Free Friday Film: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

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“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.

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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.

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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.

18If, 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.

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“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.

8Admittedly, 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.

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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.

9Every 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!

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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!)

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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.

You can watch The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on YouTube or on Hulu. You can also download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Did you like it? If so, you can tune in to almost all of Slaughter’s filmography free of charge. Don’t miss Murder in the Red Barn, The Face at the Window, and Crimes at the Dark House.

Free Friday Film: The Ghost Camera (1933)

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Are you up for a quickie? No, not that kind. Wash your brain out with soap, you n’er-do-well. Today I’m tempting you with a quota quickie, a cheaply produced British B movie produced to satisfy English law.

In 1927, the Cinematographic Films Act required British movie theaters to exhibit a certain percentage (it rose to 20%) of British-made films in an attempt to lessen the influence of American culture, pouring into England through Hollywood films, like the Spanish Armada in celluloid form. Well, tempted by the guaranteed opportunity to have their films shown in cinemas, British studios churned out movies with insanely small budgets—about 1 pound per foot of film, according to the UK Guardian.

Rather like Poverty Row films, many of these quota quickies stank like gone-off Vegimite. However, plenty of them also offered burgeoning directors and actors Michael Powell, Errol Flynn, Vivien Leigh, and Ann Todd a chance to cut their teeth on their first cinematic experiences. And, what with necessity being the Queen Mum of invention, many quickies display creative stylistics and wacky plots—to cover up their budgetary shortages.

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It breaks my heart to inform you that 60% of these movies are considered lost. But Martin Scorsese and the BFI are actively hunting for them. As it is, more and more of these are available on DVD and hopefully we’ll get a full-on quickie festival someday. Wait, that came out wrong…

So, in my usual roundabout way, I come to today’s sacrifice, The Ghost Camera, a 1933 mystery from debut director Bernard Vorhaus, a talented fellow whose Hollywood career was cut short by the blacklist. This entertaining, plot-packed thriller clocks in at about an hour, a refreshing feat in comparison to the bloated two-going-on-three hours spectacles that are showing at a movie theater near you nowadays.

The story follows John Gray (Henry Kendall), a bespectacled, preening intellectual who arrives home from his vacation to discover that someone dropped a camera in his luggage. Deciding to develop a picture in hopes of returning the camera to its owner, our hero discovers—gasp—a picture of a murder!

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Before he can show the image to the police, though, someone nicks it, but leaves the amateur detective with the camera and the remaining undeveloped negatives within. Piqued by the theft and up for an adventure, Gray decides to retrace the photographer’s steps by tracking down the locations where the pictures in the camera were taken. In the process, he meets the camera owner’s troubled sister, Mary Elton, stumbles across a jewel heist, and finally roots out the killer.

As with many quota quickies, The Ghost Camera gives us a glimpse into the before-they-were-famous careers of big names in cinema history. A charmingly baby-faced Ida Lupino graces the screen with her discreet magnetism as Mary, the lady in distress. As she accompanies the sleuth, she both seeks and dreads the truth about her brother and his camera.

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Unfortunately, the print of this film available on YouTube looks like it was strained through cheesecloth (which is why I didn’t pepper this post with screencaps). Nevertheless, the cinematography does shine. The director of photography, Oscar-winner Ernest Palmer, an American, shot the melodically lovely Borzage films Street Angel and Seventh Heaven, so it’s no surprise that he pulls out some bizarre visual poetry even for this cheapie. The scenes in the darkroom, almost total blackness except for a few starkly-lit faces, convey a spooky sense of dread that foreshadows the virtuoso lighting contrasts of mature British noir. Again, when the protagonist investigates an abandoned, ruined fortress, darkness prevails, plunging us viewers into a situation where we must stay riveted to the screen for the slightest flash of light or sound to know what’s going on.

Best of all, the great David Lean earned one of his first screen credits on this film as an editor. He later acknowledged director Bernard Vorhaus as a formative influence on his career. Indeed, combined with the cinematography, the editing here can only be described as audacious. For example, the movie starts with a low angle shot of a looming castle keep. The camera slowly tilts down and pans to a car on the road. Jump cut to the vine-covered walls of the ruin. Jump cut to the backseat of the car into which a camera tumbles. Where did it come from? Who dropped or threw it? Did the car pick it up on purpose or is the driver totally unaware? This pre-credit sequence leaves us intrigued, tantalized. Exactly what you desire from a mystery thriller!

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The first time I watched The Ghost Camera, its visual flamboyance stunned me. Shaky handheld motions, jump cuts, swish pans, and disorienting shifts of focus: you’ll see a lot of things here that we tend to associate with the “groundbreaking” movies of mature European art cinema, especially French New Wave. The jarring, unstable camerawork also awakens the audience to the foibles and strangeness of mechanical recording. That is, we realize that we’re watching a movie, a reality filtered through a camera.

The camera as a recording instrument itself carries an uncanny aura. Think about how many meta-thrillers and horror films revolve around some variation of a ghostly, anxiety-inducing camera or pictures: The Big Sleep, Blow-Up, Chinatown, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, to name a few. The Ghost Camera actually amplifies its slapdash, B-movie discontinuity, its jerky camera movements and warping perspective, to generate fear. The movie camera takes on a life of its own. Meanwhile, the film’s plot, in which developed images serve as clues, shows us how photography’s special bond with reality can bear an alarming witness.

The camera’s truth speaks in tongues, though—as the weird, vertiginous cinematography of The Ghost Camera suggests—that need to be interpreted by human reasoning.

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Mix all this innovative flair and love for the filmic medium with a droll script, really a parody of the whodunit, and you have a beguiling hour’s entertainment. Our mewling hero John Gray continuously treats us to his pessimistic, helpless commentaries. For instance,

“I really don’t know why I continue to go on holidays, Simms. They’re never adventurous. Just the usual people and happenings, unexciting, like myself. Man is an irrational animal, Simms, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent.”

At another vexing moment, he humorously exclaims, “Oh but this is absurd! We’re beginning to talk like characters in a mystery melodrama.” If only he knew…

So, watch The Ghost Camera and celebrate this testament to what wonderful popular art a bunch of clever people can cobble together out of basically nothing. It’s certainly one of the most enduring and satisfying quickies you’ll ever enjoy. Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

N.B. I learned about the history of the quota quickie from these thoughtful sources. I didn’t pull those facts out of thin air and I gratefully and fully acknowledge these articles and their authors for their research and insights. I’m citing them informally, because this is a blog post, not a college paper!

“Fancy a Quickie?” by Matthew Sweet from U.K. Guardian Monday, 1 January 2007.

“In Praise of the Quota.” at British Pictures Article Archive.