Slaughter House

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE is what the usually-wrong Leslie Halliwell quite rightly calls a “cheeky” rendition of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, a classic shocker which has been adapted several times, always more faithfully than this magnificent travesty. There’s a very decent version with Sidney Greenstreet as the villainous Count Fosco, and I have fond memories of a BBC TV version from my childhood which was blessed with a magnificently fruity turn by Alan Badel, and served as my introduction to that fine fellow (cinephiles may recall his sinister Arab in ARABESQUE, oozing suavely with a falcon on his arm).

This version is a star vehicle for barnstorming actor-manager Tod Slaughter, a genuine exponent of your actual melodrama, a man who actually made his living by cackling and twirling his moustache. It’s directed by George King, whose half-hearted praises I sang off-key here. King, a spirited B-movie professional, is in slightly muted form here, perhaps just disgusted by the awful bollocks he has to aim his camera at, or perhaps just strained by a hectic schedule. But the production values seem pretty good — this isn’t a shoddy “quota quickie” as they’re usually imagined.

The main departure from Collins’ popular classic is the addition of a whole series of gratuitous murders, with even more gratuitous cackling as accompaniment. Start as you mean to go on: Tod begins the very first scene by hammering a spike into a sleeping man’s head, which seems to strike him as particularly amusing.

Stealing the identity of the sore-headed corpse, Tod becomes Sir Perceval Glyde, or anyhow a Percival impersonator. An impercevalator, if you will. Discovering that all his scam has netted him is a mortgaged manor house and a heap of debts, the gesticulating ham plots to marry innocent local hottie Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriot) for her money. He’s assisted in his scheming by two citizens of Dundee, actors Hay Petrie and David Keir, who play a quack asylum superintendant and a lawyer respectively. Petrie is of particular interest — he can ham it up without becoming tiresome, and he has a decent role, demoted from lead villain in Collins’ book. Petrie acted in a wide range of stuff, including Powell & Pressburger classics like THE RED SHOES and Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s THE FALLEN IDOL. It’s fun to see him cut loose with a bigger part in a dafter movie.

Hay Petrie with Tod Slaughter, a man so evil he actually curses trousers.

Throughout the film, the crimes at the dark house fall to Mr. Slaughter, who proves himself very successful at murdering, acceptable at raping, but very bad at fraud. His first fraud having actually landed him in debt, he tries to murder his way out of every problem that arises. One has to respect his fighting spirit. Not so much a case of “never-say-die”, as “always-say-die-Die!-DIE!!!”

Slaughter also gets to indulge in what are practically asides to the audience. His trademark evil cackle is for our benefit, and he licks his lips lasciviously whenever anyone with breasts is to hand, but he also talks to himself. The late great Ken Campbell once proposed that there are two ways to handle a Shakespearean aside: firstly, you can act as if you’re talking to yourself, thinking aloud as it were. Or, you can adopt what Campbell called the “My chums the audience” approach and welcome the punters in to a warm embrace, sharing your wickedest secrets with them. This seems to me the only way to treat Iago or Richard III’s monologues, for instance.

Slaughter is clearly of this latter camp, and it’s obvious that his nastiness is all a big joke for the delectation of the working-class audiences who flocked to see him. It really is a comedy performance from beginning to end, and it’s remarkable how sick the whole thing is: “The false Perceval Glyde” (we never learn his real name) a maidservant he’s knocked up, the mother of the real Glyde’s illigitimate daughter, and Fosco (although this doesn’t take). He also murders a pneumonia sufferer by moving their bed to the window and opening it — cue ludicrous cartoon howling wind FX.

As the melodrama ripens, Slaughter’s tendency to demented soliloquy grows more pronounced. Trying to burn the church records that will expose his imposture, Slaughter finds himself trapped in an inferno. “Curses, the key!” he laments. Smashing a window with a chair, he looks at the drop outside and exclaims, “Oh! I can’t go down that way!”

“He’s so evil he’s narrating his own death!” I thought. That’s hardcore evilness.

8 Responses to “Slaughter House”

  1. First off, Halliwell. Usually wrong, frequently obnoxious, his snide quips often made me want to strangle him, or give him a brisk slap at the very least. What a twit. His was the first film reference book I owned and used, until I acquired a copy of Ephraim Katz’ Film Encyclopedia, and never looked back (to Halliwell). About Hay Petrie, his is a name many times graced the screen credits of some of my favorite films, of which you’ve mentioned two. Others: Lean’s Great Expectations (Uncle Pumblechook), and three for Powell, The Thief of Baghdad, Contraband, and The Spy in Black, not a clunker in the bunch. Hay was just an excellent character actor. As for Slaughter, he seems like a Laird Cregar type, only with a bit less talent than what Laird possessed. I take it you’ve seen Hangover Square? I did see a portion of one of Slaughter’s films a couple years back, The Face at the Window. I admit that I wasn’t engaged, but it might’ve had to do with the context, the situation I was in at the time. But that name in this film, Perceval Glyde, now that’s priceless. And as for Greenstreet and The Woman in White, I’ve seen it, taped it off TCM a few years back, decent maybe, but not much more than that, I recall it as being almost painfully slow. I’m not a big fan of Greenstreet, that hokey dry laugh of his always puts me off.

  2. Oh, and David, just a suggestion, but when you feel inclined, a post or entry on Conrad Veidt, if you haven’t already done so. He’s become a personal favorite of mine, outstanding in great films, his presence never failed to enhance the lesser ones.

  3. I saw The Man Who Laughs in a theatre back in the late Eighties, and by the end of the film I found myself moved by the pathos in those eyes. Thanks, David E., for bringing these clips to my attention. I knew of this film’s existence, but until now I hadn’t seen it. He was, he is a unique screen presence, I look forward to seeing more of his films down the road.

  4. Whew — just back from a rare screening of Sidney Lumet’s outrageous Blood Kin — Tennessee Williams adapted by Gore Vidal: again!

    Tod Slaughter is amusing/tiresome because he’s all about the surface, all the time: frantically telegraphing every emotion to the audience as if his paycheque depended on it. Compared to him, Laird Cregar’s a paralytic case.

    Must indeed write something on Veidt, and in fact in a very VERY modest way, my next post touches on this subject.

  5. Other points: love Cregar, but I also love the book of Hangover Square, so the film always saddens me — such a missed opportunity. But what the movie does in its own right is pretty interesting.

    Halliwell was the film buyer for ITV, back when that post was thought to require some knowledge of cinema. At least he had that. The moment I realised he was ethically odious, on top of his lousy reviews, was when I read him defending that channel’s practice, circa the 80s, of cutting films to fit TV time slots. No true film lover could condone that.

    I wish Cregar had done The Woman in White.

    Still have to watch The Face at the Window as it’s illustrated in Gifford!

  6. I’d love to hear more about “Blood Kin.” Any chance of your writing about it?

  7. I’m definitely going to write it up. A shame I can’t illustrate it extensively, or refer to a copy, since it was a cinema screening, but it’s a pretty unique movie and deserves to be celebrated (I’m not sure that happened when it came out!).

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