By the time Tod Slaughter made his first feature film appearance in 1935 he had accrued a lifetime of experience on the British stage. He specialized in revivals of Victorian melodramas, his so-called “new old melodramas” These plays gave him the opportunity to revel in all the grotesque grand guignol of favourites such as Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn and his signature role, that of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Incidentally the roles chosen for his first two film appearances). Melodrama, essentially is the struggle of good versus evil, and in playing the most outrageous, dastardly villains with such vigor and aplomb, Slaughter became a theatrical legend in his own time. His screen appearances are essentially filmed version of his plays, with even movies that originated as screenplays rather than stage plays following the same formula, both thematically and visually. Into this set up thunders Slaughter with his distinctly energetic and theatrical style. He has little concept of subtlety, preferring to hold the audience’s attention with sweeping gesture and (expertly delivered) lurid dialogue.
The Crimes of Stephen Hawke was Slaughter’s third film, and the immediate follow up to the success of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He plays the titular Stephen Hawke, a kindly moneylender by day who stalks the countryside wreaking havoc by night as the nightmarish “ Spine Breaker”. However, before we get to that it must be noted that the picture has one the most off beat and unusual beginning for a film (especially a horror film) that you are ever likely to see. After the credits, the camera pans out on a radio microphone and we are treated to a topical song by the comic musical duo Mr. Flotsam and Mr. Jetsam. Both in tuxedos and with Mr Flotsam playing the piano they are terribly “British” in the Noel Coward sort of way (although Mr Jetsam was actually Australian but I digress) and sadly have absolutely nothing to do with the film. Next up we hear from a Henry Hopkins, London’s last cat meat seller (that’s meat for cats not the meat of cats - I was worried for a moment) He tells us about how business isn’t what it used to be and…has absolutely nothing to do with the film.
Finally, the doubtlessly puzzled audience, lest they walk out of the theatre thinking they’ve wandered into the wrong film are introduced to the noted actor Tod Slaughter. When asked to introduce himself he immediately admits that “In my career I’ve murdered hundreds and hundreds of people”. The announcer asks rather sheepishly whether he has any favourite method of murder, to which Slaughter replies that “I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter”. Uh, we are still talking about fictional murders aren’t we? Aren’t we? He enthusiastically tells us about murdering Maria Marten and his grisly exploits as Sweeney Todd before introducing his new killing spree, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke. It’s a very odd start to the film that unwittingly makes you question where the real Tod Slaughter ends and the fictional one begins. To this day I’ve still got a lurking suspicion that he probably got mixed up sometimes and killed a few people for real. If nothing else the man certainly seems to take his work home with him.
However, the strangeness of the prologue merely serves to make us ill prepared for the opening scene of the movie. It starts with Slaughter skulking in some bushes (in an enormous hat) in the grounds of a country estate. A podgy yet adorably cute little boy comes over and asks him what he’s doing. “Can’t I look at a nice little boy’s garden?” he spits ominously. He beckons the boy over to show him a flower and the camera then quickly cuts to the boy’s nanny as we hear a piercing scream. A crowd gathers round the dead boy (the body is just out of shot) and people fearfully mutter about “the Spine Breaker!” It truly is a shocking beginning, as even in American pre code movies we wouldn’t expect to see a toddler brutally murdered by a predatory serial killer (especially in the opening scene!). Stephen Hawke (for it is he) is next seen galloping away by horse complaining that “my artistic ability was not appreciated”, before crackling evilly. Yes, actual cackling. The contrast of sadistic child murder and hokey melodrama couldn’t be sharper.
We then meet the kindly daytime version of Stephen Hawke, alongside his adopted daughter Julia and her would be beau Matthew (confidently played here by a young Eric Portman. It’s not often that Slaughter’s co-stars leave an impression but he does very well). They trust and love Stephen Hawke though unbeknownst to them he lives a double life. In true melodramatic fashion, Hawke uses his status to infiltrate the local rich families’ good graces in order to steal from them then finish them off as “the Spike Breaker”. However, this being a Tod Slaughter film things have to be taken to a few extremes. True to his villainous nature, Stephen Hawke has a deformed sidekick who does his bidding (I think there’s a law about it somewhere). In a normal film the sidekick would be a hunchback, or have a wooden leg, or perhaps wear an eye patch. Not for Tod Slaughter, oh no! His sidekick has all three at once! Take that Boris Karloff!
Despite it being noted that Stephen Hawke's hands “have sinews of steel” (he accidentally breaks a statue when he gets angry) and that he is insanely jealous of any man that goes near his daughter, no one seems to notice that kindly Stephen is the dreaded "Spine Breaker" (you’d think hanging around with a shifty hunchbacked, peg-legged, one eyed man might tip then off). The real reason for this is actually Slaughter’s remarkable transformation as he slips between the dual facets of Hawke’s life. Tod Slaughter, the actor was a deceptively large man (certainly over six foot tall) but in playing the kindly Stephen he shrinks down to an almost unrecognizably shriveled old man. The contrast between the body language of this performance and the dynamic fury of his murderous alter ego is amazing and obviously comes from Slaughter’s years of experience with quick changes on the stage. In this respect he is reminiscent of Lon Chaney, albeit only really being able to play the one character type.
