If classic horror is identified by any one element, then it is by the actors and actresses who thrilled audiences with their menacing and terrifying portrayals. But for every thespian immortalized in the spotlight, there is a legion of others who have been condemned to the shadows. Others like Tod Slaughter, one of the cinema’s most insidious devils to ever grace the crackling screen of the movie-house. The Northumberland-born actor might have been less prolific than his Hollywood contemporaries, but when it came to sheer nastiness and audacity, Slaughter had them all beat by a country mile.
Why is it then that we don’t mention his name in the same breath as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? One reason may be that Slaughter never made an international impact, the run of his most well-known films produced in the British equivalent of America’s Poverty Row studios, on the cheap and with sets whose walls visibly shook at the slamming of a door. It could be that the subject matter Slaughter worked with was of a slightly unambitious quality. The literary sources for his films were not the grand, Gothic classics that Universal Studios had built its reputation on but derived instead from Victorian pulp magazines and penny dreadfuls, lurid tales of factual and fictional murder that traded in the sensational rather than the sophisticated.
But the most likely reason of all would have been the actor’s style. Tod was a theater man down to his bones. There was no transition in his method following the move from stage to set: Slaughter insisted on playing it loud and big, no doubt imagining patrons sitting way up in the nose-bleeders beyond the lens of the camera.
Whatever the reason for his relative invisibility, it doesn’t change the fact that Slaughter was an entertainer who fulfilled the viewer’s ultimate wish: he was a goddamn hoot to watch.
Born Norman Carter Slaughter in 1885 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tod entered the theatrical arts when he was 20-years-old. After a stint in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, he returned to his first passion as a stage actor. It was after his military service that Slaughter began to run his own companies, most famously the Elephant and Castle Theatre in South London starting in 1922. Tod–now using the stage impresario of N. Carter Slaughter–had yet to play the heel at this point. His onstage persona was decidedly more heroic, as seen in his credits as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers and as that famous sleuth of Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes.
After briefly retiring from acting, Slaughter returned to the London stage in 1931 at the age of 46 with a bang: matinee performances at the New Theatre were spent as the vile, one-legged cutthroat Long John Silver in Treasure Island while evenings were dedicated to his turn as the storied resurrection-man and murderer William Hare in The Crimes of Burke and Hare.
The public ate it up.
The kind of hand-wringing, cackling wickedness that Slaughter was making his stock and trade proved to be catnip to theatre-goers, harkening back to the “blood ‘n’ thunder” barnstormer troupes of old. It wasn’t long before Slaughter assumed the role he was destined to forever be identified with: the barber of the hacking titter and razor-sharp grin, Sweeney Todd, resident demon of Fleet Street. Norman–who now went by the moniker Tod Slaughter perhaps in honor of his most notorious character–basked in the glow of his new notoriety. A star had been born, and his introduction to the world was met with the terrified screams of audience members and tormented victims alike.
With the media giving Slaughter such flamboyant names as “Mr. Massacre,” it’s hardly surprising that the filmmaking world would eventually call on the actor to prey upon a different type of theatre-goer. Tod would go on to star in ten “quota quickies” (low-budget films made to fill British theatres with product from the homeland) that would solidify Slaughter as the country’s first legitimate horror film star.
Even with this considerable legacy in mind, the prevailing attitude towards Slaughter and his films is that both are nothing more than dusty museum pieces. But for as primitive as they were, Slaughter’s movies were at ground zero in the cinematic world of British horror, not only pre-dating the critically-lauded ghost stories of Ealing Studios like Dead of Night (1945) and Queen of Spades (1946) but prefiguring the psychological thriller craze that took the country by storm in the wake of Psycho (1960). The participation of future Hammer Studios stalwarts such as production designer Bernard Robinson (Crimes at the Dark House) and screenwriter John Gilling (The Greed of William Hart) in Tod’s pictures only proves further that Britain’s horror film culture was taking its very first steps with these humble “museum pieces.”
