believe the word used is in fact ‘bewitched’), swears he will marry her, and then promptly buggers off to marry someone else whose inheritance can cover his gambling debts, leaving her with child. Maria gets annoyed, threatens to expose Squire, he tells her to wait for him in the Red Barn where they will be married, promptly murders her and buries her underneath, blames the gypsy and sends for the law, whereupon his own dog spots a disturbance in the earth. Ordered to dig, the squire has no choice but to confess his crimes whilst going a little mad and threatening to kill everyone whilst cackling insanely, is promptly taken to prison to await execution and is hanged by-guess who? – Carlos the gypsy himself, who swore vengeance at the start of the film when the squire ordered his entire family off his land after the fortune-telling which prophesied his fate. And that’s it really.

Those who wish to enter into conjecture about such things may surmise that here, Tod is playing it down for the cameras – that may be the case, particularly as the censorship of the time would have prevented him from covering people in blood, guts and offal, but in terms of his actual delivery he sets here the tone for practically 95 percent of his forthcoming career. Grinning, leering, harrumphing, and shouting lots of oaths such as “Well? Well?!!” “Curse you all!!” “The devil fly away with you” (actually, I don’t know if he does actually say that on this occasion, but it’s as close as dammit) and most famously “I promised you will be a bride, and so you shall be- a bride of DEATH!!!!”- a line he would use again in Crimes At The Dark House- watching him is like taking lessons in advanced hamming from some kind of theatrical Second Dan. It packed ‘em in at the flicks, and so a year later he was back, only this time under the aegis of the slightly more respected George King, to tackle the inevitable Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, which went on general release in 1936. More of the same abounds here- except this time Tod terrorises children and old bearded men rather than simple village girls, and the movie begins and ends with a humorous little skit set in the present day. Within the same year, we were well and truly on the road to Terrorsville with The Crimes Of Stephen Hawke, also directed by King, which was actually quite graphic for its day (more in terms of what it describes, as you never actually see anything) and cast The Slod in what would become another regular staple of his metier – the double role. By day a respected moneylender with a doting daughter, by night “The Spine Breaker”, he was on top form in this one, and managed to outrage a few censors too. The opening scene, where a young child’s spine is broken (off camera, of course) whilst being shown a ‘paradoxical tarddidlum’, has often been described as one of the most ghoulish in the Slod’s oeuvre, although many would freely admit that the child was such an irritating brat he probably had it coming to him sooner or later. For trivia spotters, it should always be pointed out that yes, this IS the film which features a present-day beginning in which our man recounts the previous years’ terrors (featuring the timeless double entendre “I murdered poor Maria by shooting her in the Red Barn”) and the antics of a popular satirical music duo of the time, Flotsam and Jetsam- who, of course, bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to the Thrash Metal band of the same name from the 1980s, famous for losing bassist Jason Newsted to Metallica.

The ensuing year would see two non-horror entries into his diary, Song of the Road and Darby and Joan (both 1937) but from what I gather, his characterization didn’t stray too far from his usual performances. His next foray into the macabre was It’s Never Too Late To Mend the same year, unusually directed by one David McDonald, but using once again screenwriter HF Maltby and much of the by now regular supporting cast, such as DJ Williams as the elderly farmer and Marjorie Taylor as the object of the fiend’s unwanted affections: the fiend of course being you-know-who as what else but a wicked village squire, but this time using his role as the local JP to imprison and torture people rather than actually killing them. Tod’s performance here is somewhat restrained by his earlier standards, possibly due to the film’s funding by a Christian society who obviously wanted it to be a realistic depiction of the judicial system’s ills – although he is still allowed to go bonkers during the final reel and threaten to turn a gun on everyone whilst cackling insanely up to the point of his own arrest. The film is unusual for its time in that it actually appears to have been written with a serious point other than entertainment in mind, and could be seen possibly as the UK’s first social message movie, not to mention that as a horror film it belongs to that select group of rarities in which death plays only a minor part in the proceedings. It also predates Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) in which Karloff would handle a similar role with considerably more subtlety, by the best part of a decade, and therefore shows that British cinema in the 1930s had just as much chance of influencing things Stateside as the other way round.

