Thursday, 15 December 2016

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE (1940)

During the Second World War, ‘Mr Murder’ aka Tod Slaughter reverted from films back into touring British theatres in blood-curdling sensationalist horror plays such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jack the Ripper. His last movie of Victorian melodrama before the war effort took industry precedence was Crimes at the Dark House (1940), an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White tailored to focus around Slaughter’s ripe homicidal whirlwind.

Once more Slaughter was directed and co-produced by his long-term business partner George King and gives us the same relishable tour de ham of Grand Guignol gloating as in 1936’s Sweeney Todd and Face at the Window (1939). This time, the pretext for his dastardly crime-wave is impersonation of a fortune inheritor in Australia whom he wastes no time in dispatching brutally with a hammer and chisel to the head before sailing to England to take advantage.

Once arrived at the English estate, he can’t wait to get his hands on the proceeds. First though he must negotiate those who would have known what the real Sir Percival Glyde looked like. He checks that the staff only remember him from childhood and rewards himself with a self-satisfied smoothing of his curled moustache, the cad, but then is forced to meet his lawyer Merriman (David Kier) to go over his accounts, whose memory may well be better. Fortunately, not so. However the news is not all good; the ignoble noble discovers that far from inheriting instant wealth, he has been saddled with huge debts on a property that is mortgaged. Curses! Guess it’s time to find another method of easy money – and if necessary kill anyone who stands in the way.

Meanwhile, Glyde has an eye and a lot more besides for the ladies. He takes a shine to the curvy, ambitious maid Jessica and transfers her to chambermaid duties: It may not be high art but H.F. Maltby's dialogue rings the bells of villainous intent loudly and Slaughter tugs the bell-rope with caddish glee every time. “You’re a delightful little baggage” he gleams at the dark duties he has in mind as her new master. Fans of unreconstructed swinish sexism will have a ball with his quotable one-liners. “The woman is mad. She should be in an asylum” he roars when faced with Hay Petrie’s Dr Isidor Fosco bringing him another remnant of the real Glyde’s legacy: a funereal lady, Jane Catherick, with whom he sired a child, Anne, who now resides in the actual asylum yet seems to roam about the property as a spectral Woman in White.

Since Percival gives her short shrift, Fosco plots with her behind his back to restore her honour and unmask him as the evident charlatan he is. This introduces Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriott) and her gasping, irascible hypochondriac Uncle Frederick (a slightly frenzied David Horne). Laura is keen to marry Geoffrey Wardwell’s Paul Hartwright, yet we find that she is betrothed to the original Sir Percival. Marriott and Wardwell’s love scenes have that tiresomely fey quality of overwrought melodrama, which is thankfully steamrolled by Slaughter’s masculine juggernaut of dastardly plotting. Fosco schemes with Laura and her formidable sister Marion (Hilary Eaves) somewhat confusingly to have Anne and Laura impersonate each other as part of unravelling Glyde’s progress. The evil gold-digger meantime looks forward to marrying into Laura’s cash whilst secretly dipping into Jessica’s resources on the side. “I’ve certain…instructions to give her”, he gleams with ominous appetite.

We can either try to stay on board the heroes’ wagon of dull good intention or instead hitch a much more fun ride on the Glyde stagecoach, a savagely-whipped beast galloping through all obstacles. The na├»ve Jessica is convinced that she will marry him to become Lady Glyde – until he strangles her in the garden as “a bride of death” with his signature throaty chuckle. Margaret Yarde as cynical housekeeper Mrs Bullen is also throttled and dumped in the lake for knowing too much.

Good thing Percival has succeeded in marrying Laura otherwise there’d soon be no staff left. Never one to miss a trick, he tries to persuade Laura to unwittingly sign her fortune over to him. This is foiled by her strength of character despite his vain attempt to impose a traditionally unquestioned male dominance over her (a central theme it seems in Collin’s novel). Denied one path, he appears to take out his evil energies in other alarming ways on their wedding night: “Wenches like you want taming badly – properly taming!” he menaces. Mercifully we are spared what happens next – the consensual clashing of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara this is not.

As the movie builds toward a climax in the church bell-tower, a drippy tackle by Paul fazes Glyde not a bit. The exposed knight then puts the camp in campanology by asphyxiating Fosco with the bell-rope, savouring his ghoulish chimes with: “You always said you were a teetotaller. You’re going to have a nice drop – now”. Ultimately his killing spree and trailer-lines are curtailed by the very flames he uses to burn the damning evidence against him.

Crimes in the Dark House has such over-the-top enthusiasm for the genre that it qualifies as a knowing horror-comedy. The sizzle of Slaughter’s steak is an acquired taste some may find over-cooked but if you’re in the mood for committed murder mayhem, it is infectious fun.

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