By Dr. Abner Mality

And now just one final word to you, Dr. Isidore Fosco. Be loyal to your trust and it will pay you handsomely. Betray it and I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs!” --Sir Percival Glyde (Tod Slaughter)

The above quote serves as an excellent example of the ominous dialogue that Mr. Norman Carter Slaughter made his stock and trade. Better known (but not much better) as Tod Slaughter, this British thespian was the ultimate example of an actor who lovingly embraced the dark side. Murderous villainy was Slaughter’s ticket to the big time. But sadly, this killer of all killers is today only a tiny footnote in the history of screen infamy.

When one thinks of horror superstars, the usual names come to mind: Karloff, Lugosi, Price. The more studious film fan will throw in Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing...hell, even Robert Quarry can get a shout out. But very few will bring up the name of Tod Slaughter. This is a real shame, because I don’t think any of the film fiends mentioned above loved playing bloodthirsty villains more than Mr. Slaughter. In pre-1950 England, he was the epitome of evil. But his fame has faded to the point where even British film fans scarcely remember him.

So now, let your humble servant Dr. Mality fill in the blanks on this fiendish evildoer…

Many of Slaughter’s films and characters have been forgotten. But there is one who I’m betting you’ve heard of. That would be no less than Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweeney Todd, the barber who slit his customers’ throats for money and then sold the bodies to a bakery run by a crazy old woman, was a theatrical character who later made the jump to films and TV. No less than Johnny Depp played Sweeney in a 2007 film. But the best and ultimate Sweeney Todd will always be Tod Slaughter. The role was also his most famous, first in British theaters and then in a 1936 film that was a huge hit. We’ll take a closer look at Slaughter’s version of the character later.

Sweeney Todd was Slaughter’s most famous portrayal without a doubt, but his list of murderous villains was a long one. Other movies where he played evil characters included “Crimes at The Dark House”, “Horror Maniacs”, “The Ticket of Leave Man”, “The Face at the Window” and “It’s Never Too Late to Mend”.  Each of these was a rip roaring over the top period melodrama deeply rooted in Victorian “penny dreadfuls” and barnstorming theater productions. They were old-fashioned even in the 1930’s and 40’s, yet crowds turned out in force to see Slaughter’s wonderfully over the top and sinister performances. It’s pretty fair to say that no actor ever enjoyed playing complete rotters more than Tod Slaughter. Yet he stumbled into playing villains almost by accident.

He was born in 1885 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne as Norman Carter Slaughter. He was involved in the theater almost from the start and learned every aspect of the trade, including making sets, doing makeup and managing a theater company. In these early days, he’d play just about any role that was available, including the hero. In the early 1900’s, theater companies would tour all across the British islands, playing bombastic melodramas with sturdy heroes, helpless heroines and fiendish villains.
1925 was a pivotal year for Slaughter. He changed his name to Tod Slaughter and he also gained control of his own theater in London, known as the Elephant and Castle. Slaughter dived deeply into the bloodiest productions and cheerfully accepted typecasting as a murderous fiend. The Elephant and Castle hosted the English equivalent of France’s Grand Guignol, which was notorious for gore and torture.

Slaughter’s first real big success was “Maria Marten or The Murder In the Red Barn”. He played the nefarious Squire Corder, who impregnates a helpless young girl and then casually kills her. “You wanted to be a bride, Maria,” he leers. “So you shall be...the bride of death!” He then tries to frame an innocent gypsy for the crime.

The play was a huge success that played to packed houses and made Slaughter’s reputation as a hissable villain. In 1935, it was made into a film and was also successful. Slaughter was on his way…

Tod mostly abandoned his theatrical career (although he would never totally forsake it) and made a strategic alliance with British movie director George King. King was known for churning out a lot of “quota”, sensational movies done to satisfy a requirement that a certain amount of purely British movies be released each year. The partnership was a fruitful one. King worked with Slaughter on many of his best known films, which were the early equivalent of “grindhouse” movies.