This sojourn into social comment completed, Tod returned to working with the director with whom he felt most at home – George King- and by the end of the year they had dispatched The Ticket of Leave Man, which again takes prison and crime as its basis, but is actually less of a horror movie and more of a straight drama. From this point, Slaughter and King were on a roll – Sexton Blake and The Hooded Terror (1938) which pits him as the aforementioned Terror against George Curzon’s boyhood detective hero, is a cracking adventurous romp (although sadly the only Blake film in which our man gets to appear) and even manages to drag the lovely Greta Gynt into the proceedings, whilst The Face at the Window (1939) is by far and away the apex of everything they ever achieved together, as good a horror movie as any in any decade and actually for once even quite scary!! The only way to follow this tour de force would be to return to more plundering of literary classics, and true to form Crimes at The Dark House (1940) an extremely unsubtle and bludgeoning adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White, is a gem, with The Slod (playing who else but ‘The False Percival Glyde’) firing on all cylinders (“I’ll feed yer entrails to the pigs!!”) for what would possibly be the last time.

The outbreak of World War II saw a five year hiatus in which films depicting horror, terror and deprivation were, if not banned, at least actively discouraged so as not to lower morale, and thus saw our (anti)hero receive very little work: by the time he returned to our screens in the much longer The Curse Of The Wraydons (1946) an extension of the Spring Heeled Jack myth, things were not quite the same and would never be again. Whilst still as hissable, booable and heh-heh-hehable as ever, the years (not to mention the beers) had taken their toll on Slaughter – by now aged 61 – and for the first time in his career he looked tired, although labouring as he was under the slow and torturous direction of the inept Victor M Gover, a man with not even half of King’s flair (which is saying something when you think about it) one fails to see how even a great actor could have failed to be slightly lethargic. Furthermore, it is quite humorous to imagine that this by now drastically overweight man, who, let’s face it, was never a lithe young thing even in his heyday, has the magic power to jump over buildings – he looks like he has enough difficulty negotiating staircases. One can only surmise what his personal life entailed, as in this day and age it is impossible to find anyone, with the exception maybe of Aubrey Woods, still alive who worked with him – but as one would expect from someone with such cult of personality, tales of debauch, decadence, opium, alcohol and a squillion illegitimate children from Crewe to Carshalton abound. All supposition aside it’s fair to say that Slaughter indulged in most of the pleasures of the lifestyle of a star of film and theatre (don’t forget, he was still active on the boards even throughout his movie career) and, like anyone in his sixties, was probably feeling the side-effects by now.

What we must also take into account is that things were changing by this time- the world had just seen a bloody and horrible war, including what is still to this day history’s most sickening and shocking holocaust, and in terms of ‘horror’ dressing up in a cape and cloak, impersonating characters from Victorian literature and cackling “You’ll never take me alive” and “Damn yer britches” at the audience was simply no longer enough. 1940s audiences demanded if not more realism then at least less fantasy from their horror movies, even if most of them were still set in country houses and cobbled streets- and, what’s more, the barnstormingly OTT style of acting favoured by Slaughter and his compadres was fast going out of fashion, something that may not have been helped by the fact that half of the nation’s music halls that hadn’t already been levelled by the Luftwaffe were closing down. To give him his credit though, he was well aware of this, and it therefore seems no coincidence that his next feature film – which would also prove to be his last – would not only utilize the skills of a younger, fresher writer with new ideas (John Gilling) but also adopt a far darker, grittier and more openly malicious tone. The Greed of William Hart (1948) is set in Edinburgh (although still quite obviously filmed, like everything else of the time, on a back lot somewhere between Iver and Stoke Poges) and is The Slod’s token take on the Burke and Hare myth, with the names changed for unspecified legal reasons. In all fairness, although he still looks visibly old and weary, and his accent veers from Oirish to Scottish to West Country of its own free will, he delivers a respectably menacing performance here that for once doesn’t plumb the depths of theatricality- and the same goes for the supporting cast too, featuring the aforementioned Woods as the obligatory ‘Daft Jamie’ and Jenny Lynn, by now the real-life Mrs Slaughter, as Hart’s hapless wife aka ‘Sleep’n Beauty’, all of whom seem to be really making an effort. That said, the film is in equal parts as unsatisfying in terms of bonhomie as it is credible in delivery, so maybe his unmistakable sheer chutzpah is what we really admire (and want) from him after all.

