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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Curse of the Wraydons (1946)

My notes on the Tod Slaughter vehicle The Curse of the Wraydons

‘This pit is my own invention. The walls close together, and they’ll crush you to pulp. Far more exciting to watch than the gallows or the guillotine. Death will be slow – very slow! But sure, sure as the Wraydon Curse!’

Tod Slaughter brought his distinctive, rather wonderful brand of theatrical melodrama to the movies from Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (1936) to Crimes at the Dark House (1940); even in his heyday, he was a living fossil, still touring with plays which had entered the popular consciousness generations earlier, delivering knowing winks and lurid thrills to audiences whose grandparents could have seen the originals. He kept pop culture villains like Squire William Corder, the Face at the Window and Sweeney Todd alive, filling out a rogues’ gallery of lasting villains. After the War, an older, but still-enthusiastic Slaughter tried again, looking to the Chamber of Horrors for a couple more British famous monsters. Here, it’s Spring-Heeled Jack, from penny dreadful and urban legend, but his last gasp was a stab at Burke and Hare in The Greed of William Hart. The Curse of the Wraydons came out in 1946, the year of Dead of Night, but Victor M. Gover’s unimaginative direction and the cramped production feels like something from decades before. It runs to powdered wigs, thigh-boots, swords and hoop skirts, but could never be mistaken for the sort of lavish historical production Gainsborough were making – just as the tubby, big-chinned, baboon-faced Slaughter lacks the sexual presence which made James Mason’s surprisingly similar characters in the likes of The Man in Grey much more appealing to late ‘40s female audiences.

In 1805, with Britain isolated in Europe thanks to Buonaparte, there are devilish doings in Essex, where the corrupt Squire Sedgefield (Andrew Laurence) is wheedling naval secrets out of young officers and passing them to ‘the Chief’ (Slaughter), who is spying for Napoleon and given to maintaining transparent disguises (as a blind beggar, for instance). Young Jack Wraydon (Bruce Seton), an officer whose athletic prowess is legendary (‘those queer tales about leaps of ten or fifteen feet are absurd, unless he’s got some trick boots with strong springs inside them’), is courting the Squire’s lovely daughter Helen (Lorraine Clewes) and feels compelled to fight a duel with an upstart who insulted her even though a recent military order has imposed a death sentence for duelling (this is the sort of extraneous business the film tells us about without needing to show). Helen has been warned off Jack because there’s reputedly insanity in his family, which turns out to be true – the Chief is actually Philip Wraydon, Jack’s crackpot inventor uncle who once fled to France and has returned, intent on treachery to his country and killing off all the people who stand between him and the family fortune. Part of the villain’s plan is to commit a series of murders – strangling women in Epping Forest – and framing his nephew, whose high jump nickname (‘they do call him “Spring-Heeled Jack”, don’t they … it’s really rather ridiculous’) takes on a sinister light as rumours of his serial-killings are bruited about in a montage. ‘Oh, we women are so scared,’ complains one of the regulars at a Beauty Shop, ‘we won’t risk the forest.’

The film trudges when its large, uniformly-wooden supporting cast are busily intriguing or romancing – several more Wraydons clutter the story, plus a brother officer who wavers between treachery and decency (Andrew Laurence) and a heroic Bow Street runner (Ben Williams) – but comes to life whenever Slaughter is slicing the ham. Philip Wraydon maintains a sanctum full of killing devices inspired by his historical enthusiasms (‘have you ever read of the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition?’). A moment of clumsy, but nevertheless genuine cinematic horror has Slaughter cornering a woman (Daphne Arthur) in the woods (the only outside location seen in the film) and advancing, leering, into extreme close-up as his hands reach out to strangle her. As in many Slaughter vehicles, he gets to do his nastiest things to his own confederates (they think him ‘more devil than man’), whom he is always threatening (‘try any games and I’ll screw your blasted necks with pleasure’), taunting (‘yes, that’s what I like to see … a strong man, frightened!’) or teasing (you seem on edge, and you do so hate the forest at night … shall I come with you?). Thanks to that family curse, Philip Wraydon is even more insane than previous Slaughter villains. He spends most of the second half of the film cackling dementedly as he kills at random, tortures wavering minions and traps the hero in his crushing pit. Naturally, he gets to shriek with panic when he falls into his own pit and suffers the fate he’d intended for his nephew (‘a horrible death, but he deserved it’).

Though Jack Wraydon is driven outside the law by the baddie’s machinations and gets to wear a cloak and point pistols, he doesn’t live up to the proto-superhero rep of Spring-Heeled Jack. At no point, do we even see him jump in an ordinary manner – and that joke about trick boots is the only mention of the gadget which made the character famous. This and the Asylum’s recent Sherlock Holmes constitute the entire filmography of Spring-Heeled Jack – and he doesn’t leap in that, either.

