A legendary villain’s homicidal barber shop

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The String of Pearls, a penny dreadful series published from 1846–47 and probably written by James Malcolm Rymer and/or Thomas Peckett Prest, introduced horror villain Sweeney Todd to the world. This character quickly became a staple of Victorian lore and legend, to the point it was believed he really existed.

In 1928, this story was first adapted for the silver screen. The first sound film version released March 1936 and starred Tod Slaughter in the leading role. Mr. Slaughter was best-known for playing crazed, maniacal villains in macabre horror films set during the Victorian era.

The story opens in the then-present day of 1936, as a barber tells a client about the infamous legend of Sweeney Todd. Though the film doesn’t specify a date, the original story is set in 1785.

Sweeney Todd runs a barber shop by the docks of London. Though he has many customers, no one is ever seen actually leaving his shop. He also goes through apprentices like water. This constant supply of poor boys is usually provided by the beadle, who gets them from the workhouse.

Sweeney’s newest apprentice, 12-year-old Tobias Ragg (John Singer), is terrified of his master, particularly since Sweeney tells him a lot of horror stories about the fate of previous apprentices who misbehaved or annoyed him. But having little choice if he wants a roof over his head and a regular supply of pennies to buy huge pies next door, Tobias quickly learns to obey and not make waves.

Sweeney’s interest is piqued when he observes Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister) and Mark Ingerstreet (Bruce Seton) talking about their future. Mark, who’s getting ready to sail with The Golden Hope, is afraid he won’t be able to win the approval of Johanna’s dad because of his lack of riches. Johanna’s maid Nan (Davina Craig) also asks Mark’s buddy Pearley (Jerry Verno) to buy her items he can’t afford either.

Once the ship sails, Sweeney buys a share of the shipping company from Johanna’s dad, Governor Oakley (D.J. Williams), and tries to woo Johanna. When Johanna expresses zero interest in this much-older stranger plying her with expensive jewelry, Sweeney then takes the matter directly to Gov. Oakley.

Though the Oakleys are facing financial difficulties and stand poised to potentially lose their wealth and position, Gov. Oakley refuses to approve such a marriage. Sweeney might have wealth and the power to ruin them, but he’s also far too old for Johanna, and Johanna herself doesn’t give consent.

Sweeney decides to bide his time by continuing to “polish off” rich customers and steal their money. After Tobias finishes lathering a customer, Sweeney gives him a penny to go next door and buy a huge pie from Mrs. Lovett (Stella Rho). With Tobias out of the way, Sweeney locks the door and pulls a hidden lever to send the unwitting customer down into the cellar via a revolving piece of flooring under the chair.

Mrs. Lovett, whose cellar connects to the barber shop, helps Sweeney to drag the corpses off and pocket their riches. However, she’s quite annoyed at her partner in crime for making off with the lion’s share and not giving her nearly enough of the cut.

Mark became quite a wealthy man while away on the high seas, and returns with a lot of jewels and gold. Per the standards of the era, the indigenous people he and his men encountered abroad are portrayed quite stereotypically and offensively. However, this only occupies a fairly short scene in the overall running time, and isn’t the film’s focus.

Sweeney is delighted to usher Mark into the barber shop. When Mark naïvely talks about his new riches and plans to marry Johanna, Sweeney is even more excited about this fresh victim to rob and murder.

But this time the murderous trap door doesn’t work as expected, and Mrs. Lovett sneaks the dazed but largely uninjured Mark to safety. Mark and his friend Pearley then begin hatching a dangerous plan to finally bring Sweeney Todd to justice.

And the plot just keeps on thickening and intensifying from here.

Quintuple horror in a creepy cottage

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Dead of Night, a British anthology film, premièred 9 September 1945 at London’s Gaumont Haymarket theatre, and did very well commercially. Many modern critics continue to praise it as a classic horror film, with special praise for the final story about the ventriloquist.

