“Murder in the Red Barn” was the perfect vehicle for Tod Slaughter’s introduction to movie-goers. It was one of the Victorian melodramas in which he had been barnstorming the provincial theaters for years, the play having been based on an actual 1828 murder case. Since he had been portraying the villainous Squire Corder so long on the stage, Slaughter had made the hypocritical landowner his own.
The film is introduced as if it were a play. A host walks on stage from the wings and offers to introduce the characters. Each is greeted with applause. Even Corder takes a bow under the proscenium to the approbation of the theater audience. This literal stage-setting, which will never be referred to again, only adds to the film’s time-machine feel. Just as the movie’s creaky plot and characterizations take us back to British neighborhood cinemas of 1935, the faux theatrical introduction would have removed audiences of 1935 back 70 years to the days of mid-Victorian melodrama.
At the village dance, Squire Corder appears to be the very soul of amiable generosity. Surely then as now audiences knew not to trust any man in a melodrama who seems to be that pleasant and courtly. He will certainly prove to be Up to No Good. Actually, you can see it in Slaughter’s body language. He stands stiff-backed, head erect, arms held oddly in front of his torso looking for all the world as if he were a praying mantis.
All goes well for Corder at the dance until he makes the mistake of allowing a gypsy woman—where would these pictures be without gypsy women—to read his palm, in which she sees death and the Squire hanging from the end of a rope. Talk about your mood killers . . .
Next we cut to a humble cottage and see the lovely village maiden Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart)—where would these pictures be without village maidens—telling her mother that she is off to choir practice. But—cue the organ—she is really sneaking off to Corder’s manor house because the cad has been promising her a life of luxury and respectability in London after he weds her, which he has absolutely no intention of doing after he gets what he wants from her. Have some Madeira, m’dear.
When Maria’s father (D.J. Williams) finds out that there was no choir practice that night, they gypsy lad Carlos (Eric Portman), who is smitten with our heroine, lies to Farmer Marten and says that he was with Maria. He’s trying to protect her but it isn’t made clear why spending night time hours with him is better than anything else she could have been doing.
Livid, Farmer Marten calls on the Squire and asks him to run the gypsies out of town.
This scene is a grand one for Slaughter as he gets to scale the heights of justified hypocrisy. He paces back and forth in his parlor, his steps stiff and forced as if he were counting “one, two, three, stop, turn, speak, pace back, one, two, three.” He dabs gently at his nose with his handkerchief, then paces to the bell cord, tugs on it manfully, and deliberately paces back. It’s stage movement of the most mechanical sort but it is oddly mesmerizing.
Slaughter is like the modern computer generated Scooby-Doo at the heart of the drama. He’s too large for the other actors. He stands out because he doesn’t seem to be quite real, and yet all the other characters in the movie accept his presence. His hand-wringing and eye-rolling, his way of underlining every laugh and condescending lip-curl are the most unsubtle ways of virtually commanding center stage. This is a Tod Slaughter film the way John Wayne’s later pictures belonged entirely to the Duke. He exists on his own plane, and the spotlight follows him wherever he goes.
Now we cut to a gaming room in London where Corder is experiencing a terrible run of bad luck at the dice table, losing toss after toss to a dandified Dennis Hoey (later Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes). So busted does Corder become, he determines to marry a wealthy, plain, psalm-singing old maid for her money. When the winner of his fortune gives him but one month to pay up, it becomes clear that poor Maria is old news.
Of course all sexual action has taken place off screen but we can tell by Maria’s shamed demeanor that she and the Squire have been involved with some slap and tickle, and soon it will become obvious to the entire village. Her father, declaring her a “wanton,” throws her out of his house. She hastens to the manor to claim what is her due by former promise, but Corder dismisses her distress with a delicious “I meant what I said at the time.”“
You shan’t kick me into the gutter,” she cries, thinking her despair will melt his cold heart. So certain is she that Corder will do the right thing, she drives away the love-struck Carlos, who offers to marry her.
The Squire tells Maria to meet him that night at the red barn and they will slip away to London. When they meet, a storm is raging. Where would these pictures be without raging storms? Maria senses that all is not well with Corder. Slaughter allows his shoulders to hunch as he hisses, “Didn’t I promise to make you a bride? You shall be a bride, Maria. A bride of death!”
She screams. He shoots her with a dueling pistol. He digs a hole in the barn and buries her as thunder and lightning crash and flash. Director Milton Rosmer even places his camera in the grave so we can watch Corder as he shovels dirt onto our faces.
From this point on the movie hastens to its close. Maria is missed by her grieving parents. Carlos is tracked down and accused of causing her disappearance. He remembers seeing her with the Squire on the last night anyone saw her. The town officials take Corder and Carlos to the barn where Corder’s dog Tiger begins to sniff around a patch of disturbed earth. Corder offers to dig around to prove that there is nothing amiss and he digs up the pistol he had inadvertently dropped in the grave.
When the corpse is exposed—not to us but to the characters on screen—Slaughter give us a nicely overwrought mad scene right out of Edgar Allan Poe. “Don’t stare at me like that, Maria,” he gibbers. He is finally led away, barking mad, by the authorities.
But he has one last horrible indignity awaiting him as he is led to the gallows. He doesn’t see it coming—if people in old-fashioned melodramas like this had an ounce of imagination or self-restraint, there wouldn’t be any old-fashioned melodramas like this—but you’ll spot it as soon as you hear that the hangman is too sick to attend to his duties and so a “volunteer hangman” has been procured for the day.
As it is with other of Slaughter’s lead roles, in the end there’s a grandeur in Squire Corder’s evil. He covers all the bases: snobbishness, vanity, lechery, violence, greed, hypocrisy—he’s the complete villains of Charles Dickens all rolled into one. Slaughter is sui generis, and you wouldn’t want to have it any other way.