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A Face at the Window (DVD)

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Actors: Tod Slaughter / Studio: Odeon Entertainment / Released: 16 Feb 2009 / Run Time: 192 minutes

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      10.10.2013 09:46
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      Three showcases for Britain's clunkiest horror star

      This three-film set is about £10 on amazon at time of writing.

      Tod Slaughter was a British horror star on stage and screen in the 30s and 40s. The films he made were B-pictures, 'quota quickies' made cheaply and quickly to fulfil a government-imposed requirement that a certain percentage of films shown in Britain had to be made here. No one seems to have taken the quickies terribly seriously, and nowadays very, very few are known at all. Tod Slaughter would tour regional theatres giving barnstorming performances in old-fashioned melodramas. His best known role is probably Sweeney Tod (he starred in the first sound film adaptation of the story); his best film is probably Crimes at the Dark House, a version of Wilkie Collins's Woman In White.

      This set contains three of Slaughter's films. They're all 'quota quickies'. All are cheap and short (about an hour each; that's about the same as an episode of The Wire). Sets are cramped, and there are no location scenes. You probably won't recognise any of the actors apart from Slaughter (one contains an actor called Leonard Henry, but predictably enough, it isn't the Lenny Henry who is famous now; he wasn't even born then). He has a repertory company of supporting players who tend to crop up in several of his films, most notably posh-voiced Marjorie Taylor as a succession of damsels in distress.

      Slaughter gives the exact same performance in each film. He's a big man - tall and a little portly - but he's oddly nimble in his movements. In fact he kind of bobs up and down when he walks; it's more a prance than a walk. He waggles his eyebrows a lot, and has a good line in muah-hah-hah-hahhh laughter. He twirls his moustache and bares his teeth. Basically, he acts like he's on stage in the provinces, giving a too-broad villainous performance to impress the yokels. The fact that this style of acting is not well-suited to cinema does not appear to have occurred to him.

      Slaughter is the only reason to see these films, and how well you react to his incredibly camp acting will determine how well you react to the films. I think he's a hoot, personally, and have seen (I think) most of his surviving films now. And don't be too inclined to sneer - he's very obviously self-aware enough to know that his audience is very probably laughing along with him rather than swooning in terror. He's not a million miles from Vincent Price, in terms of performance, although no doubt Price would have been mortified by the comparison.

      **The Face at the Window (1939)**

      This one is allegedly set in Paris (the supporting cast all have cut-glass English accents, though). Slaughter is the Chevalier del Gardo, who is secretly a murderer known as The Wolf. He robs a bank, murders a man, and has designs on the bank manager's lovely daughter. The plot cracks along at a hell of a pace, and takes in mad science, a shady inn, and a boring romance. In fact the dialogue is often rattled off very quickly, as if trying to cram everything into the film's short running time.

      It's allegedly set in 1880, but the mad scientist has only just worked out that applying electricity to dead animals can make their muscles twitch, something that was known at least 50 years earlier. And the police are uncommonly stupid even by the standards of B-movie police. The characters and dialogue are absurdly perfunctory. However, when a grotesque face looms in at a window in one scene it is genuinely quite unsettling, which frankly was the last thing I was expecting. I find it hard to believe Tod Slaughter films were scary even at the time they were made; for one of them to make me jump now was a welcome surprise.

      It's very creaky, and charmingly innocent, despite including prostitutes and an attempted rape. When a maidservant says to a man "I'll take you up the back way," there is no hint that anyone might have thought she meant anything rum at all. I, on the other hand, laughed for a good two minutes. As with all of these films, it lights up when Slaughter is letting rip, but otherwise is nondescript.

      This film has been digitally restored, and the picture quality is very good for a film of its age and status - it's mostly free of scratches and looks clear and relatively sharp. This film gets a disk to itself, and includes trailers for other releases (all British B-movies. I've only seen one of them). The other two films share a disk, and are not quite so pristine.

      **The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936)**

      This film has Slaughter as a 19th century moneylender who is secretly a murderer known as The Spinebreaker. He wears a preposterous hat, but wins brownie points by killing a really annoying child at the start of the film (as in all these films, none of the violence is shown in any kind of detail).

      He soon gets into hot water when the son of one of his victims swears revenge on him and pursues him relentlessly throughout England (represented by a grand total of four cheap sets). Meanwhile his daughter is in love with the man who is pursuing him, but is about to be blackmailed into marriage with a man she detests. This is an unusual film in that it allows Slaughter's character a shot at redemption, and doesn't have him lusting after the heroine.

      It's cheap, overacted nonsense, of course. My favourite bit was when a clock chiming the hour was represented by what was very probably someone off camera hitting a saucepan with a spoon. Bizarrely, though, the film begins in modern day London (for the time) at the recording of a radio programme of music hall variety acts. This is a bizarre framing narrative, and also showcases some of the most vexatious comedy acts I've ever seen committed to film. There's a man who seems to have built a dire comic routine around anecdotes about cat food. And then there are Flotsam and Jetsam, two awful, awful singers who do 'funny' songs based on the newspaper headlines of the day (allegedly). It seems horribly unjust that, while Al Bowlly was killed in the Blitz, these two made it through the war (well, almost. Jetsam died in 1945. Flotsam lived until the 60s, though).

      When the film has wasted about eight minutes of its running time on this nonsense, Tod Slaughter turns up and introduces the main story. It's a really peculiar way to lead into a film, and not something I've ever seen before, but I guess it just emphasises the extent to which Slaughter's films were meant to be funny as much as thrilling, emphasising their own artificiality in a way that could be seen as postmodern, but was probably just done because the film was ten minutes too short otherwise.

      The picture quality and soundtrack of this are a lot worse than Face at the Window, and it jumps a few times.

      **Never Too Late To Mend (1937)**

      This one has Slaughter as a crooked justice of the peace in the early Victorian era. He abuses his authority shamelessly, trying to get the beau of the girl he lusts after thrown into prison for poaching (a plan that doesn't quite work). In the prison he enjoys torturing the prisoners, while outside he does everything in his power to win the hand of farmer's daughter Susan.

      I guess this is kind of a precursor to those exploitation prison movies that became popular in the 60s and 70s, and in which torture by corrupt prison authorities was a feature (along with lots of female nudity and softcore lesbianics). Most of Slaughter's victims are men, though, and the mistreatment of a young boy is doubtless meant to tug at our heart strings. The film tries to pass itself off as a moral fable about prison reform, but I very much doubt anyone was going to go and see it for that.

      Outside prison it's the usual Slaughter antics of duping fathers of attractive women, blackmailing postal officials and drugging enemies. This time Slaughter has an unflattering walrus moustache, but he gets probably his best ever overacting scene at the film's climax. The rest of the cast are generally constrained by acting as Slaughter's stooges, but there are some fun bursts of overacting from them too, especially the abused boy. This might be the most fun of the three films in this set.

      The picture quality on this is better than on Stephen Hawke, but there's an ever-present squeaking noise on the soundtrack that is rather trying. Still, it's watchable, and it's great that these films are getting released at all.

      The package is competed by a booklet giving a quick précis of Slaughter's career. Unfortunately my copy has the pages in the wrong order. I'm not sure if that's just a binding problem with mine or a printing error that affects the whole run. It's not a major problem either way.

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