Initially a leading man, English born actor Tod Slaughter's stage career took a turn for the macabre when he abandoned such heroic roles for those more mischievous. His villainous theatrics would ultimately lead him to the silver screen, first in Milton Rosmer’s MARIA MARTEN, OR THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN, released by Johnny Legend in 2004 and 2007, before playing the role that would define his career, that of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. With a maniacal laugh as sharp as his blade, Slaughter chews his way through two twisted tales of Victorian melodrama, rife with murder, mayhem and meat pies.
In one of its first motion picture interpretations, Tod Slaughter plays the titular barber Sweeney Todd, a gluttonous man whose shop and skills provide a morbid means in which to fleece his unsuspecting clientele of their worldly possessions. Having been at sea for months at a time, Sweeney entices sailors and explorers with the relaxing notion of a fresh cut and shave to revitalize their spirits after a long journey. Once in his chair, the beguiling charm of Mr. Todd lulls each customer into a false sense of confidence that permits them invitation to relax and inevitably boast about their most recent acquisitions. Aided by the young Tobias (Johnny Singer), Sweeney preps each patron with care and precision before sending his orphaned apprentice next door to Mrs. Lovatt's (Stella Rho) to purchase one of her fattest meat pies. Finally alone, without witness or distraction, Sweeney “polishes off” some of the finest men to walk Fleet Street by way of a trap door and a sharp blade. In the spirit of neighbors helping neighbors, Mrs. Lovatt disposes of Mr. Todd’s victims by including them as the main ingredient in her shop's meat pies. The relationship is a twisted but beneficial one, as each convenes in the basement between their shops to share in the spoils and prepare the filling for the next batch of pies. Jealousy and greed however begin to taint their partnership, as Mrs. Lovatt suspects Mr. Todd of taking his compensation early from each victim and is equally none to pleased with his growing infatuation with Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister), the daughter of a local shipping magnate.
The docking of the Golden Hope, returning from a voyage from Trader Patterson's (Aubrey Mallalieu), brings with it the potential to unravel Sweeney’s plans to marry Mrs. Oakley and obtain her father's latest vessel in the form of old beau Mark (Bruce Seton). Seizing the occasion, as he has so many times before, Sweeney persuades Mark to visit his shop before rushing to Johanna’s side, as such a fine woman deserves a clean and proper man. Well aware of his intentions toward Johanna, Sweeney takes Mark on a ride in his chair but when the fall proves nonfatal, it is Mrs. Lovatt whose seizes the opportunity, hiding the unconscious fellow in order to trick Sweeney into thinking that his prey has somehow escaped. Released back into the streets, Mark immediately runs to Johanna’s side but a plan must quickly be put in place if anyone is stop Sweeney from taking Mrs. Oakley’s hand and continuing to provide Mrs. Lovatt with a steady supply of pie filling.
Unlike Tim Burton's 2007 adaptation, which found Johnny Depp hell-bent on revenge, the motivations of Slaughter’s Todd lie solely in the lining of his pockets. His modus operandi is also dissimilar, in that Slaughter prefers to snap his victim’s necks via an unsuspecting tumble down a trapdoor before slitting their throats, provided the initial fall doesn’t kill them, thus staying closer to the story's origins than that of the Tim Burton production. The film is essentially a one man show, in that Tod wholly owns every scene he appears in, providing an over the top performance that is notably effective given the nature of the role. A few vaudevillian setups and one liners provide for a handful of comedic moments that still induce a chuckle and the film's light tone on cannibalism, which is merely insinuated, is surprisingly successful at being both creepy and humorous.