Unsurprisingly, the film fell between two stools – too ‘real’ for his hardcore following and too kitsch for younger audiences who had only recently been exposed to the cinematic wonders of John Boulting’s Brighton Rock. One can’t lay the blame for this at Tod’s door, though, as it’s obvious from his performance here that he’s really trying to “get with the programme” so to speak. Maybe veteran director Oswald Mitchell, whose heavy-handed traditional style clashes badly with Gilling’s streamlined script, and who would soon depart this world, was to blame here. Whatever the reason, this would be the last time Tod appeared in a feature-length production on the big screen: apart from two 30-minute shorts, A Ghost For Sale (1952), which largely consists of reworked footage from the earlier Wraydons, and Murder at the Grange (1953) which we will touch on later, the remaining eight years of his life were divided between his first love – the theatre- and the wondrous new-fangled invention he felt he could exploit to his advantage, in other words television. A live performance of Spring Heeled Jack was broadcast on BBC1 in 1950: rumours abound that it still exists somewhere, but like most other televised productions of the time, including of course the lamented pre-Hammer performances of Peter Cushing other than 1984, it does not appear to have been recorded in any fashion and therefore one would doubt that there is any truth in this. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though!! More likely to be found somewhere, as they were broadcast both in the UK and US, were the two performances he gave as arch-criminal and fiendish mastermind Terence Reilly – no relation to composer Terry Riley – in the ‘featurettes’ King of the Underworld and Murder at Scotland Yard, which kick-started the Scotland Yard series on ‘the box’ and were both also made in 1952. Believe it or not, these were also directed by William Gover, although any tendencies toward overlong exposition that he had been allowed to indulge on the silver screen would, one imagines, have been severely reined in for TV.

I myself have not seen the abovementioned programmes, but reports from those who have suggest that Tod had once more ‘found his mojo’ and was thoroughly enjoying his new role: he definitely loved working alongside Patrick Barr (like himself, a veteran of 30s potboilers, such as The Gaunt Stranger and Midnight at Madame Tussauds), cast as his nemesis Inspector John Morley. The public obviously took to this with open arms, as both were invited to reprise their roles in the quota quickie upon which we have previously touched, Murder at the Grange: Slaughter is not actually credited here, which has led some to believe that he doesn’t appear in it, but he certainly does – only we the audience are not supposed to know that the kindly butler is in fact arch criminal Riley, and therefore announcing his presence in the film would have been a dead giveaway. Nevertheless, in what limited screen time he has, the old charm and fervour still shows through.

These were Tod’s last appearances in any form of starring role onscreen. He clocks up a guest appearance in the recently-unearthed Puzzle Corner No 14 (1954) – a kind of quiz show of the time, although whether for TV or cinema is unclear – once more playing Sweeney Todd and delivering the usual macabre monologue one had come to expect. Almost 70 by now, he is also heavily bewigged and grossly overweight – yet the ravages of time can’t hide or dull the cackle and menace which just never seemed to go away. This clip, which has been seen as recently as 2002, was thought to be his farewell to the screen, with an added poignancy stemming from the fact that the presenter actually says ‘goodbye’ to him – except it wasn’t. Recent research has shown that in January 1956 he appeared in Forecast Unsettled, an episode of the popular US mystery series Lilli Palmer Theatre. These were again hour-long featurettes, introduced by the great German actress/siren, and Tod plays one ‘Robinson Wills’: the episode was broadcast in May of that year, four months after his death, which would suggest that it was pre-recorded and therefore has a chance of turning up somewhere. One can only hope.