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “Film review – The Curse of the Wraydons (1946)

  1. David Flint The main problem with Slaughter’s films, as you suggest, if that while the moments featuring the big man chewing the scenery are hugely entertaining, the rest of the story is pretty dull. Still, I’d love to see a remastered box set. Or at least some of the films on TV again. Not that I’ll be holding my breath for either.

    Kim Newman I’d buy a remastered Slaughter set – though the proliferation of very poor dupes on budget labels makes it unlikely. When Channel 4 used to screen them, they looked a lot better than on most releases. A solid documentary about him wouldn’t go amiss – or a biography. There are so many competing researchers out there churning out yet more on overexposed American schlock filmmakers like Ed Wood or HG Lewis, you’d think someone would bother with Slaughter – simply keeping Victorian theatre going for half a century would be enough to sustain a study, and his films seem to exist in their own odd bubble separate from the industry proper. There’s something wonderful about Slaughter as a screen character. William K. Everson said that no movie villain committed as MANY crimes in each film. Just being a serial-killing sadist who operates a gang of murderous thieves while posing as a respectable hypocrite was never enough for Slaughter, who had to become obsessed with raping the heroine and framing her boyfriend for his own misdeeds. Bless. Though all his other vehicles have been available for years, Curse of the Wraydons has eluded me until now. It’s not among his best.

    Stephen Bissette I love Slaughter’s films, despite the dupey prints and their considerable flaws. I’ve over the years snagged the best prints I could find, including the UK releases, and occasionally revisit them as I do the old Columbia Karloff films and Lionel Atwill Paramount and Universal programmers.

    Kim Newman I think Slaughter is a unique horror star – all his films are built around him the way a comedy would be built around George Formby or Norman Wisdom. The reason supporting casts are dreadful and production values minimal is that the star is literally the whole show. Other horror stars made one or two films constructed to fit their personae – the Columbia Karloffs, Lugosi at Monogram, Vincent Price’s Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood – but Slaughter only made vehicles for himself. He was an actor-manager auteur in a way which was once common in the theatre but persists in the movies only in comedy or musicals (and, just lately, in some action star careers like Steven Seagal’s).

    Tim Paxton I’ve shown some of his stuff on my TV show… despite grumbling from viewers. The point is, as I like to pound into their heads, here is something you NEVER see on TV anymore! Enjoy it, you big dummies!

    David Flint And of course, his films are a unique glimpse into a long-gone theatrical world.Now you’ve convinced me to dig out all the Slaughter films I have on VHS and transfer them to DVD. The Ticket of Leave Man here I come!

    Stuart Neild I love Tod Slaughter films. You’re right Kim, it is time someone brought out a bio of the great man. After all, he was the UK’s first horror icon.

    Richard Harland Smith WRAYDONS is pretty dull, which is not a word I’m accustomed to connecting with Slaughter.

    Posted by kimnewman | July 9, 2018, 11:45 am
  2. I totally disagree about the supporting cast being “totally dreadful”. Tod is wonderful, but others like Stella Rho, D.J. Williams, Margaret Yarde, Henry Oscar, Johnny Singer, Eric Portman, Dennis Hoey, Gerrard Tyrrell, Ben Soutten, Frank Cochrane, Hay Petrie, etc. were excellent in these movies. I have seen all of his features, the only exception being “Darby and Joan” (a “lost” film, but partially found last February in an abridged print), and six episodes of his 1952 TV series, plus some other featurettes. But I agree that “The Curse of the Wraydons” is his worse.

    Posted by Jean-Claude Michel | July 9, 2018, 5:16 pm
    • The 1952 TV series has been getting play on UK’s Talking Pictures TV channel lately – spliced into two features. I’ll concede that Hay Petrie makes a good minion.

      Posted by kimnewman | July 9, 2018, 6:23 pm
  3. I think it’s a mistake, as only one of the two features, “King of the Underworld” has been shown on Talking Pictures, and they also broadcast the separate episode “Murder at the Grange” (aka “Death at the Festival”). Both were also released on different DVDs by Renown. But to my knowledge (I can be wrong, as I’m not an UK resident) they didn’t show the second feature, “Murder at Scotland Yard”, also made of three episodes. I have the first episode alone, also called “Murder at Scotland Yard”, courtesy of an US friend.

    Posted by Jean-Claude Michel | July 11, 2018, 1:17 pm
  4. Such a shame that Tod Slaughter’s Desert Island Discs episode has been lost, it would have made fascinating listening.

    Posted by THX 1139 | July 14, 2018, 10:35 am
  5. And what became of the radio serial “Forge of the Death” ? apparently it was never aired, the BBC only has some minutes of the first episode, “The Laughing Blacksmith”. They also erased the radio versions of some plays that Tod recorded in the Thirties, just some minutes are kept in BBC’s archives.

    Posted by Jean-Claude Michel | July 14, 2018, 8:42 pm

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