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Murder in the Red Barn (1935)

Director: Milton Rosmer
Starring: Tod Slaughter, Sophie Stewart, Eric Portman, D.J. Williams
Unrated 69 minutes
Public Domain

Tod Slaughter was 49 years old when he made his film debut in Milton Rosmer's MURDER IN THE RED BARN. Slaughter, a well-traveled veteran of Victorian-era British theater, found his place in this world through his fevered portrayals of madmen, schemers, and murderers. There was no moral conflict for the Tod Slaughter villain - his characters did reprehensible things and enjoyed every minute of it. As an actor, Slaughter seemed to enjoy it, too. His performances were hammy beyond description, yet Slaughter cast a long shadow that influenced, consciously or not, every screen villian that would follow.

The official title of the movie is MARIA MARTEN, or MURDER IN THE RED BARN. Based on a real life murder case, the movie follows Corder (Slaughter), an outwardly respectable, but inwardly loathsome squire. Corder’s pompous, self-important demeanor masks his true identity: he’s a degenerate gambler who is out to swindle a fortune by marrying a wealthy old lady. The plan is put in jeopardy when Corder knocks up the town floozy, a girl named Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart). Realzing he cannot allow the truth to come out, he convinces Maria to sneak away and meet him at the Red Barn one night, telling her they are going to run away together. Naive Maria agrees. Corder kills her and buries her body. Corder then attempts to frame one of Maria’s suitors, a Gypsy named Carlos, for her murder.

A Master of Ceremonies introduces the cast members at the beginning of the film, kicking off what is essentially a filmed play for most of its running time. That is, until one terrific scene appears during the second act. The camera is placed as if lying in a grave, while a cackling Slaughter throws dirt in our faces. It's a great and surprising moment that happens at just the right time. From this point on, Slaughter's diabolic plan begins to unravel, and he slowly starts going mad. Well, madder, is probably a better word.

The cast is mostly seasoned theater veterans, and all are perfectly fine in their roles. However, Tod Slaughter absolutely steamrolls over every other actor on the screen. It was here where he created the template for the morally bankrupt scoundrels, and sometimes madmen, he would continue to play. Nobody was a badder guy than Tod Slaughter.

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