1936 saw the release of his most famous film, “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. This story had been a theatrical smash for decades. Slaughter gave it everything he had as Sweeney Todd, the barber who slits rich customers throats and sends the bodies to baker Mrs. Lovatt, who produces some of the most delectable meat pies in London. When Sweeney sets his sights on killing a rich young man and stealing his bride, Mrs. Lovatt’s professional jealousy causes quite a bloody ruckus. Films focused on throat slitting and cannibalism were pretty thin in 1936 and the movie was a smash, although it was loathed by critics. Tod had one of his best lines here, asking one character innocently “Shall I polish you off, sir?”

The mold was now set for Slaughter and there was no turning back. Although he would occasionally have a “normal” role in forgettable films like “Song of the Road” and “Darby and Joan”, the public would now accept him as nothing but rotten. And Tod liked it that way himself. Where many actors would flee criminal or horror roles for fear of “typecasting”, Slaughter saw it as a positive boon.

“The Crimes of Stephen Hawke”, also released in 1936, continued his campaign of infamy. In this one, he had a very “Jekyll and Hyde” role. By day, Stephen Hawke is a mild-mannered clerk. By night, he stalks London as “The Spinebreaker”, a merciless fiend. In the first 15 minutes,  the Spinebreaker callously murders a child, a scene that would have been illegal across the pond in America, where the Hayes Code forbade such horror. Incredibly enough, once the Spinebreaker learns that he has an unknown daughter who is being blackmailed by another criminal, he becomes something of a heroic figure. This was rip-roaring, improbable blood and thunder melodrama at its best.

1937 was a busy year for Tod. In “It’s Never Too Late To Mend”, he plays the sadistic Squire Meadows, who has turned the prison he runs into a chamber of horrors where torture rules the day. When he frames an innocent man and has him imprisoned, he finds the tables turned in satisfying fashion. This one somewhat resembles the later Val Lewton classic “Bedlam” in plot, if not quite in quality. Lewton was a genius. “The Ticket of Leave Man” was another robust role for Slaughter. He plays a maniacal killer and thief known as “The Tiger”. Another man is suspected of being The Tiger and must find the real thing before he’s caught and executed.

1939 brought “The Face At The Window”, perhaps the highest budgeted film that Slaughter appeared in. This film is the closest to a true supernatural horror that Tod was in. Set in late 19th century Paris, the movie is about...what else?...a fiendish killer known as The Face. The Face is actually pretty close to a werewolf and is one ugly dude. Who is The Face? Could it be the wealthy Chevalier de Gardo, played by Slaughter? The plot is complex and twisted, involving a bank robbery and other shenanigans. The costuming and period detail are actually quite lush and the budget is unheard of for a Slaughter film, although the bloody antics are pleasingly familiar.

Slaughter’s movies were also known for the gimmicks and ballyhoo he created to lure patrons in. For instance, he was among the first, if not THE first, to offer “fright insurance” to customers’ next of kin if they should die of shock while watching the movie. He would also advertise a nurse and doctor in attendance if patrons should suffer a heart attack. He started such gimmicks even during his theater days; during theatrical engagements of “Sweeney Todd”, he would pop up during the intermission in the lobby dressed as Sweeney, with a bloody apron and carrying a straight razor. Of such showmanship would later impressarios like William Castle be inspired.

Critics tended to loathe Slaughter’s output, but his 1940 movie “Crimes At The Dark House” got some grudging respect. In this one, he plays a scheming murderer who kills the lost heir Sir Percival Glyde in the gold fields of Australia. He does this by putting a spike into the sleeping victim’s skull with a mallet! The killer then assumes the identity of Sir Percival and returns to England to take control of the Glyde Estate. Once there, he has a lip smacking time pursuing pretty young maids and robbing others blind. Anybody who remembers the real Sir Percival he kills without compunction. This movie was a brisk and enjoyable melodrama with nice sets and costumes and Tod enjoying himself even a bit more  than usual.