At the end of the day, what all Tod Slaughter fans come to see is some gruesome murders. Or rather, Slaughter’s insane, eye rolling, gurning expressions as he revels in the sheer ecstasy and pleasure of his job (or hobby, take your pick). Luckily, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke does not disappoint, as he goes on a back breaking spree. In one fantastic scene, Hawke arrives by night at the home of his oldest friend to (obviously) murder him. Resplendent in a velvet cape that wouldn’t look out of place on Coffin Joe, he hovers over the hapless friend as we get a close up of his face, grinning and smiling as he breaks the poor man’s spine. In true Tod Slaughter fashion he exits giggling endlessly to himself like a child at Christmas, pleased as ever at an honest night’s work. A later scene sees him framed in shadow, almost Max Schreck-like as he creeps into another darkened room. No stealth for Slaughter, the man always makes an entrance.
Although his characters invariably are insane, it’s the over abundant sense of enthusiasm that makes Tod Slaughter such a great film star. Its as though he inherently understands the ridiculous nature of not only the scripts but of the genre itself (both horror and melodrama) and is thus determined to give the audience what they paid to see, not only first rate entertainment but grisly murder and lots of it. While the films generally aren’t explicit in the way of modern horror, his reveling in the process and detail of murder gives them a real vein of dark humour and a sense of (or at least a hint of) visceral depravity. Inevitably, as in The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, when the hero gets closer to uncovering the truth, Slaughter in turn ramps up the performance level and crashes and burns in a demented display of theatrics.
In this case, as Matthew unmasks Hawke as the villain and the officers of the law close in, Slaughter gets his big finale, proclaiming to the world gleefully “You’re right! I am the Spine Breaker! So many I’ve come to grips with!” before disappearing onto a rooftop for his inevitable fall. However, in a master class of true villainy he saves the best for last. He turns to the heroes, shakes his fists and cries, “You haven’t caught me yet, curse you! Hee! Hee! Hee!” before promptly falling off the roof. The quote itself doesn’t really do the unhinged nature of the performance justice. He’s every cliché of the mustache-twirling, cape wearing Victorian scoundrel, but in a style so outrageous that he tramples on these clichés and reinvents them for himself with his own mad rules. As I said at the start, you owe it to yourself to experience Tod Slaughter first hand. Finally, as he lies dying, he tries for redemption by, er…telling his daughter that she’s adopted. Thanks dad. Rather wonderfully, as the camera leaves the scene, the daughter looks distinctly unmoved as the thrice-deformed sidekick breaks down and starts to cry. And if all that is too much to take in we’re whisked back to the radio studio to see the announcer fast asleep! Well if The Crimes of Stephen Hawke didn’t keep him awake, I don’t know what will. Tod Slaughter looks on, rather bemused the wanders off as the credits roll.
These days he is often derogatorily labeled a “barnstormer”, or even worse “camp” for his scenery chewing acting style, but to see Slaughter in this way is to miss the dynamic, manic energy that he brings to each film. He positively steamrolls his way through each picture, rendering the supporting cast mere bystanders. Although melodrama is intended as the struggle of good and evil, it is only for Slaughter’s villains that we unashamedly root for. It is difficult to think of another film actor who consistently played villains, and more importantly whose villains become the focal point and raison d’etre of their films. And for all the talk of his theatrical acting style, it may be slightly unusual (and scarily, probably a considerably toned down version of his stage technique) but it never quite becomes over the top. Slaughter effortlessly pitches his performances to reach its pinnacle of madness at precisely the right moment, when all hell breaks loose. Up until the villain is caught out, Slaughter cackles and grins with a knowing wink to the audience, reeling them in to his diabolical schemes. It’s this ability to become the absolute focal point of the films, the one actor whom it is impossible to take your eyes off that is Tod Slaughter’s great skill. And of course, once mesmerized and under his spell, we too revel in his fiendish crimes.
It really is a shame that Tod Slaughter is not remembered in the same breath as the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre in the canon of classic horror. What’s also a shame is that for many people, British film horror started with Hammer in the 50s, rather than enjoying a healthy lease of life in the 30s and 40s due to Tod Slaughter. While hardly forgotten today, and with a sizable cult following, Tod Slaughter and his films have been nonetheless sidelined and unjustly derided by history. In his day he was more evil, more deranged and more sadistic than Karloff or Lugosi ever were, and he made films that even today can often startle but will always entertain. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, while not quite his best or most remembered is still a potent mix of dark humour and chilling horror. However, it’s Tod Slaughter that brings the “new old melodrama” to life with an energy that puts his contemporaries to shame.