A previous blog about 1970s British film culture and the horror genre was a point of entry for my art project.
Today, I'm going to freeze frame on performance and iconography in horror. Then rewind 100 years and connect with melodrama.
There is a site-specific location binding these themes: the Elephant and Castle Theatre, Cinema, Club. On one level, this is about the ghostly memory of a building that is currently the Coronet Club at 28 New Kent Road. Bringing it to life, I need to dip your toes in the archive and employ some creative sleight of hand.
Built in 1872, the Elephant and Castle Theatre closely followed the opening of the E&C station on the London, Chatham and Dover railway line; the theatre bulging around and under the arches of the railway line. Urbanisation coupled with increased shopping and entertainment attractions would lead to the area being called the "Piccadilly of South London." The theatre was established by maverick businessman, Edward Tyrell Smith; he's another story waiting to be told. He saw money to be made from his love of theatre. However boom and bust would haunt every theatre even as this one regularly packed in the local working classes with a programme of weekly melodrama and seasonal pantomime. In the face of stringent health and safety requirements from the London County Council, the building was sold off and converted into a cinema in the early 1930s.
Another cycle. Another fifty plus years of cinema in vogue and then decline. The cinema finally closing its doors in 1999. The Coronet club was christened in 2003.
There is a new phase of contested regeneration taking place at the Elephant and Castle. The social housing and shopping centre is being replaced by new forms of private housing, shops and business. At the time of writing, I don't know if the writing is on the wall for the Coronet Club. Let us hope that it has at least another 100 years to entertain.
So as I zip around in space and time, let me transport you (once again) to the ABC Elephant and Castle.
The auditorium is in semi-darkness. The camera tracks across row after row of empty seats. A projector beams into life and reveals a couple sat at the back. She in hot pants, him in tightly crocheted flares. They are on a date. He hopes the horror and sex double bill will facilitate intimacy. She is anxiously waiting for the first move. They almost have the auditorium to themselves apart from an old geezer in the front row fumbling about in a bag and then cracking open some monkey nuts. They are all in for a shock.
Frightmare (1974) is being screened.
Shirley and Deepak are watching the film with growing consternation as several off-camera murders culminate in the bloody use of a power tool on a corpse; this D.I.Y predates Texas Chainsaw. Then forty seven minutes into the film, the first dramatised murder. Shirl and Dee are gripped. They might later reflect on how the writing (David McGillivray), acting (Sheila Keith), filming (Peter Jessop), music (Stanley Myers), all come together in a memorable construction of cinematic horror.
This is what they see and feel.
A vulnerable young lady, Delilah, has arrived for a tarot card reading at the country home of Dorothy. The latter has been shown to be a senior citizen with the craving for flesh; hence the corpses and bloody packages delivered by her daughter. Fear the worse! The soundtrack however starts with the reassuring chime of a carriage clock and a flickering fire place. The comforts of pastoral domesticity. Conversation about what the future holds is interrupted by the rustle of a curtain. Dorothy's animalistic qualities then come to the fore. She ominously refers to the little squirrels in the house. Deliah has money and tarot cards thrown in her face and tries to escape. The demonic laugh of Dorothy, licking her lips with perverted excitement is a classic echo of melodrama (more of this anon). The chime is now replaced by frenzied percussion and dissonant orchestral chords.
S and D as spectators are implicated in the alternating close-up, face to face, point of view shots of Dorothy and Deliah: steam hissing from the red-hot poker, blood issuing from the mouth, the rictus of horror.
Don't try copping-off with this!
Aside from the aesthetics, we might want to briefly consider the ideological impact of a horror film like Frightmare. Robin Wood in his influential essay, An Introduction to the American Horror Film, argues that the best types of horror film tap into political, cultural, and sexual issues. Horror is not just about goose bumps, but can explore complex ideas about the nature of society and its inequalities. The monster as the "return of the repressed." This reading is very pertinent to the films of George A Romero; take Dawn of the Dead, with both zombies and plain old humans consumed by the mania of a shopping complex.
For Frightmare, director, Pete Walker and his scriptwriter were keen on "making mischief" by embedding their film with a subtext that was probably drawn from the pages of the Daily Mail. The film loosely dramatises the question - should not the most serious offenders be locked up for good. Dorothy is able to carry on her cannibalism as a consequence of a legal and medical judgement about being fit for society. This is a topical debate; not the cannibalism, but recidivism. The film likewise makes the male lead a do-gooding medical professional. He sucks. Or rather has his brain sucked out. One senses a questioning of the efficacy of psychiatry. It's a pity that Walker doesn't spend more time teasing out what the lust for flesh actually means for Dorothy apart from satisfying some primal drive. Minor quibble.
Was Pete Walker conservative by nature and compelled to direct subversive films? Apparently so.
With these thoughts still in mind, let me guide you to the Elephant and Castle Theatre in 1927 and 1935.