Just as Slaughter’s career was ready to leap to the next level, a real life horror interrupted the staged bloodletting he provided: World War II. With Britain under siege and suffering severe shortages of all goods, film production was cut down to a bare minimum. Tod’s “quota quickies” were first to come under the knife. Horror films were also frowned on; the British movie industry focused on either light comedies to brighten the mood or stirring war pictures to get morale up. Slaughter virtually disappeared during the war years. In 1946, he tried to pick up where he left off, but never regained his former momentum.

His first movie back was “Curse of the Wraydons”, also known by the more lurid name of “Strangler’s Morgue”. It was a rather routine period potboiler set during the Napoleonic Wars, with Tod playing a killer named “Spring Heeled Jack” after the legendary boogeyman of English legend. Unfortunately, this version of Jack lacks the outlandishness of the real thing. Slaughter, though, gave the part his usual ghoulish glee.

1948 saw the last of the true blood and thunder melodramas of the type that made Slaughter famous, “The Greed of William Hart”, aka “Horror Maniacs”. He was in fertile ground with this one, which was obviously inspired by the real life horror of grave robbers Burke and Hare. The names were changed, with Slaughter playing resurrection man “Wally Hart” while Henry Oscar played his partner “Mr. Moore”. This was one cheap and nasty, with some very ghoulish scenes and Slaughter hamming it up with his usual leers and cackles.

This was pretty much the end of Tod Slaughter as a big name British star. Tastes were rapidly changing in the movie world and the overdone period melodramas that Tod specialized in were considered hopelessly old fashioned. He could no longer receive top billing even for low budget films and the fact that he never “caught on” in America the way that Boris Karloff had didn’t help his cause. He also was in quite a bit of financial difficulty which didn’t help.

Still, Slaughter soldiered on into the early 1950’s. He appeared in a number of short subjects and obscure early British TV shows, often playing off his villainous past. Even if he wasn’t on the top of the heap anymore, a generation of Brits looked back fondly on the moustache-twirling fiend and remembered the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.

By the time 1956 rolled around, Slaughter had declared bankruptcy and was appearing in bit parts, such as “Innkeeper” in a TV adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Victorian melodramas were a thing of the past and no doubt Tod was probably not unhappy to pass away quietly. It was the same year that Bela Lugosi, another star of over the top horror fallen on hard times, had passed away. Ironically, Slaughter missed just by a year or two the huge revival of bloody period horror thanks to Hammer Studios and movies like “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “The Horror of Dracula”.

These Hammer costume dramas really owed a lot to Tod Slaughter’s films. It’s been said that those movies were the perfect bridge between the lurid stage horrors of the Victorian era and the bloody period movies of Hammer. Although blood was rarely shown in a Slaughter film, the mayhem was generally profuse and there was a degree of detail in the murders that was unusual. When Sweeney Todd slit a throat, the Spinebreaker killed a child or the false Sir Percival Glyde rammed a spike into the real Sir Percival’s head, it was a transgression of good taste and one step closer to the gore of Hammer and future horror.

Slaughter’s performances are also a link to the old British “barnstorming” theatrical tradition. The broad physical movements, the rich rolling voice, the cackling laughter was a throwback to when villains had to pour on the coal for theatrical audiences. Even Vincent Price at his most emotive didn’t quite have the lusty approach to villainy that Tod Slaughter did.

Once Slaughter passed away, he started to slip into obscurity almost immediately. His movies were shown during the early days of TV, but even by the 60’s, they were no longer considered fashionable. As the generation of theater-goers from the 30’s and 40’s passed away, memories of Tod Slaughter faded, except for true film students and fans of old horror movies. The rise of Youtube did help to give him a bump in popularity...people could finally see “The Ticket of Leave Man” or “Crimes In the Dark House” there if they wanted to. Also, when the musical stage version of “Sweeney Todd” became a smash and a modern movie followed, there was another brief flurry of interest in Mr. Slaughter.

But not much. It is perhaps too much to expect 21st century audiences to see and understand the legacy of this forgotten horror star. Villainy now is so bloody, so grim, so foul mouthed and unsentimental that Slaughter’s fiends would blanch to see it. This is unfortunate. He’s a part of the horror tradition and should be honored. That’s just what we will do here at Wormwood Chronicles!