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From the Vaults: 'Crimes at the Dark House' (1940)

May 17, 2010 |  6:56 am

Crimes We have commenter Fibber McGee to thank for this week's movie. Also, I have a new boyfriend, and his name is Tod Slaughter! (Both of those are real names! Oh, OK... Tod's real first name was Norman...)

I read Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White" many years ago on a long train trip, and remember it as being the slow-burn variety of Victorian novel, with very careful pacing and many long descriptive passages that don't pay off until hundreds of pages later... it's wonderful, but requires many hours of devoted attention. Well, that simply won't do for director George King and his team (the credited writers are Edward Dryhurst, Frederick Hayward and H.F. Maltby), who boil the entire complicated story down to 69 minutes of melodrama. We open with Mr. Slaughter hammering a tent stake through someone's head, and the action only ratchets up from there!

The nice thing for King et al. about Collins' novel is that, while it may be long and complicated, it's not particularly subtle -- the hero is named Hartwright, for one thing. So it actually translates fairly smoothly to the melodrama treatment. Slaughter's victim in the first scene is a wealthy baronet named Sir Percival Glyde; Slaughter's unnamed character simply steals Glyde's identity and comes home to England, where he swiftly marries beautiful heiress Laura (Sylvia Marriott) and menaces everyone else in sight, including the mysterious woman who claims to be Glyde's first wife (also Sylvia Marriott). When clever Dr. Fosco (Hay Petrie) threatens to expose the impersonation, Slaughter snarls, "I'll feed your entrails to the pigs!"

Dark house slaughter I've never seen a villain having so much fun. If his mustache were a little longer, he'd be twirling it merrily. Slaughter should have played The Grinch, or Count Olaf from "A Series of Unfortunate Events." As soon as his character arrives at the ancestral Glyde manse, he's leering at the servants, actually licking his lips at the most attractive one (a gesture that causes the long-suffering housekeeper to close her eyes for a moment). "From now on, she shall be my chambermaid," cackles Slaughter.

Later, when he marries poor Laura, she has the good sense to shrink from him; there's a wonderful scene as he climbs the stairs to their marriage bed, where she's waiting in terror -- the film cuts from her terrified eyes to Slaughter's hand, lasciviously stroking the banister as he makes his way up the stairs. Aggh! He's a fun villain, even though he's utterly repugnant, and he holds the screen much better than poor Hartwright (Geoffrey Wardwell) who gets the girl but not the audience. I'm stoked to see Slaughter's version of "Sweeney Todd."

But of course, there's nothing more fun for a villain than murder, and Slaughter's character slays right and left, apparently just for the heck of it. Woe betide that poor chambermaid. And while nobody's entrails are actually fed to any pigs, the deaths are pretty baroque, and Slaughter seems to enjoy every one -- my favorite is when he pauses while leaving a murder scene to point at the corpse and cackle to himself one last time. Boo! Hiss!

As for Slaughter himself, he was born in England and had a tremendously respectable stage career before his first movie came out in 1935, when he was 50. Besides "Dark House," his films include "The Crimes of Stephen Hawke," in which he plays a serial killer known as "Spine-Breaker"; "The Face at the Window"; and "The Greed of William Hart," about the famous body-snatchers Burke and Hare. Slaughter went bankrupt before dying and his work has fallen into obscurity, which is a bloody shame if you ask me. Free Tod Slaughter!

Experience the villainy on YouTube. Or I'll set the dogs on you! (Actually, this performs the impressive feat of boiling the 69-minute movie down to 9 minutes, so be warned -- in addition to villainy, there are spoilers):

Will such heinous crimes go unpunished? Muahahahaha!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Photos: George King Productions. Top: I do not recall any actual bloody knives in this movie, but who am I to argue with a poster? Below: Tod Slaughter finds it's easy when you're evil.