The real-life crime and trial of William Corder served as Tod’s first foray into film. In Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1935), 49-year-old Slaughter portrays Squire Corder, an affluent man of the country who, upon discovering that the rosy-cheeked lass he has just taken for a roll in the hay is pregnant, proves his status as a gentleman by shooting her through the heart and burying her body in the stall of the titular building. Corder’s guilt is finally revealed when his own dog turns him in (!) by pawing at the spot in the loft where Maria’s body and Corder’s engraved pistols are buried. (The burial scene accounts for perhaps the first tossing-dirt-at-the-camera shtick in cinema history, long before Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead.) The squire is condemned to be hanged, with Maria’s vengeful ex-boyfriend acting as volunteer executioner.
Setting a wonderful tone right from the start with credits playing over a roaring thunderstorm and the cast introduced as the players of a stage drama to the whistles and jeers of a boisterous peanut gallery, Murder in the Red Barn lays the groundwork for all of Slaughter’s horrors to come. The film boasts some of Toddy’s best displays of mania, from his rasping predation of Maria (“I promised to make you a bride. Don’t be afraid, Maria. You shall be a bride. A bride of death!”) to his gibbering collapse after digging up the maiden’s fresh corpse.
Tod’s next film was a natural choice: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), the role that he would immortalize on stage for reportedly 2000 performances. Based on the notorious penny dreadful The String of Pearls: A Romance, this sordid spectacle finds Tod playing the spidery barber with bombast. Just as good silently handling his razor with a jack o’ lantern grin as he is threatening to cut out the tongues of young children, Slaughter goes all-out as he sends his customers through his trick trapdoor and slashes their throats (off-screen) before handing over their bodies for Mrs. Lovatt to chop up for the meat pies she sells in her grotty bakery. “I’ll soon polish him off!” Sweeney snickers to the point of trademarking the phrase.
Though the movie is uneven, you pay to see Slaughter, and the actor happily imbues every moment with simmering menace, his hair curled over his forehead like a pair of devilish horns and a mad smile always just a twitch away. Slaughter may be a bit too comfortable in his patented performance but his Sweeney acts as a crash course in villainy. When the impish hairdresser sets fire to his own shop, he returns to polish off the square-jawed hero, rubbing his twin razors together like a pair of steak knives. But the only meal in store for Sweeney is a mouthful of fist; the hero rescues his lady and leaves the murderer to fall into hellfire through his own trapdoor.
The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936) finds Slaughter performing one of his most vile acts. Playing a doddering old moneylender who is actually the cold-blooded “Spine Breaker” that has been terrorizing the countryside, Tod begins the film casing a mansion for a robbery when a young boy catches him in the act. Slaughter crooks his fingers and whispers to the child in Big Bad Wolf fashion. The camera cuts away from the scene as a horrendous shriek rings out. The mansion staff rushes out to the grounds and are met with the sight of the child’s broken body lying in the grass. Though the graphic remains of the crime aren’t clearly seen, it still makes for a jarring moment even for modern viewers. The audible smack that Hawke’s body makes when the villain falls to his death at the end of the movie after spending his time happily smashing bones and giggling like a naughty schoolboy will no doubt elicit cheers from the audience.
It’s Never Too Late to Mend (1937) is undoubtedly the actor’s wimpiest film. Based on a novel by social reformist Charles Reade, the drama pushes its moralistic agenda to the fore while demoting Tod to the part of pompous palm-greaser and prison caretaker Squire John Meadows, a man who looks like Lewis Carroll’s oyster-munching Walrus in top hat and tails. When he isn’t blackmailing the suitors of pretty maidens, Meadows keeps busy by putting his prisoners to work at the Crank, whipping them senseless with the Cat, and subjecting them to the mind-shattering darkness of the Black Hole. The squire’s prison, fittingly enough, reads more like a chamber of horrors than a rehabilitative institution.
Though Tod was no stranger to playing psychotics masquerading as members of elite society by this point, It’s Never Too Late… trades in the actor’s usual vicious tics for a more removed villainy that involves bribery, blackmail, and lackeys taking care of the character’s real dirty work. An admirable attempt at a new approach, but sadly it leaves the action at a low, boring hum. The film’s Catholic angle gets played heavily towards the end; Meadows’ final fit of madness is ludicrously subdued when a chaplain flashes a crucifix at him! A final cross is placed over the end credits, coming just short of blaring the word “REPENT” over the speakers. Sweeney Todd surely rolled over in his fiery grave at that.
