Sunday, 13 October 2013

Tod Slaughter haunts my murky memory.... (or at least a few of the same streets).

On the mysterious Bushey Studios, the kind of place where both I and Tod Slaughter stalked....
Currently I am working on a book on killers in film, and this has lead me to perhaps England’s first real horror star, a master of melodramatic villainy, Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was total crowd-pleasing ham of the stage and then, during the 1930s mostly, of the cinema; if you weren’t literally hissing and booing him, then he wasn’t doing his job. He was mostly recognised for his “Sweeney Todd”, but he also played dastardly bad guys called “The Spinebreaker” and “The Wolf” and so on. I would even go so far as to say that his smarmy grin and murderous cackling are the kind of thing that inspired Batman’s nemesis, The Joker.
But anyway, I was surprised to discover that Slaughter made some of his films at Bushey Studios. Well, I grew up in Bushey in a tiny dead-end street: at the bottom was a field where they kept a horse called Trigger, fields that I would also cross to get to school. These were also the fields that spread to the end of our garden: we had a long, long garden (so it seemed to me) and at the bottom we had a gate in the fence that opened out onto those fields and we used to go blackberry picking there. But, across those fields was a wooded area and in that wooded area was a great burnt out building. I recall walking through once with my mother on a public trail when I was probably around six years old, and I remember looking at this building and my mum telling me that these were Bushey studios that had burnt down. That charred husk did intimidate and frighten me, standing there amongst the trees in the clearing as evidence of the destructive power of fire … but the truth is that memory is a faulty thing, of course. I have tried to look up the history of Bushey Studios but there seems to be very little out there; I’ve searched online and looked through my books, but I can’t find much at all except that they were originally built by renowned local artist Hubert von Herkomer and ran from 1913 to 1985. They were known for quota-quickies and sex comedies… yes, Bushey sex comedies, if you will. Some commentators say that Tigon did some projects there. They were also, at one time, the longest standing studios in the world, it is said. But it would seem to be that its history is quite a lost one. Perhaps I will find some decent account one day.

Well, since my charred vision would have been around the early 1970s and the studio went on long after that, I largely suspect my memory is at fault. Nevertheless, I have never quite forgotten that chill I enjoyed thinking that a burnt-out film studio seemed quite a creepy and fearsome thing. This is also just to mention how surprisingly close to home the finds can be when researching this sort of thing. I’m not especially a Slaughter fan, for there is too much fakery about him for my taste, but nevertheless it’s fun to know he did his villainy in the same murky realm as my childhood memories.
But anyway, here is a little passage on Tod Slaughter from my book, not a definitive edit by any means, but a taster.
Tod Slaughter is the throat-cutter - naturally.

The truth is that Tod Slaughter probably did not possess the oddness of Lugosi nor the subtlety and skills of Lorre and Karloff to have matched their career highlights. He is very broad, twiddling his moustache and skipping from murder scenes uttering “Heheheheh!”; and he was so famed for this that one can safely draw an evolution from Slaughter to The Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. He practically comes with speech-bubbles. Slaughter represents the kind of performance that would carry well in melodramatic theatre, utilising the kind of easily identifiable techniques outlined by the dramatist André de Lorde in his guide for actors. For example:
The eyes. – Half-closed: malice, disdain. Lowered: great respect, shame, etc.
The Body. – With shame, and often with terror, the body is held in, the back is curved, the arms held tightly by the sides … with fear and with repulsion, the torso is held back.[1]
And so on. Indeed, it is a style suited to the physical nature of theatre: the distance between stage and audience does not especially allow the remarkable nuances possible with the close-ups of film and television cameras. But this is also an actor’s short-hand indicating what and who they are, quickly and symbolically, which for example creates necessary urgent recognition within the confines of one-act plays of The Grand-Guignol. They play upon and reinforce the gestures and style of what popular culture identifies as indicators of good and bad characters and of heightened emotion. It simplifies. 
Slaughter himself is quite a heavy-set looking man, not particularly rotund, but more forceful than naturally imposing, pushy rather than intimidating. He lets his head dip so it is more in line with his shoulders, reducing his natural height as if his greed and murderous ways have left him hunched over with evil-doing. He looks conflicted between toadying and a barely repressed urge to pounce. Often this angling forward, his constant leaning in towards his co-stars, is matched with the ever-present and false upward grin which also forces his eyebrows upwards in his long, slightly jowly visage. It is indeed the kind of face that you imagine belonging to the well-fed, patriarchal and corrupt country squires that he often played; indeed he was already into his fifties when his screen career took off. Jonathan Rigby’ description of Slaughter’s essence is particularly English in flavour:
With his George Robey eyebrows, jug ears and prominent belly, his villainy is redolent of boiled beef and carrots gone rancid […][2]
But in some ways, his face is too plain for the pantomime villainy he trades in: there’s a kind of softness there that perhaps projects that he really is only play-acting; it does not really possess the vividness or distinctiveness of his peers. His face does not have the brooding of Legosi, nor the pathos of Karloff, for example; this is why he pushes his face to such extremes. There are moments when his physical technique is quite remarkable, as in ‘The Crimes of Stephen Hawke’ where – to aid his double-life – he seems to cause his body to shrink to half its size in order to appear to be a feeble old man. Nevertheless, this is a broad transformation from one archetype to another.
That smile is simultaneously shark-like and earnestly welcoming, both obsequious and devious. Occasionally he relies upon menacing moustaches, which he troubles and twirls, and those wide grins and bugged-out eyes to convey the malformed souls of his schemers and murderers. He is outsized in his films because those around him are often such dull foils, just as Sherlock Holmes is so brilliant because others are so slow on the uptake. He may have liked to brag of his character’s murderous ways when promoting his films, but there is never any doubt that he is merely playing at being despicable. The phoniness is essential to enjoying him.
Yes, you may hiss the villain.

[1]             André de Lorde, ‘Pour jouer la comédie de salon, guide pratique du comédien mondain’ (1908) 83-86 –
               Quoted in Richard J Hand and Michael Wilson, ‘Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter Performance Studies)’ (University of Exeter Press (1 Aug 2002) pg. 40
[2]        Rigby, Jonathan, ‘English Gothic: a century of horror cinema’, ( Reynolds & Hearn Ltd; 2nd Revised edition, London, 2002) pg. 27


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

"Self-Portrait": a short film

Lewis Rose, 2013

The short film formula is quite ideal for horror: the brief length allows the genre to indulge in its penchant for fun-size nightmare-logic and surrealism. A lack of narrative structure and realism is not necessarily a hindrance to the thing working; the pleasures of the uncanny can suffice. For example:

 My friend Lewis Rose has made a short film “Self-portrait” which lays out in the corners of the horror genre, looking the Gothic part and feeling like a variation on ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’ and reminding the viewer perhaps of a ‘Night Gallery’ skit. But ‘Self-portrait’ is not looking for the imposition of terror and an external threat: rather it finds its horror in basic human anxiety, self-doubt and a simple promise of body-horror. It is even, a little perversely, optimistic and empathising in its conclusions that the broken image is the one worth embracing.