Back in 1987, I was perhaps the first American reviewer to write about British horror star Tod Slaughter (at least in English) — in an article forFilms in Review (which was later reprinted by Filmfax). This — and a chapter in my Critical Guide to Horror Film Series — got me tagged as something of an expert on Slaughter and led to a gig a few years ago writing liner notes for a DVD release of a double feature, Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn (1936) and The Face at the Window (1939). It was one of those jobs that paid in DVDs. (Though what anyone could do with 10 copies, I never understood.) I don’t honestly consider myself an expert, but a kind of elaborate fan who likes touting the delights of Mr. Slaughter’s work. Certainly my writings have not made him into a household name. When I asked if anyone at an early Thursday Horror Picture Show knew who Tod Slaughter was, I got blank stares. That slightly surprised me only because I was asking the question of horror movie fans. Those still unfamiliar with him can find out for themselves with a positively gorgeous copy of The Face at the Window — the film I consider to be Slaughter’s best work.
Tod Slaughter (incredibly, it’s the “Tod” that was adopted; Slaughter really was his name) had been barnstorming the provinces in these cheesy “strong meat” melodramas for years when low-rent producer George King decided to bring them to the screen — with maximum Slaughter villainy and a minimum budget. (That mattered somewhat less if you had access to a studio with standing sets and a large property department in those days.) Originally, I thought I had first encountered him when Tampa’s Channel 13 was running low on titles for their Friday night “Shock Theater” late show and plugged in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936). (This, of course, was not the musical.) It wasn’t long, however, before they ran The Face at the Window,which I realized I had seen — and been terrified by — when I was a small child. (Well, it was more the image of the title “Face at the Window” that scared me — and the truth is it’s still a rather alarming sight.)
In the film, Slaughter plays the supposedly respectable Chevalier Lucio del Gardo, who in reality is a criminal known as “the Wolf.” He whiles away his spare time in a dive bar, drinking absinthe and plotting his next bit of perfidy. His method of murderous thievery is a bit on the convoluted side — he arranges for his victims to be frozen in terror as they get a look at, yep, the “Face at Window,” whereupon he stabs them. Yes, it does seem an unnecessary bit of…window dressing (oh, yeah, like you could have resisted saying it either). Then again, apart from a howl that accompanies these crimes, it’s equally unclear why the populace thinks a werewolf is involved, but, hey, it all adds to the atmosphere. That’s really more important in this sort of thing than realism.
Most of the plot that we’re dealing with concerns Chevalier’s lecherous designs on Cecile de Brisson (Marjorie Taylor). To give you some idea of the depths of depravity our villain will plumb, he first plays suitor to her and when rebuffed asks for a kiss. She offers her cheek. He goes straight for her mouth, practically bending the understandably surprised lady over backward. He then murders her father (standing over the corpse and giving it a good kick to make sure) and frames her boyfriend (John Warwick) for the crime. And all the while, he chuckles in delight at his own villainy. Toss in a dotty scientist who believes he can reanimate the dead, add in the mystery of just who or what the face is and you have a blood-soaked fine time at the movies.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Face at the Window Thursday, May 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Grail Moviehouse, hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Scott Douglas.