Still storming the stages of the UK in the midst of all this televisual tomfoolery, still assaulting audiences with his own peculiar brand of old-fashioned bludgeon and charisma, and still the king of all treacherous, lecherous villainy, Norman Carter Slaughter died – in harness – (well Derby actually) on 19 February 1956. Collapsing in his dressing room from a coronary thrombosis after a particularly frenetic performance of what else but Maria Marten, which he saw through to the very end, he was DOA at the nearest hospital, therefore going out exactly the way he had come in. Around this time, further south in Berkshire, two chaps by the names of Carreras and Fisher were planning their own adaptations of classic Gothic melodrama for a (then) relatively small company called Hammer. As did Tod’s reign of terror end, so did theirs begin later that year, in no small part due to the casting of two actors by the names of Cushing and Lee. They would turn British cinema upside down to an even greater extent than their barrel-chested predecessor. Continuing the strange, almost fateful logic of the British horror lineage, fifteen years later, an aspiring exploitation director and all round London scenester by the name of Peter Walker, who had admired Slaughter’s later work as a child, would commission his scriptwriters to write roles for an elderly actor by the name of Patrick Barr.

Tod Slaughter was no great innovator- at least not consciously. He wasn’t even a great actor by anyone else’s standards, although capable of turning in performances of restraint when called upon such as those given in It’s Never Too Late to Mend and even parts of The Face at the Window. More often than not, he surrounded himself with inferior players, such as Marjorie Taylor, Lawrence Hanray and John Warwick, in order to make himself shine brightly – and it worked. Some film critics talk about the relationship that truly great thespians, such as Richard Burton, had with the camera: not only did the Slod not really have one, quite often he wasn’t even aware of it. Little surprise then that he chose to align himself with directors of a decidedly un-cinematic bent. As far as he was concerned, he was still onstage, cackling, leering and annunciating with near-perfect-but-occasionally-slipping-back-into-Geordie diction at a massed crowd of hundreds who had all come to boo, hiss and shout “Behind you!!” at the villain of the piece – in his mind and possibly theirs, the greatest villain of all.

But more importantly than anything else, he was the first to give British horror movies and thrillers a definable identity, and their first true fan cult, which at a time when Karloff, Hitchcock and their compadres had fled across the great pond to make their fortunes, was what we badly needed. In doing so he brought enjoyment to millions, as well as making later generations aware of the existence of Victorian melodrama. Practically every image, whether serious or comic, we have in British culture of a movie ‘bad guy’ – hell, even half the ‘evil fiendish masterminds’ portrayed on the radio in Goon Show and Round The Horne sketches – is in some way due to Tod Slaughter, to the point where we find it sometimes difficult to separate it from the actor himself – and for that reason alone, we should seek out his films and fondly remember him. But most of all, we should dim the lights and prepare for some sheer unadulterated entertainment – still among the best ever committed to celluloid.

This is, of course, not an opinion that will be shared by ‘serious’ cineastes, even those who profess to be horror lovers (so screw ‘em!! What do they know anyway?), nor indeed the so-called ‘expert’ described in my opening paragraph. It will, however, be shared by anyone who ever professed a love of penny dreadfuls or English Gothic (in the true sense of the word here, not Andrew Eldritch), and sat, with a glass of port, by candlelight and a roaring fire, in living rooms from Thames Ditton to Ferguslie Park, daring for maybe 65 minutes to step into that magical, low-budget, stagey, costumey world of lissome lasses, corrupt lawyers, wily old farmers and evil, scheming lords of the manor, of gas lit cobbled streets and hidden passageways ‘neath becurtained drawing rooms, in which the babbling maniac – before he found himself inevitably cornered and flung himself to the mercy of the equally babbling Thames or Seine – reigned supreme.

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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.