This week, we continue our look at the career of the little-known and under-appreciated horror star Tod Slaughter. As the 1930s arrived and film was transitioning to sound, Slaughter was beginning to age and transition as well. He had moved from leading man roles into villainous portrayals of Long John Silver and William Hare. “Mr. Murder” was establishing himself as the resident evil-doer on British stage when George King Productions decided it was time to bring some of Slaughter’s better known melodramatic performances to life.
At the age of 49, Slaughter debuted on the silver screen in Murder in the Red Barn (1935), an adaption of a popular stage play based on real events from 1827. The Red Barn Murder happened in Polstead, Suffolk, England and concerned the murder of young Maria Marten and her lover William Corder. Maria was only 24 when she started a romance with the younger William Corder. She already had two children from previous relationships, scandalous at the time. Corder was a ladies man with a less than respectable reputation. Corder wanted to marry Marten after they had a child and he reportedly pressured her into marriage after claiming she was going to be prosecuted for having bastard children.
Telling Maria they needed to elope, he encouraged her to dress as a man to avoid suspicion and to meet him at the Red Barn at night to avoid the local authorities. She was never to be seen again. He claimed they were married but that she could not return due to the threat of prosecution. A series of other excuses followed for her disappearance and family members became suspicious. It was Maria’s stepmother who claimed to have a dream that her stepdaughter was murdered and buried in the Red Barn. Her body was eventually recovered with Corder’s green handkerchief still wrapped around her neck. Corder was arrested, place on trial and found guilty. He was sentenced to death but didn’t confess to the murder until the noose was around his neck.
Over the years, the legendary murder became the subject of countless stage plays and film adaptations but the most well-known amongst horror fans is the 1935 film with Tod Slaughter. The film opens rather uniquely with a master of ceremonies introducing the cast on a stage as if we are getting ready to watch a play. What follows is an adaption of the real murder with Slaughter playing an older version of Squire William Corder and Sophie Stewart as a more naïve Maria Marten. Here, Corder seduces Maria, who eventually becomes pregnant with her first and only child. Shaming her family and kicked out of the home by her stern father, Maria falls into the arms of Corder, who plots their elopement and her death. He is poised to marry into money and Maria will ruin his future. There is also Carlos the gypsy (Eric Portman) who is falsely accused of Maria’s death and who seeks redemption as he suspects Corder of Maria’s murder. Ultimately, it is Corder’s gun that gives him away as the murderer.
There are some truly effective horror scenes when Corder murders Maria and drags her body into her eventual grave. Then, we get treated to a grave digging scene as Corder is forced to unearth Maria to prove his innocence. While Murder in the Red Barn may be dated in overall presentation, this low-budget surprise actually stands out as one of Tod Slaughter’s better performances. A wonderful start in what was an unfortunately short cinematic career. He is in full-blown hammy and over-dramatized form, making this a fun and quick late-night viewing at just under an hour.
Film critic Leonard Martin praised the film in a 2010 article where he recalls being introduced to the film by legendary Bill Everson. The film is in the public domain, often popping up in Mill Creek sets or countless places online. Check it out on YouTube and begin your own journey into the film career of Tod Slaughter.
Next week, we take a look at Tod Slaughter’s best-known film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936).