Based on Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White", CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE opens in the Australian outback circa 1850 with Tod murdering a sleeping prospector by driving a stake through his ear. The scene is distinctly gruesome, as there is no obvious motive for the killing, setting a ghastly tone that foreshadows the numerous deaths to come. By chance, Tod discovers a letter on his victim addressed to a Sir Percival Glyde, requesting his return home to recoup the benefits of his inheritance. Donning the identity of Sir. Percival, Tod travels to Blackwater Park, London in an attempt to step into the dead man’s shoes and take any and all inheritance for himself, but instead finds nothing but an amassing pile of debt. His arrival is greeted by family lawyer Mr. Merriman (David Keir) who informs him of his family’s wish to marry Laura Fairlie (Hilary Eaves), a marriage that was arranged when both were far too young to remember. Such a union sounds like the answer to all woes, as Ms. Fairlie comes with a dowry of one hundred thousand pounds, but matters are further complicated for the fake Sir Percival by the unexpected visit of Dr. Fosco (Hay Petrie), the proprietor of the local insane asylum. It appears that the real Percival Glyde bore a child before traveling to Australia, one who is now a resident of the good doctor's and could potentially unmask him as fraud. Dr. Fosco is however willing to keep his secrets under tight lock and key for a price, however the pot begins to boil over when the faux Percival discovers that not only has the insane offspring escaped, but the manor is being haunted by a woman in white and he may have knocked up one of the help.
Tod is again in top form, strangling women and men and loving every attention grabbing moment. The story unfolds in such a manner that you almost want to root for the man with no name, just to see how far he can take the sinister charade. Both films present on this release provide proper service to the talents of Mr. Slaughter; CRIMES features a cast of well-rounded players, more suited to the foils of Slaughter. Of particular note is Hay Petrie, who despite being about three feet shorter than Tod, holds his own, providing every bit as slimy and deceitful as his counterpart. While their running times are nearly identical (both just under 69 minutes) CRIMES throws so much at the screen in terms of melodrama that the pace feels brisk in comparison to TODD and while not for all tastes, both features prove to be a ghastly look back and a fond remembrance of “Europe’s Horror Man”.
If anyone has a flair for (self) promotion and advertising it's Johnny Legend, and while the cover for his Slaughtermania double bill makes several impressive claims ("Beautifully Restored & Classically Reframed, First Time on DVD!") they unfortunately don't live up to the hype. Alpha released both SWEENEY TODD and CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE, in 2004, with CRIMES appearing again years later in several collections including volume one of VCI’s British Cinema, Classic "B" Film Collection and a Tales of Terror, 50 film movie pack by Mill Creek Entertainment. Not to mention the DVD-R that Johnny himself previously released, it's safe to say that both films have found their way into DVD player before, although admittedly neither have ever seen a release that could be deemed beautifully restored, including this one, but the picture for both does appear to be properly framed as advertised. Both prints, presented full frame, suffer from a constant barrage of scratches and debris from beginning to end. There is a rather impressive amount of detail displayed, particularly in CRIMES but for the most part the picture quality is simply serviceable. Audio for TODD is dominated by a persistent hiss, almost as if someone was slowing releasing the air out of balloon just behind your ear. After awhile it tends to bleed out into a low crackle before a sudden pop revives it back to a healthy hiss. CRIMES fairs far better but a hiss is still present.
Extras include a 12-minute history lesson in which Johnny provides some back story to the life of Tod Slaughter and relives his first introduction to the man and the great appreciation he has grown to have for his films. The featurette, while interesting and informative, is nearly impossible to watch as it appears to have been shot on a home video camera hooked up to a television that was then pointed at the screen while recording, resulting in a hypnotic, strobbing effect that could potentially induce a migraine headache in matter of minutes. The on-screen interview is concluded by trailers for Terence Fisher’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, Alfred Vohrer’s DEAD EYES OF LONDON and a double ad for THE FROZEN DEAD and IT!. “Vintage Slaughter Art”, a collection of four Slaughter promos and “Tod Slaughter Live!” a 13-minute radio interpretation of SWEENEY TODD, provide for a fitting, if not flawed tribute to the devilish smile and talents of Tod Slaughter. (Jason McElreath)
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