Friday, August 15, 2014

Ghoulish Murders at the Dark House

THE GHOUL (1933)
MURDER IN THE RED BARN (1935)
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1936)
CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE (1940)


Boris Karloff carves a hieroglyph onto his chest in THE GHOUL. Assumed to be lost since screenings in 1938 - at least in a viewable print - a perfect negative of this Gaumont-British film surfaced in a forgotten vault at Shepperton in the early 1980's.

THE pictures under consideration here exist in two twilight zones of cinema, development arcs that bridge silents to talkies, then defuse staged melodrama to open up more erudite levels of performance. THE GHOUL sees Boris Karloff return home after achieving stardom with Universal - in a film influenced by those golden horrors - while the three Tod Slaughter releases play as last gasps to Victorian Gothic, a tradition of spectacle illustrated by the lurid Penny Dreadfuls and Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. In THE GHOUL - very loosely adapted from Frank King's 1928 bestseller - Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Karloff) believes that his devotion to Anubis and possession of 'The Eternal Light' jewel will resurrect him and give him immortality. He forces his manservant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to bind the jewel into his palm on his deathbed, but after being entombed in the family mausoleum with the stone stolen from his grasp, Morlant returns from the grave to stalk those he suspects betrayed him.

In front and behind the camera, THE GHOUL was given star treatment. Together with Karloff and Thesiger, the sterling thespian cast also includes Cedric Hardwicke as Morlant's attorney Broughton, and a young Ralph Richardson as snooping parson Hartley. Cinematographer Gunther Krampf creates a musty ambience, and Louis Levy provides a stirring score. But it is hardly the classic heralded by critics upon its R1 DVD restoration in 2003, as viewers will find their patience tried by T. Hayes Hunter's languid pacing, pregnant pauses and over-stated dialogue and dramatics, as the picture crawls to its non-supernatural, SCOOBY DOO climax. Karloff, who, to the film's detriment, disappears for a large portion of the prolonged 80m running time, obviously uses his role as Im-Ho-Tep from Karl Freund's THE MUMMY as the prototype here, with the distinctive make-up - devised by the specifically imported Henrich Heitfeld - swathed in thick wrinkles and scar tissue so prominent as to occlude one eye almost completely.

Tod Slaughter in his breakthrough picture, MURDER AT THE RED BARNAlthough Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Charles Laughton and Claude Rains were successfully exported to Hollywood, Slaughter was Britain's first home-grown horror star.

Born Norman Carter Slaughter in March 1886 and adapting the name Tod in 1925, this English actor and stage proprietor became infamous for his melodramatic performances in macabre theatre and film adaptations (as Jonathan Rigby points out in English Gothic, "[Slaughter's] villainy is redolent of boiled beef and carrots gone rancid.") It is said he briefly retired from acting to become a chicken farmer at the start of the 1930's, but he was soon back touring theatres with his trademark repertoires. Exploiting his toothy grin, throaty voice and amphibious fa├žade, Slaughter was publicised as 'Mr Murder' in the 1931 New Theatre run of 'The Crimes of Burke and Hare,' and shortly after played urban legend Sweeney Todd for the first of over 2,000 performances. Consequently, the persona of an over-the-top lunatic gripped his character similar to the career not necessarily always enjoyed by Bela Lugosi with Dracula. By the early 1950's the public's appetite for melodrama have abated and Slaughter went bankrupt. He continued to act in stage productions such as 'The Gay Invalid' opposite Peter Cushing and was still performing to the very end, dying of coronary thrombosis in February 1956. This timescale conveniently connects the coming of Hammer and the more sophisticated performances of Cushing and Christopher Lee.

In 1935, at the age of 49, he started in a run of poverty row pictures with MURDER AT THE RED BARN. Based on the true story of 1827, Slaughter plays Squire William Corder, who seduces farmer's daughter Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart) then murders and buries her beneath a barn floor - "you shall be a bride, a bride of death!" - after discovering she is pregnant. This does not fall into Corder's plan at all, as he aims to marry a wealthy spinster to pay off a dicing debt. In the darkly humorous finale, Corder's own dog marks the spot where Marten is buried, the Squire forced to dig to incriminate himself knowing one of his pistols lies by the body; there is further irony when Corder is hanged by a volunteer executioner, Gypsy Carlos (Eric Portman), Maria's lover. Flaunting its stage origins by starting with a Master of Ceremonies in front of a painted backdrop, Slaughter's portrayal of the seemingly cordial Squire morphing into a gambling murderer provided a template for a career of maniacal dual personalities.

Californian Sleazemeister and rockabilly musician Johnny Legend presented this DVD double-bill of SWEENEY TODD and CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE.

A year later Slaughter reprised his most famous stage role for the screen. In SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, the eponymous character "polishes off" wealthy customers who sit in a mechanical barber's chair which dumps them head-first down into the basement; there, the victims are ready to have their throats cut ("a lovely lot of throats, the lot of 'em ... rich and mellow to the razor.") Neighbour Mrs Lovatt (Stella Rho) disposes of the bodies by processing them in pies for a share of the stolen money (but similar to Marten's pregnancy in MURDER AT THE RED BARN, this is only implied). Todd has an eye for Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister), who is in love with seaman Mark (Bruce Seton), and in a Slaughteresque twist both these characters adapt a more literal disguise to fool the demon barber, eventually plunging him down his own trap door to an infernal damnation. This is Slaughter's consistently most entertaining picture, with the actor at his cackling, vindictive and money-grabbing best, and rife with double entendre (at one point he leers at Mark "when I'm finished with you, you won't know yourself.")

Loosely based on Wilkie Collins' 1859 ground-breaking detective/mystery novel The Woman in White, CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE
opens with in the gold fields of Australia, where Slaughter creeps into a tent to kill Sir Percival Glyde by hammering a tent peg into his ear. Assuming Percival's identity in order to inherit his English estate, on arrival back in Blightey the scheming prospector discovers that the Glyde's are in fact bankrupt. Benefitting from higher production values - which included future Hammer designer Bernard Robinson's first gothic sets - there is also a more convoluted but dramatically satisfying storyline, encompassing an insane illegitimate daughter, a blackmailing doctor, mistaken identities and the obligatory impregnation and murder of a maid. Slaughter may be at his most archetypal for SWEENEY TODD, but CRIMES sees his most polished, sly and sexually sardonic performance. Almost every line is delivered in a suggestive manner, and his lascivious excitement at bedding his new reluctant bride is particularly depraved.