Exploring a new, long overdue biography of Britain’s most barnstorming horror film villain.
We live in very dull times, where our film stars are, by and large, a collection of faceless empty vessels who are unwaveringly convinced of their own importance and the need to spout half-baked opinions on everything from politics to nutrition to a slavering on-line fan base, and where ‘celebrity’ is apparently all. Books of nothingness by people who have become famous for shouting on YouTube videos or ghosted works by people who have done little with their worthless, meaningless lives besides chasing fame at all cost clog up the bookshelves while the ‘educated’ classes – who you might have at least once relied on for naked snobbery – fall over themselves to praise the idols of the great unwashed (as long as said idols don’t then say anything off-script, in which case they will be immediately cancelled). News websites and their increasingly free print parents desperately engage in click bait and yoofspeak that they presumably think engages them with ‘the kids’ rather than making them look clingy and pathetic, and movie magazines – we are, after all, getting towards a discussion of movies in a moment – encourage a mentality that says anything made before the 1980s (apart from the odd Disney or Bond film – now very suspect because of those pesky ‘dated views’ – and the first Star Wars) as efectively not existing at all. The movie nostalgia that dominated the monster magazines I read in my youth was excessive, certainly, but had a certain value nevertheless, introducing the reader to the whole history of cinema. Today, both the old and the off-mainstream is almost entirely ignored. For a world so concerned about elitism and one percentism, people seem oddly wedded to only enjoying the commercialised output of the major corporations.
Which brings me, in a rambling sort of way, to Tod Slaughter, Denis Meikle and Hemlock Books, who all come togather in Mr Murder, a new and exhaustive biography of the legendary melodrama star.
Meikle is a horror film expert from way back when, often specialising in Hammer Films; Hemlock Books are Meikle’s own imprint, again specialising in books about horror films. Slaughter, for those not in the know, was a decidedly vigorous actor who appeared in several films adapted from the stage melodramas where he first made his name – the likes of Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Maria Marten, or Murder in ther Red Barn. What all this means is that this new biography – co-written by Meikle, Kip Xool and Doug Young – is unlikely to get the sort of attention that it deserves. Empire are not going to run a huge Tod Slaughter article to coincide with the publication. Meikle is not going to appear on The One Show to discuss the career of the great barnstorming actor. If quality meant for anything, then this book would be a best seller, praised to the skies by whichever newspapers still review books. But we don’t live in that world.
So I’ll do what little I can to convince you that this is the best film star biography that you might ever hope to read. That’s high praise, I know, but I’d back it up by saying that for me, the book completely fulfills the two essentials of any such volume. To begin with, it is exhaustive to the point where you find yourself shaking your head at the sheer amount of detail covering a widely forgotten life. Secondly, Tod Slaughter is a fascinating and important subject who has hardly been covered at all, and so even the most basic information here is fresh and new.
Slaughter was one of Britain’s biggest stars in the early decades of the 20th Century, though you’d never know it if you read the histories of British cinema or theatre. Like Hammer Films, or Carry On, or practically any other low brow populist entertainment of yesteryear, Slaughter’s work has been dismissed, if not entirely ignored by those who consider themselves the tastemakers and the moral and social superiors, even as they write ‘down with the proles’ articles about I’m a Celebrity or Eastenders. Slaughter was not popular even with the genre critics – if you saw anything about his work in the horror books and magazines of the 1970s or early 1980s (absolutely the last time you’d ever see anything about these doddery old films in the mainstream genre press), it was invariably dismissive. The official word was that Slaughter was a bad actor who could not leave behind his theatrical performances in his films, and the movies themselves were creaky rubbish. Yet even as we read this (and I say ‘we’ because there was a definite group of us), we were starting to see Slaughter’s films on TV – late night or mid-afternoon broadcasts on the fledgeling Channel 4, for instance, back before it was run by people worried about demographics and the approval of fellow Soho House patrons – and the films were magnificent. Glorious, unrestrained melodrama, fast-paced and deliciously gothic, all anchored by the central performance of Slaughter, who was less theatrical, more gleeful as he tore up the screen with a level of cheerful villainy that has never been seen since. Slaughter was of his time, perhaps, but that somehow made these films all the more enthralling – you just didn’t see acting like this, or faces like this, anymore. Perhaps he was rare, even in the 1930s, and that’s why he was so popular with audiences back then. Slaughter’s films had an authenticity about them, a lack of pretension that I imagine also marked his stage shows. He was never going to appeal to the chin-strokers and the academics. Slaughter was too real for that. He was the people’s villain.
The book is so thorough that we are 108 pages in before we get to the films, and that opening half is perhaps the most interesting. I knew little of Slaughter’s life or his long stage career, and it’s a fascinating tale, not least in the way that Slaughter moved from playing the heroic lead to the villain accidentally and reluctantly, before embracing his new career and rewriting his past. The Slaughter story is an intriguing one, a genuine rags to riches and back to rags tale of someone who struggled to adapt to changing tastes – his melodramas were deliberately old-fashioned even in the 1920s, but as audiences tired of the revivals and even started to mock the stories, Slaughter failed to adapt. He was in his fifties when he made his first film, and was rapidly becoming yesterday’s man. Had he been born a couple of decades later, it’s not inconceivable that Slaughter might have been a Hammer Horror star – as it was, his films were invariably ‘quota quickies’ – films made on the cheap to fill government quitas for British films in British cinemas – and so never really taken seriously. They often played on the arse-end of double bills with blatantly inferior movies, and although it seems the critics of the day liked them, they were never going to be seen as a part of British film history by most writers. But look at them now and they are still vibrant, outrageous and fun, something you can’t say about many other British films of the era.
So Meikle and Xool and Young have gone above and beyond here, given that even the most disposable Slaughter biography would have been better than nothing. The research and passion involved in this project is remarkable, especially given how little information there already is out there. At times, it’s dizzyingly exhaustive – you sometimes wonder if this amount of minutae is necessary. But of course it is. And this is written from a position of love – while no whitewash of either Slaughter’s mistakes or the failings of his lesser films, the book ultimately makes you like the man, and want to hunt down all the movies and rewatch them (as I did recently with Sweeney Todd. Verdict: still wonderful) and that, ultimately, is what any biography should do.
Interestingly, Mr Murder also contains the words of Slaughter himself, in extracts from his unpublished autobiography. That Slaughter could have written an autobiography and then failed to find a publisher somehow sums up everything misguided and arrogant and stupid about the British establishment, even in the 1950s. I fear that this book will be equally overlooked by those who might perhaps benefit most from the secret histroy that it reveals, but more fool them. I heartily recommend it, not only as the biography of one of our least appreciated stars, but as a history of theatrical populism in the early 20th century, something else that has been effectively painted out of history.
For those of you unfamiliar with Slaughter, here’s a fantastic Pathetone News report, Tod Slaughter at Home, which captures the great man in full flow.