Looking back at one of the great lost figures of classic horror cinema.
Unless you are a particularly determined fan of 1940s horror cinema, then the name Skelton Knaggs might not mean very much – if anything at all – to you. If you heard the name in connection with the genre films of the time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was perhaps an especially on-the-nose name for a movie villain of the time – maybe someone who might be played with a twinkle in his eye and a twiddle of the ‘tasche by Tod Slaughter. But if you’ve watched classic chillers of this time, you definitely know of Skelton Knaggs and will recognise him immediately. Throughout his short career – and equally short life – Knaggs only made 38 screen appearances, and in 20 of those he is uncredited, just another bit-part player. As a character actor, he rarely rose above the status of supporting role – but he is nevertheless someone who made his presence felt when given the chance and remains one of the great unsung presences of classic horror and thriller cinema, an actor who had so much promise and unfulfilled opportunity.
Skelton Barnaby Knaggs was born in Sheffield in 1911 and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, eventually becoming a fairly successful Shakespearean stage actor. He made a few British film appearances, including The High Command and Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black (where he played a German sailor) before moving to Hollywood in search of better things. Whether or not he found them is open to question – certainly, he worked regularly and had a few meatier, important roles but for the most part, his career consisted of brief appearances without any credit. No wonder few people know who he is. The breaks seemed tantalisingly close – and he would begin to break out into bigger parts, playing an important part in several films. But fame proved elusive.
Knaggs owes his success – if you can call it that – to a combination of his physical appearance and his voice. He was a small man, somewhat cadaverous and pock-marked and his eyes had a certain shiftiness about them. He looked like a dubious character – a cowardly criminal sort who might not be able to hold his own in a fair fight but who might stab you in the back with a homemade shiv. And then there is the voice – a creepily obsequious and far too smooth voice for such a man, sounding like uncannily the uneducated petty criminals that he often played and someone who knows more than he is letting on – there are hints of an RP accent slipping in and out of his speech patterns and his East Midlands accent is unusual enough in the Hollywood version of England (or Universal’s fairytale version of Europe as seen in their horror cycle) where everyone is either frightfully posh or a chirpy Cockney to stand out and feel unsettlingly odd. Knaggs sounds like a man who is trying to con you, inherently untrustworthy yet oddly persuasive. Together, the look and the voice – and Knaggs’ performances knowingly built around them – make for an unforgettable presence.
There is something inherently unsettling about Knaggs, even when he is just playing a man in a pub – it is no surprise when his characters are seedy opportunists or rabble-rousing provocateurs, as in House of Dracula where he almost single-handedly works up the villagers into an angry mob. In the Sherlock Holmes film Terror By Night, he plays an assassin who talks about his murderous activity with a curiously detached relish before himself being bumped off. His presence in this and other Holmes films (the Basil Rathbone series had little regard for continuity and often cast the same actors in different roles) feels a little like that of Rondo Hatton – both were cast as villainous characters primarily for their unsettling physical appearances, which might seem a bit insensitive these days but was standard at the time.
He also appeared – as different characters – in two of the Dick Tracy movies, a series that very much emphasised comic book villainy and exaggerated grotesques, as well as having roles in a few Val Lewton movies (in The Ghost Ship, his mute character provides a voiceover reflecting his thoughts), the serial Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere, The Lodger and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. In many films – especially those where he was uncredited – he has no dialogue and often doesn’t play a villain at all, instead just making up the numbers in crowds. You could call it a solid, entirely unremarkable career by most standards – but when he was given the chance to do something, he seized it with both hands and is unforgettable in those movies.
You might wonder why it was that Knaggs didn’t have more success, given how effective he was – especially around 1945 when he made both House of Dracula and Terror By Night, two films that gave him meatier parts and seemed set to position him as a recognisable movie villain. The answer would seem to be his own self-destruction, namely the alcoholism that made him an unreliable performer – he was suitable enough for small parts where he could easily be replaced, but anything more than that would be a risk. Plenty of big-name stars were also drunks but their marquee value meant that filmmakers could work around that (and, more importantly, they tended to become famous before they became alcoholics). Knaggs wasn’t worth that sort of effort. He continued to work on a couple of films a year but the drink would eventually do him in – he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1955, a year in which he made two movies and a TV show. He literally worked to the very end.
Knaggs feels like one of the great lost horror stars – why he isn’t up there with the likes of Dwight Frye in the list of second-division cult figures is baffling. He’s someone who could and should have done so much more, but who had his breaks just as the genre went into decline and who sabotaged his own chances with his drinking. He was just 43 when he died, with so much that he could’ve done – imagine his presence in the horror movies of the 1960s. It feels like a classic genre career lost, but at least we have the handful of films where his mere presence adds an unsettling sense of the weird and the unsavoury.
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