In The Ticket of Leave Man (1937), Slaughter stars as a bowler-hatted criminal dubbed “The Tiger” by the London police. When he garrotes an officer during a sting on his latest robbery, the thief earns the sworn wrath of the epically mustached Detective Hawkshaw. From there the murderer falls for a beautiful soprano, frames her fiancée for counterfeiting money, and then begins a new life with a new face as the head of the “Good Samaritan Help Society,” a charitable organization dedicated to assisting the “ticket-of-leave” men who are released from prison in finding work. Of course the association is just a front for the Tiger’s crimes, and he finds his identity compromised when the framed fiancée’s sentence is lifted and the wronged man comes back to reclaim his name.
The Ticket of Leave Man boasts a script that is not only literate but also genuinely funny, a trait that allows it to edge out some of Slaughter’s other titles in entertainment. Tod’s usual sardonic innuendos (he tells one potential blackmailer, “We’ll soon come to terms,” as he playfully swings his garrote) are peppered with amusing interactions with other characters. The Tiger also scores extra points for depravity when he “heroically” carries away the fainted soprano to escape a commotion only to plant a passionate kiss on her catatonic face, not to mention when he decorates his partner’s strangled corpse with a placard that reads “Love Others As You Love Yourself” right before locking another henchman in the same room that he’s just set on fire!
Slaughter went on to act as the guest star villain for Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938), one of the filmed adventures of the literary detective who has been called “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes.” Blake—who despite his Baker Street residency and habit of smoking pipes does very little actual deduction in the fashion of his ancestor—is drawn into the mystery surrounding the wonderfully ominous-sounding Black Quorum, “the greatest criminal organization of the century” led by their master, The Snake. Slaughter is, of course, the hooded Snake, alias of prestigious Michael Larron, one of London’s most eminent collectors of antique stamps. Naturally.
Unfortunately Slaughter is rarely seen in this one. The film mucks along for just over an hour to a hiccup of a climax. The ending is of special note though, as it marks the only time that Slaughter’s villain actually escapes justice, probably due more to the power of sequel-anxious producers rather than diabolical providence.
The Face at the Window (1939) is a boiling broth of Grand Guignol ingredients that serves up the appetizing tale of a murderer dubbed “Le Loup” (thus completing Slaughter’s own “Animal Trilogy” of films) who stalks the streets of 1880 Paris and strikes his victims at the same time that a disfigured, drooling monster is seen snarling at their windows.
Here Tod plays the part of Chevalier Lucio del Gardo and it is, in this writer’s estimation, the best role of Slaughter’s entire career. The film builds him up to be the ultimate baddie: not only is the oily aristocrat scheming to wed a young lady of means and frame her impoverished boyfriend for his crimes (again), he’s also the kingpin of a local crime ring with headquarters at the grungy Blind Rat tavern with two cronies at his side that, along with performing other bits of skullduggery, provide del Gardo with pretty lasses for his implied sexual pleasures. Finally we have a role that is befitting of Slaughter’s larger-than-life personality, a role that deems one or even two forms of criminal activity simply not enough!
The Face at the Window also benefits from being the most cinematic of all Slaughter’s films, crackling with (sometimes literal) electricity that allows its already abbreviated running time to fly by. Beginning with a short introductory note that could serve as the proud motto to all of Slaughter’s pictures (“…this 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…”), the movie skirts along at an almost breakneck pace. It is in the closing moments that Face… truly cements itself as a rollicking, red-blooded adventure of spectacular proportions. With his crimes exposed in an intense scene where the corpse of Le Loup’s last victim is given temporary life through electricity and a pencil to jot down the name of its killer, del Gardo makes a dramatic exit out the window and swims to the safety of the dungeon beneath his manor. The horrible monster, it is revealed, is del Gardo’s mutant foster brother, and the wolfy rascal ends up throttling the chevalier from behind the bars of his cage, sending them both to a chilly grave in the Seine through yet another trapdoor. It’s a great ending to a damn fine movie. Even famed author and film critic Graham Greene thought so, saying “it is one of the best English pictures I have seen and [it] leaves the American horror films far behind”, even going so far as calling Slaughter “…one of our finest living actors…”
Wilkie Collins’ 1860 smash-hit serial The Woman in White served as the actor’s next vehicle. The book was adapted to film three times prior to finding its lurid interpretation with Slaughter in Crimes at the Dark House (1940). Crimes… plays likes a “greatest hits” album for the actor’s illustriously evil career. After murdering aristocrat Percival Glyde during an Australian gold expedition by driving a wooden spike through the sleeping man’s head (off-screen, natch), Slaughter’s criminal glydes his way into the baronet’s inheritance by masquerading as his victim.
