Wilkie Collins’ “world famous” (the title assure us) novel The Woman in White gets what can only be called the Tod Slaughter treatment in Crimes at the Dark House (1940). Presumably, the title was changed to reflect this Slaughterization. If you don’t know Tod Slaughter, it’s high time you met this villainous gentleman. He was Great Britain’s answer to both Karloff and Lugosi, though with a flavor all his own. He specialized in barnstorming melodramas of the “strong meat” variety — think of him as a real-life Snidely Whiplash. Many of his films were, in fact, versions of old plays he’d toured the provinces with. Even those that weren’t — like this one — are done in that same old-fashioned style. He’s invariably lecherous (young ladies offering him their cheeks for a chaste peck tend to find themselves being dipped to the floor in a passionate embrace). He’s gleefully wicked (he never commits a murder without chuckling). And he’s unregenerately hammy. If he weren’t, the films would be of very little interest. His outrageous perfidy is his charm.
His movies — usually directed by cheapjack producer George King — are often on the threadbare side. Few of them could be called good in any normal sense of the word. The last two he made for King — The Face at the Window (1939) and this one — are probably the best. Certainly, they’re the best looking and boast relatively solid production values. Crimes is almost a kind of “Slaughter’s Greatest Hits,” copying the approach of previous films and sometimes lifting ripe lines intact (“I am going to make you a bride — a bride of death!” — these troublesome women do get themselves inconveniently pregnant). His villainy here starts immediately — in the first scene he murders Sir Percival Glyde by driving a tent peg into his skull, in order to assume the man’s identity and claim his estate.
Imagine his delight when he arrives to get his inheritance and finds a comely damsel (Rita Grant) for a maid. Imagine his chagrin when he learns he’s inherited a mortgaged castle and ₤15,000 of debt — quickly followed by his relief that he’s supposed to marry a woman (Sylvia Marriott) with a ₤100,000 fortune. That the woman doesn’t want to marry him matters not. That Percival Glyde’s hitherto unknown real wife (Elsie Wagstaff) could expose him is but a trifle. That a murderous, insane daughter — the Woman in White (also played by Sylvia Marriott as part of the plot) — escapes from the asylum and wants nothing more than to kill him is worse (Slaughter is invariably a coward), but manageable. Similarly manageable is the crooked lawyer (Hay Petrie), who is threatened with having his entrails fed to the pigs. So he sets about impregnating the maid, murdering anyone who gets in his way (with never a thought of capture) and indulging his every whim. It’s all magnificently silly and absolutely wonderful.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Crimes at the Dark House Thursday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.