“Take care you don’t give me cause to make you afraid of me! That’s a good boy. The first duty of a barber’s boy is to keep a still tongue in his head… I knew a nice little barber’s boy once who had his tongue cut out for letting it wag too much.” —Sweeney Todd
Tod Slaughter could’ve sprung fully formed from the pages of a Penny Dreadful. I mean, Slaughter was his real name, for crying out loud! The man, affectionately called “Mister Massacre” by audiences, was destined to menace maidens.
When he got his start in films at the tender age of 49, his clammy, dimpled, rather deflated face had all the youthful appeal of a bouquet of pig’s bladders. A master of the stock company villain repertoire, Slaughter seemed to emit a wicked glow from his person, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar,” if I may borrow a phrase from Dickens.
No gesture was too stereotypical for Slaughter—he rubbed his hands together, grinned, twitched, leered, winked, and preened his way through a parade of cheap melodramas produced to showcase his evil gusto.
His flamboyant performances offer a strange blend of comfort and chill. Movie- and theater-goers of the time no doubt savored Slaughter’s over-the-top wickedness as a tonic. His unrealistic boogieman could, for the space of an hour, replace the real-world nightmares threatening England’s hallowed realm in the 1930s and 1940s. Both cozy and slightly grotesque, Slaughter’s films are chicken soup—served with a glass eye in it.
And yet, Slaughter’s slobbering malefactors still exude a strange and undeniable power. He so perfectly incarnated the exaggerated villains of Victorian literature that the viewer cannot help but be taken aback; it’s like watching a fiction come to palpitating, horrifying life. Unlike Karloff’s elusiveness or Lugosi’s soulfulness, Slaughter’s crudeness reminds me of the downright ridiculous scenery-chewing that many genuinely insane criminals and serial killers actually exhibit. His incoherent, occasionally awkward hamminess smacks of true derangement. Madness baulks at no excess.
If, like me, you are easily fatigued by painfully earnest performances, take a vacation from all that Oscar-baiting naturalism with the barnstorming good times provided by this sadly little remembered horror icon. As an introduction to the formidable Mr. Slaughter, I suggest The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by George King. Although the movie doesn’t offer his best performance, I recommend it because most viewers are so familiar with the premise that they’re free to linger on the diabolical antics of the antihero. Also, there’s no singing, which immediately makes this my favorite adaptation of the Sweeney Todd legend.
“Hmm. I’m one handsome devil. Johnny Depp had better look out!”
Those of you weaned on the idea of Sweeney Todd as a sympathetic victim-turned-victimizer will need to brace yourselves for a much simpler characterization. Slaughter’s “Demon Barber” is exactly that—an irredeemably nasty blighter, amassing a fortune by robbing and murdering his clients, especially seamen returning from profitable voyages. When Todd sets his sights on Johanna, the daughter of a rich merchant, he won’t be satisfied until he’s dispatched her lover and blackmailed her father into surrendering the girl to his depraved clutches.
Admittedly, even at a little over an hour long, this film limps to its conclusion. The movie suffers whenever Slaughter isn’t onscreen. A showy action sequence in the tropics (where Johanna’s lover is saving a merchant vessel from natives) feels irrelevant and phony. The sound effects and canned stock music will make you cringe perhaps more than the violent scenes.
That said, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street executes some fine moments of suspense, especially since Todd’s nefarious intentions are beyond doubt from the beginning, so we get the benefit of mega-doses of dramatic irony. Funnily enough, nobody else seems to realize that the barber gets a little too excited every time he exclaims, “I’ll polish him off!”
Just as the ancient Greeks used to enjoy their tragedy all the more for the spoilers, a great deal of the enjoyment we derive from melodrama is of the “don’t go into the basement!” variety.
Every time a hapless fellow situates himself in Sweeney Todd’s “special chair,” we squirm, hoping that something will intervene to save to poor guy, despite the likelihood that he’ll end up in one of Mrs. Lovatt’s mystery meat pies. In one particularly nervous sequence, Mrs. Lovatt decides to get revenge on Todd by saving one of his customers and hiding him, as the barber scours the shop for the one that got away.
I also applaud the wry subtlety of the screenplay, since it’s never explicitly stated that Sweeney Todd’s victims end up in the meat pastries. Towards the end, one character muses, while eating one of those pies, “I wonder where he stashed his victims, not enough room to bury them.” What a delicious bit of cliché-avoidance!
Even though we don’t see most of the gruesome action in this film, the off-screen bloodletting still proves chilling—and the body count strikes me as quite impressive for a film of this era. In my opinion, the most queasy scenes in the film concern the fate of Todd’s orphan barber’s boy, Tobias, who’s in constant peril of putting two and two together—and getting bumped off by his employer. Sweeney Todd vacillates between threatening the little tyke, slapping him around, and sending him around the corner for one of those delicious pies. (And you thought your internship supervisor was a psycho!)
I invite you to dim the lights and play this darkly funny and, at times, quite unsettling slice of British B cinema. Get a nice close shave from Tod Slaughter in his most famous role.