But upon returning to the man’s English manor, the false Glyde quickly finds out that his real inheritance is of all the Glyde family’s outstanding debts. Slaughter finds salvation in the form a young heiress, but of course getting his hands on the lady’s massive dowry is not going to be so easy. The criminal is then confronted by a corrupt asylum director with blackmail on his mind and an insane daughter from one of the real Glyde’s previous affairs escaped and roaming the countryside with daddy in her crosshairs. Not only that, but the saucy chambermaid Slaughter has taken to bed has just announced her own pregnancy. The life of Riley this is not!
Glyde’s sexual appetites are remarkably frank for a production of this vintage. He hilariously appears to be on the verge of orgasm at several moments, such as when he not only lick his lips at the sight of the maid’s suggestive smile but makes some definite groping motions when she turns to leave. This translates to a more unnerving sequence that occurs when Slaughter menacingly climbs the staircase to the conjugal bedroom where his new bride lies weeping over her fate, his sinister chuckle ringing out just as the screen fades to back.
It’s one of the film’s most powerful scenes, adding to the overall sense of seediness that makes Crimes… feel just a little naughtier than Slaughter’s other pictures. And as usual, Slaughter is given some unforgettable zingers, from the gruesome (“Be loyal to your trust and it will pay you handsomely. Betray it and I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs!”) to the humorously off-center (“Curse your trousers! Curse you! Ohh, curse everything!”).
The Curse of the Wraydons (U.S.: Strangler’s Morgue, 1946) was the first film Slaughter made after World War II, his only feature in six years. It’s evident that after witnessing the Great Blitz and other terrors of the war that British audiences were beginning to lose their taste for stage blood. Announcing the return of the country’s favorite horror man in big letters (“And Tod Slaughter as ‘The Thief’ ”) at the end of the credits, The Curse of the Wraydons makes a commendable effort of resurrecting the bold romances—and its star’s popularity—of yesteryear.
In the film, Slaughter plays the enigmatic ringleader of a group of British traitors who are working to throw their motherland into the hands of the invading Napoleon. After the hero is framed for a series of murders that are in actuality the doings of the master criminal, Slaughter reveals himself as the long-lost black sheep of the Wraydon clan, Philip, recently returned from a French asylum to claim his inheritance by any means necessary. For his part Slaughter shows that he hasn’t lost an ounce of his feistiness, delivering savory lines that sizzle on impact, such as his takedown of an underling (“There’s only one thing you lack: guts!”) and his unforgettable sound-off to the heroes that undoubtedly raised the eyebrows of post-war viewers: “A pleasant journey to you. Now go down to Hell! And tell them I sent you!” There is also a disturbing moment that occurs when Wraydon corners a woman in the forest and, eyes all alight with evil intent and wearing his best Cheshire Cat-grin, closes in on her and us, advancing towards the camera until his murderous bulk fills the entire frame.
By the time he made The Greed of William Hart (U.S.: Horror Maniacs, 1948), Tod was beginning to show his age. His impressive girth seemed to impede more than intimidate and his voice had lost some of its sharpness. But in watching Slaughter portray his William Hare-variant in this final hurrah, the viewer can still sense that charismatic fire burning deep within his heart.
John Gilling served as screenwriter and assistant director on this film, a dry run for his later take on the Burke and Hare legend for Hammer Studios, The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), which he also directed. Slaughter plays Hart, a grubby cretin who along with his partner Moore haunts the taverns of Gibb’s Close, stalking prey in order to supply a doctor at the local medical school with fresh cadavers for study in his dissecting room. The duo’s racket gains the notice of the requisite lovers when the murderers pawn off the body of the lady’s best friend to the good doctor.