Norman Carter Slaughter (1885-1956) commonly known as Tod Slaughter was an actor/manager of stage, screen, radio and T.V. who championed melodrama when it was long out of fashion. Jeffrey Richards in his book, An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939, sees Slaughter as a missing link between the theatrical world of melodrama and the cinematic horror; a pioneer for a "cinema of excess" predating Hammer horror by several decades.
Slaughter and his repertory company were based at the Elephant and Castle theatre for 3 years. 1927 was a hight point when West End audiences flocked to see his production of Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn. He must have been annoyed that he wasn't acting in this production. Expected to run for one week, it was seen by over 100,000 people and bowed out after 100 performances. It generated intense debate about "blood and thunder" melodrama in the context of contemporary theatre. Alas, there is no film record of this production. But you can see Tod (below) acting in the film version made in 1935.
So what would a courting couple at the Elephant and Castle make of this stage production in 1927 or the screening in 1935. They would certainly have found it difficult to get intimate in a packed, hissing and cheering theatre. Once again there would have been the shock factor, this time witnessing an execution on the stage; less effective on screen, due to censorship. The actor playing the role of William Corder, who is executed for the murder of his lover, Maria Marten (all based on real events) has a noose applied and then falls through the trap door. The brutality of the staging had audiences gasping.
What about the hammy meat of Tod's acting style? It's difficult to swallow in our post-modern world, but is ripe for re-evaluation as a stylisation where the heart is worn on the sleeve. We can easily identity the broad brush strokes of melodrama: the sneer, the gesticulation, the maniacal laugh. No great psychological insight is intended. Freud need not apply. But it is very sincere and convincing. The villainous roles that Tod Slaughter became synonymous with, Sweeney Todd and William Corder, despatch opponents in a style that should remind us of modern counterparts who have a savvy, deadly punch line. Sweeney Todd uttered the line: "I'll polish you off!" Corder had this quip: "I promised to make you a bride, a bride of death!" Perhaps its best to view the acting in relation to the world of melodrama and when you respect the laws of this artistic universe, it is as natural as natural can be.
My previous blog flagged up some of the Euro influences on British horror. This also applies to melodrama which emanated from French and German musical dramas in the late eighteen century. By the mid nineteenth century this had been codified into a recognisable art form extremely popular with working class audiences. We know the heightened passions and the spectacular effects of melodrama, perhaps best remembered from early silent movies: the damsel in distress, tied to a railway line, the train approaching, the hysteria, the rescue. This is typical character and plot for a Victorian melodrama. However the plays also contained much depth and elaborate stories that often reflected the political and social changes of the late 18th and early 19th century. By and large, the "return of the repressed" could represent the working class (urban or rustic) against the forces of the land owning squire or the new industrial boss. Often Irish nationalism would play out against the English. There is a sense of fatalism as characters are born in a hierarchical society. They exert themselves in a power or psychological struggle to either inherit property or find fame or misfortune (Australian gold or penal colony?) or, if you were a heroine, fending off the oily love making of the villain. Tod Slaughter's films are updated versions of plays in this tradition. They are a window onto the past. One notable exception that looks forward to Hammer horror is The Face at the Window (1939).
So having cross-bred Sheila Keith and Tod Slaughter as uber serial killer, mashed up the world of horror and melodrama and teased out ideological and historical concerns - what next?
Let me re-think that first one again. Sheila Keith and Tod Slaughter meet on screen, we violently cut from one to another as they unleash anarchy and challenge the social order. A wound on the surface of British culture. Prick it and watch yourself bleed.
I am intrigued by how melodrama and horror offer the potential for extreme psychological states. The representation of mental health and madness.
Installation? A theatrical and cinematic space that is shape shifting between the 1920s and 1970s.
Reminded of other artistic interventions - Marcus Coates, A Ritual for Elephant & Castle (2012).
I write this screenplay outline:
Tod Slaughter, theatre impresario in dire financial straits is putting on a stage play. The bailiffs have confiscated his costumes and props. His love life is problematic; ex-wife and child acting in the wings. Tod is about to mount a last ditched melodrama, perhaps updated with gothic touches and this becomes the hit sensation of theatre land in 1927. But it all descends into a blood fest. He is stalked by a serial killer bumping off all those connected with him. Let's add a character called Alfred Hitchcock fresh from the screening of The Lodger (1927). Hitch has some interesting ideas about casting Tod in his next film. But will Tod survive the final reel when the theatre is consumed with flames?
Will an older, wiser, Shirley and Deepak, be engrossed watching this as a download on their iPad? What are their memories of the Elephant and Castle? They might be interested to know that things haven't exactly changed that much. The Coronet Club is staging a Valentines party on Friday 14th February, 2014. "Discover a NAKED FEAST! Or discover your wild side in the Chambers of Venus, whilst elsewhere in the Coronet you’ll find the Onion Cellar, a chance to Voodoo your ex, or jump in a hot tub whilst watching a movie."
If anyone wants to engage with these themes or ideas, please do not hesitate to contact me. I'm an artist open to collaboration.
Next blog will once again shift in time, but not space. I will introduce you to the leading lady at the Elephant and Castle, the Victorian actress, Marie Henderson (1841-1882). There are at least five things you should know about her!