George King, 1940
Starring: Tod Slaughter, Sylvia Marriott, Hilary Eaves, Hay Petrie
Sir Percival Glyde is murdered in Australia and his killer assumes his identity in order to claim the Glyde family inheritance back in England. Unfortunately he learns that the only inheritance is a large debt that he must clear it or face prison — but the silver lining is that Glyde has been promised to a lovely, wealthy young woman named Laurie. He fools her into marrying him, but he is soon recognized by another woman who claims that Glyde fathered her daughter and she knows he isn’t the real Glyde. It’s only a matter of time before someone exposes him for what he is, so Glyde teams up with a doctor at a local asylum to get rid of any obstacles in his path.
Based on Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Crimes at the Dark House is a pretty standard example of the type of British horror made during WWII, in the sense that it isn’t explicitly a horror film, but is a melodramatic mystery with plenty of macabre elements. At just 69 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace through a number of mild horrors. It’s a solid introduction to character actor Tod Slaughter — who frequently worked with the film’s director, George King — but if you grew up with Lugosi and Karloff, or even Vincent Price, it’s sort of a hard sell. With that said, Slaughter is gleefully demented — perhaps his most famous role is the titular villain in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) — and here he commits a number of atrocities.
Slaughter’s character kills the real Sir Percival Glyde by driving a wooden stake into his ear, immediately begins a sexual relationship with a maid in the Glyde mansion and later murders her when he learns she is pregnant and is expected to be his bride. He has his sweet-tempered, naive wife, Laurie, stealthily put into an asylum to seize all of her fortune. With the asylum doctor on his side, he replaces Laurie with Glyde’s secret daughter — a resident of the asylum — when she escapes in order to kill Glyde. Later in the film, he attacks Laurie’s sister, attempting to rape her (with a murder likely to follow) because she has figured him out.
Really more a dark melodrama than an outright horror film, the plot of The Woman in White is twisted to favor Slaughter and is absolutely jam-packed with unintentional humor. The film is certainly a departure from the book. Known to be among the first mystery novels, The Woman in White is more about Laurie (Laura in the novel) than the Glyde impostor, as well as Anne, Laura’s illegitimate sister who bears a striking resemblance to her and who is the titular woman in white. Anne was never mad, but terminally ill, and placed in the asylum by Glyde himself. Like so many Gothic novels, The Woman in White centers on this issue of inheritance, as it is revealed in the Collins’ text that Glyde is not an impostor, but is not the rightful heir to the family fortune. Like the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, young women are innocent victims to be preying upon by greedy males.
Though there were a few more traditional horror films made after the war — like The Monkey’s Paw (1948) and The Ghost of Rashmon Hall (1948) — there were an overwhelming number of mystery-thriller-horror films made during this period that revolved around issues of inheritance and family finances. For example, George King’s The Case Of The Frightened Lady (1940), Old Mother Riley's Ghosts (1941), Candles At Nine (1944), or the more unusual The Three Weird Sisters (1948), which follows a young man who returns home to claim his inheritance. He meets with the ire of his three older half sisters, who were determined to use the family funds for altruistic means, and they may be plotting his death when they don’t get their way. In the same year’s House of Darkness (1948), a young Laurence Harvey stars as a psychopath determined to take the family home from his brother regardless of the cost.
Crimes in the Dark House is something of a bridge between Gothic novels and the Victorian penny gaff (check out my article, Victorian Penny Gaffs: Crime, Horror, and Murder, for more), a form of blue collar theatrical entertainment. There is so much scenery chewing here that, unlike Sweeney Todd, this is more of an indicator whether you will love or hate Tod Slaughter. I will say that he’s delightfully lecherous and anyone who enjoys the blurry area between horror, melodrama, and mystery will find something to enjoy. It’s available on a very cheap DVD, though I’d love to see a small box set of some of these early British genre films restored.