The 63-year-old Slaughter shows that he still has some vinegar left to wring out of his act. His Hart is a different breed of criminal for the actor. He is not the cruel baron of the upper crust but the scum from the bottom of the barrel, spitting and slapping back Irish whiskey with the abandon of a man who has nothing to lose. The Border accents may be shaky, but it’s evident that both Slaughter and actor Henry Oscar are having a darn “good toyme” depicting their immigrant murderers.
The Greed of William Hart is not the soaring swan song that fans might have wanted to see in Slaughter’s last extant film, but it shows the actor so solidly in his element that it can’t help but enchant with how effortless he makes it all look. When Slaughter’s body-snatcher is plucked from his den to be trampled and torn by a vicious mob, it in effect marks the end of an era. With Tod’s final roaring death scene, the last gaslight in the old blood-and-thunder theater has been doused. Britain has begun to make way for a new kind of fright show, one that will go on to garner acclaim as the genuine birth of the country’s cinematic horror tradition.
With film prospects drying up and television offering the rare guest-spot, Slaughter continued treading the boards as part of his touring company all the way up until 1956. It was after an evening performance as Squire Corder in Maria Marten that the actor was found the next morning, dead of a coronary thrombosis on February 20, 1956. He exited the stage with his boots on, just shy of his 71st birthday the following month.
For all his apparent historical importance, Slaughter’s presence in the home video market—especially in North America—remains sadly lax. Most of his titles are easy enough to come by through outfits like Alpha Video and Sinister Cinema at incredibly reasonable prices, but the customer gets exactly what they pay for with these public domain releases. The dupey prints are riddled with specks and scratches, and the audio tracks are typically muddied. The prints available for free online through the Internet Archive and other resources are only marginally better.
The U. K. has naturally fared better with Slaughter’s works on video. Three companies—Renown, Simply Media, and especially Odeon Entertainment—have made this neglected actor’s work available in mostly-pristine and intact versions never before seen by home audiences. Renown’s release of The Greed of William Hart has the original 71-minute running time of the film instead of Alpha’s bowdlerized 53-minute Horror Maniacs version. Simply Media resurrected The Curse of the Wraydons on a region-free disc, a film that had long been unavailable in any form.
Odeon Entertainment has gone the extra mile by releasing The Tod Slaughter Collection, compiling six of the actor’s films on two sets. The all-region PAL discs on these sets are a clear demonstration that Odeon’s DVDs are head and shoulders above America’s domestic products. What was garbled and murky before is now crisp and bright; this time the viewer can actually see the spittle fly from Slaughter’s lips!
As appreciated as these DVDs are, one can’t help but wish that Slaughter could have the same type of attention lavished on him for North American audiences, ideally in a box set collecting all of his macabre melodramas with a boon of supplemental features discussing their rich marriage of theatrical and cinematic traditions. Aye, perhaps one day.
Slaughter himself offered up one of the most insightful assessments of his own work when he said, “[Audiences] began to see that this old stuff is not just something antique, left over from the last century. They began… to see that it’s very much alive, in fact, and will never die.” Watching the handful of filmed artifacts Slaughter has left behind is like seeing a comet shooting across the night sky: though Tod was seen briefly, he blazed mightily. There are those who still watch for him, and famed filmmakers such as Ken Russell have gone on record to share their admiration for the old devil.
“It’s melodrama but it’s real,” the actor said of his craft, and it was true of him too. He might have enjoyed playing the bad guy, but Slaughter never once played it strictly for laughs. Cutting throats and threatening children demanded the same dedication and earnestness as reciting lines of Shakespeare. So although Tod Slaughter may not be remembered as well as other horror icons, there’s no mistaking that he was the genuine article.
However, there are some who purport that Slaughter’s reign is not yet over. In her book Paranormal Eastbourne, Janet Cameron writes that witnesses claim to have seen Tod’s spirit roaming the halls of the Hippodrome Theater, the site of his final performance:
“The ghost of Tod Slaughter, [sic] (1885-1956) makes an awful lot of noise and the sound of heavy chains beings dragged around are one of the most extreme manifestations of his presence.”
It just goes to show you that some people never change.