It’s been a few weeks since we talked about Tod Slaughter, so it’s time now for the fifth and final chapter in my retrospective of this little talked about horror film star of the 30s and 40s. Today, we’ll take a look at two more of his films from this time period and the events leading up to his death.
The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936) starts off much the same way Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) did by being set in modern times. However, this film opens at the BBC Radio studios with an odd sequence featuring Flotsam and Jetsam. This duo (Bentley Collingwood Hilliam and Malcom McEachern) were a musical act involving a piano and songs filled with social commentary. What they are doing in this film remains a mystery. I’m sure they were highly recognizable at the time but now, they are all but forgotten and serve no purpose in the story. We then are graced with the presence of Tod Slaughter, who is being interviewed by the radio announcer as he talks about his villainous acts in Murder in the Red Barn (1935) and Sweeney Todd. From there, he begins to describe the details of his next film, which we are watching, and the story then finally begins.
Tod Slaughter plays the killer of the film, Stephen Hawke, and commits his first murder within moments of debuting on screen. He is mapping out a home with obvious plans to rob it. However, he is discovered by a young boy, whom he murders off screen. Hawke is known as “The Spine-Breaker” and is leaving a trail of death throughout Victorian England. In a change of pace from his other films, he is not out to marry a young girl as he is actually a father himself. He is still a money lender, as he often is in other films, but is also a more crazed killer with no real motivation.
Upon being discovered by an employee, he is forced to kill the man and then leave town. With the dead man’s son hot on his trail, Hawke ultimately returns when, ironically, his own daughter is being forced into marrying an older man after the man discovers Hawke is “The Spine-Breaker”. The movie ends with a rather good climatic rooftop scene and interesting but non-relevant reveal at the end. Our final scene oddly returns to the BBC studio with Tod Slaughter leaving the now-sleeping radio announcer as he chuckles off screen. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke offers a different take on the familiar Tod Slaughter storylines. It is well-worth tracking down and, at less than 70 minutes, is an easy and enjoyable late-night flick.
In 1940, Slaughter was back to his killing and blackmailing ways in Crimes at the Dark House. In the opening moments of the story, Slaughter is a killer who murders Sir Percival Glyde in Australia and decides to assume his identity in order to inherit his England estate. The real Glyde had been gone so long that nobody remembers what he looked like. Once he has acquired the estate, the fake Glyde begins scheming to marry a rich heiress for her money while killing all who suspect he may be an imposter. The story is loosely based on the novel The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and is actually one of Slaughter’s better and more cohesive stories. The usual elements are there but done well enough that they don’t seem too repetitive. Again, at less than 70 minutes long, you can’t go wrong on a rainy Friday night. Like most of his movies, both The Crimes of Stephen Hawke and Crimes at the Dark House are in the public domain, popping up on various DVD sets and YouTube.
With the arrival of World War II, the British film industry went dark and Slaughter returned to the stage in such horrific roles as Jack the Ripper and Mr. Hyde. Once the war was over, he returned to the screen as Spring-Heeled Jack in The Curse of the Wraydons (1946) and in adaptation of Burke and Hare in The Greed of William Hart (1946). He continued to grace the stage as the film roles decreased, playing opposite a young Peter Cushing in The Gay Invalid as well as various early television appearances. He was still starring in a Maria Marten play when he fell ill and died of coronary thrombosis in 1956 at the age of 70.
Slaughter’s films were quickly forgotten and, most likely, would have remained that way were it not for film historian William K. Everson. Everson introduced many to rare films through his screenings and the Theodore Huff Film Society. Everson’s original film notes are available online and highly recommended reading. As the video generation gave birth to an ever-increasing number of film buffs, Slaughter was eventually rediscovered.
While Tod Slaughter will never be considered an equal to legends like Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, his melodramatic horror films are certainly worth a visitation from time-to-time. You won’t have to look too hard and the price is certainly right. When the next rainy night leaves you searching for something to watch, do yourself a favor and discover Tod Slaughter.