‘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.