Though horror films had long been common in the U.S., they weren’t so common in Britain in this era; indeed, they’d been banned during WWII. Dead of Night began to change all that.

The film was made at Ealing Studios in West London, which began business in 1902 and is the world’s oldest continually-operating film production studio.

Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a Tudor-style cottage in the country which seems oddly familiar. His sense of déjà vu increases even more when his host, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), shows him inside. Though Walter has never met any of the guests, he’s dreamt about them all many times.

Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk) has a ready scientific answer for everything, including the stories the other guests tell about eerie events from their own lives, but as the night wears on, his skepticism gradually starts waning.

First up is Hugh Grainger (Antony Baird), who tells the story of how he was almost killed in a racecar accident in “The Hearse Driver.” During the end of his hospital stay, he looks out the window and has a horrifying vision of a horse-drawn hearse. His nurse Joyce thinks he imagined it, but he can’t shake his terror.

Upon his discharge, Grainger goes to catch a bus, but he’s filled with foreboding when the driver looks exactly like the hearse driver and says there’s only room for one. Grainger immediately steps back and lets the bus take off without him.

Almost immediately, the bus goes off the road and crashes down a steep hill. Grainger’s premonition saved his life.

Next up is “The Christmas Party,” the story of teenage Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes, now age 90). While playing hide-and-seek, Sally stumbles upon a hallway leading to a staircase leading to secret passageways and a playroom.

In the playroom, she encounters a little boy, Francis, who says his older sister Constance is very mean to him and wants to kill him. Sally treats him very tenderly and tucks him into bed before being found by her friends.

Sally is freaked out when she learns there are no children spending the night and that Francis is the unfortunate boy her buddy Jimmy told her about when they were hiding together earlier, a boy who was killed by his sister in that house a long time ago.

The middle story is “The Haunted Mirror,” the story that creeped me out most. Joan (Googie Withers) buys her fiancé Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael) a mirror from an antiques store to replace the basic one his uncle bought him awhile ago. Peter is happy with the gift at first, but soon lives in terror of it.

Every time he looks in the mirror, he sees a very Gothic-type room that looks like it’s in a mansion, with a burning fireplace, candles, and a fancy four-poster bed with carved grapes on top. He also can’t see Joyce in the mirror when she stands beside him.

Peter wants to push out their wedding date because he fears he’s losing his mind, but he manages to summon the willpower to see his normal room behind him in the mirror again, and Joyce beside him.

Everything seems to be going most swimmingly after they marry and move into a new house, but then the visions return. Joyce learns the supernatural reason for this when she visits the store where she bought the mirror and sees a bed exactly like the one Peter described.

The mirror, the bed, and several other things in the shop belonged to a man who died in 1836, in a house which was sealed until very recently. The storekeeper tells Joyce the tragic, horrific story of the original owner and his wife, a story Peter begins re-enacting when Joyce comes home.

This intense, creepy mood is lifted by the penultimate story, “The Golfer’s Story,” which is comedy-horror.

Buddies George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne) are intense rivals on the golf course, but closer than brothers in all other arenas. That all changes, however, when they meet Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan).

Eventually they hit upon the idea of playing a golf game with Mary’s hand in marriage as the prize. George wades into the lake by the green after losing, and his ghost comes back to haunt Larry.

George tries to make Larry give up both Mary and golf forever, but Larry refuses this deal. He can give up Mary, but he’ll have no reason for living if he never golfs again. George accepts the compromise, and says he must always stay within six feet of Larry.

George’s presence quickly becomes impossible to bear, and George himself agrees this is really awkward. However, he’s unable to go back to the other world, since he came back to Earth without knowing that rather important detail of ghosting. The magic formula keeps eluding him.

Finally, we have “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” a story within a story within a story. Dr. van Straaten tells a tale of the time he was called in as a psychoanalyst for Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave), who was charged with the attempted murder of fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power).

