Sunday, December 19, 2010


Had he lived to see it, I'm pretty sure that Wilkie Collins would have approved of Tod Slaughter in Crimes at the Black House (1940, directed by George King). Collins famously wrote "sensation novels" and often rephrased his work for the Victorian stage, an idiom known for lurid sensation. Slaughter, that hammiest of character actors from the early talkies, would have been right at home in one of Collins's productions. It's pitched to his sensibilities.

Crimes at the Dark House is (very) loosely based on Collins's The Woman in White, and like that book, it features an early iteration of the "one damned thing after another" plot so favored by crime fiction. We begin with a murder, with a man getting a metal tent spike to the head (discreetly, mind you), followed by the return of one Sir Percival Glyde (Slaughter) to his ancestral home to claim his inheritance. It's obvious to the viewer--if not to the characters in the film--that Glyde is an impostor. Unfortunately for him, he discovers that the man he replaced is up to his eyeballs in debt, and now he's stuck with the role. Not one to let opportunity pass, he then looks to marry the wealthy heiress, Laurie Fairlie, who he subsequently bumps off and attempts to replace with the daughter of the real Sir Percival. Meanwhile, he's bumping off the people who suspect his masquerade with the zeal of a natural born serial killer.

The filmmakers here have moved the villain of the piece to forefront (he's not nearly so prominent in the original novel), and why not? Slaughter is the attraction here, and the movie lets him chew the scenery with gusto. The movie is really built around Slaughter, and every other element is designed to amplify his screen persona. Cinematically, this isn't a lot different than a filmed play. Director George King does not indulge in any kind of detectable style with his camera, beyond pointing it at his actors and letting them hit their marks. There's a certain appeal in this, but the overall effect is of a film that seems vaguely dated even for its 1940 production date, though in some other respects, it seems remarkably forward thinking. Its take on bastardy and the philandering of its villain is certainly something that would not have flown in a Hollywood production of similar vintage, and these are elements that make Sir Percival an even slimier villain than one expects.

Slaughter, for his part, rises to the occasion. His part is so broad and his villainy so delectable that one is rather willing to forgive the movie its shortcomings (this is a common theme among Slaughter's movies, I should note; Slaughter never had the kind of breakout, iconic film that Karloff or Chaney had, not even his version of Sweeney Todd). It's hard to resist the way he giggles while he bumps off his enemies, or the way he relishes lines like "I'll feed your entrails to the pigs!" That's some unrepentant villainy, right there.

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