Maxwell’s dummy, Hugo, becomes more and more out of control, acting as if with a mind of his own instead of controlled by his master. This drives Maxwell into madness.

The last reel reminds me very much of all the twists and turns near the end of Dr. Caligari. It’s hard to tell what is and isn’t reality, since the lines are so blurred.

A story of the London fog

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Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t an immediate success as a director. His bad luck turned around with The Lodger, released 14 February 1927 in the U.K. and 10 June 1928 in the U.S. It was a huge box office hit in the U.K., and received wonderful reviews.

Some name this as the first truly Hitchcockian film, setting the stage for styles and themes which permeated much of the rest of his work.

The Lodger also has the first recognisable Hitchock cameo, 5:33 in. He’s at a newsroom desk, his back to the camera. The actor set to play the phone operator didn’t show up, so Hitchcock took over. He also shows up in a mob scene towards the end.

The film is based upon Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel of the same name, about the 1888 hunt for Jack the Ripper. It was remade in 1932, 1944, 1953 (as Man in the Attic), and 2009. A 1960 opera was also based on the novel.

Another adaptation of the novel, the comic play Who Is He? (1915), written by Horace Annesley Vachell, was additional inspiration.

The mood and filming techniques were inspired by German Expressionism. While working on the German–British film The Blackguard in 1924, Hitchcock studied several films being produced nearby, particularly F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh. He’d also been inspired by Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921).

Producer Michael Balcon was furious when he saw the finished product, and almost shelved both the film and Hitchcock’s career. After a lot of fighting, they found a compromise, and film critic Ivor Montagu was hired to edit it.

At first, Hitchcock resented this, but Montagu only made minute suggestions, such as reshooting a few minor scenes and changing some intertitles. Montagu respected his talent and creativity too much to radically edit everything.

When beautiful matinée idol Ivor Novello was cast as the star, the studio demanded changes to the script. They didn’t want any suggestion of ambiguity about his guilt vs. innocence, since ambiguity might suggest he were a villain, and the public couldn’t have that.

You’ll have to watch the film to see which side won.

The film opens with the murder of a young blonde woman. When her body is discovered, there’s a triangle on her, bearing the name of The Avenger. This murderer strikes blondes on Tuesday nights and leaves that triangle as his calling-card.

That night by a fashion show, blonde model Daisy Bunting (June Tripp) laughs at her co-workers’ hysterical fears, and how the other blondes are hiding their hair with wigs and hats. When she comes home, she finds her old parents and her rather unwanted boyfriend, policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen), discussing the crime.

A beautiful young man (Ivor Novello) arrives by the Bunting house, inquiring after the room for rent. Mrs. Bunting is very nervous to see the lower half of his face covered by a scarf, just like The Avenger, but lets him inside and shows him the upstairs room.

Mrs. Bunting is further weirded out when she discovers the lodger has turned around all the paintings of young blonde women. He says he doesn’t like them, and asks if they can be put somewhere else.

I got a good laugh out of Joe’s intertitle, “Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls.” In a later intertitle, Mrs. Bunting also describes the lodger as “a bit queer.” Ivor was gay in real life, and in a relationship with Robert “Bobbie” Andrews from 1916 until his death in 1951.

Daisy and the lodger start becoming closer, which Joe deeply resents. Meanwhile, the lodger’s strange behaviour begins to arouse the suspicions of Joe (now assigned to The Avenger case) and Mrs. Bunting. It doesn’t help matters that The Avenger’s murders are moving towards the Buntings’ home.

In addition to the jealous, controlling Joe, Daisy’s parents also disapprove of her budding romance with the lodger. Daisy, however, stands her ground, and continues meeting him for stolen moments. When Joe catches them on a date, Daisy tells him what’s what, and dumps him.

Joe is newly-determined to prove the lodger is The Avenger, and intensifies his investigation. Will the lodger be found guilty or innocent?