‘Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn’ or — Entering the Slaughterhouse?

Colin Edwards
3 min readNov 23, 2023

Tod Slaughter was an English actor who specialised in playing over the top, melodramatic Victorian villains in a string of films made in the 1930’s. I’d never even heard of the guy let alone seen any of his movies so was both curious and totally ignorant of what to expect when I dove into one of them last night, specifically Slaughter’s first movie — ‘The Murder in the Red Barn’ (1935).

The film opens with cinematic and theatrical flourishes as an endearing model shot of the titular barn in a booming thunderstorm gives way to a stage where a master of ceremonies introduces us to the actors and the roles they’ll be playing with Slaughter, the star, hailed as “Squire Corder, Lord of the Manor… and a villain! Whose blood may be blue — but whose heart is black as night!”, and from his massive grin we can see Slaughter is

relishing every ounce of his devilish part.

We’re then plunged back into the realm of the cinematic and the tale of Maria Marten, a young country girl, her gypsy lover Carlos and the dastardly William Corder who simultaneously desires to possess and eliminate Maria for dastardly reasons. With such competing passions and Corder’s twisted motives it’s not long before a murder is committed, a murder in the red barn.

Oh my goodness, this is an insanely enjoyable movie and not just because of Slaughter’s ridiculously wonderful performance as every single element of the film is deployed to serve one clear function, and that’s to entertain. It’s a film that actively invites the audience to become fully involved, to enter its world and the pull is so strong it’s wholly irresistible. The resultant effect is total and complete engagement and when a movie can do that to you then you’re hopelessly hooked.

The direction is surprisingly dynamic with the camera frequently moving, and even indulging in some Dutch angles, and even though we can tell it wasn’t an expensive production the deft exploitation of the limited resources is magical resulting in some great compositions and clever application of visual information. A good example of this is when Maria tells her mother of her predicament, and it’s quite a predicament because it transpires Maria is pregnant. As she and her mother ponder what to do we can’t help but notice the long, barbed hook hanging on the kitchen wall behind them, a symbol of a grisly, unspoken possible solution which can’t help but ramp up the macabre atmosphere of it all.

Slaughter himself is phenomenal to behold and the more evil he gets, the more despicable he becomes the more delightful it is to watch him, something augmented by some outstandingly hilarious lines of dialogue. There’s a scene that beautifully demonstrates this when Slaughter’s Corder, after signing a marriage certificate (and wearing the world’s most outrageously huge collar!), takes his new in-laws by the arm declaring “We have guests waiting… and the fiddles are tuning up. Come gentlemen, I’ll give you a toast to my lovely bride.” (they drain their glasses) “But come, the fiddles are waiting!”, and all the while his eyebrows are maniacally jumping up and down with every fruitily pronounced syllable.

Slaughter delivers all this with fantastic aplomb yet we suspect he’s maybe holding back somewhat, something that’s confirmed when, towards the end and his mask of faux decorum is finally exposed, he goes full-blown John Barrymore meets Andy Serkis with a blistering performance of furious spite-filled invective spat through gnarled vocalisations that almost blew me off my chair. Imagine how much fun it must have been sitting in a packed theatre watching this guy on stage?! The audience must’ve went bananas!

I can understand why Tod Slaughter was so popular in his time because going by this the guy was an entertainment machine. The film itself is nicely paced, darkly vigorous and doing everything in its power to stimulate the hell out of you, and I can tell you that I most certainly stimulated.

I’ve finally entered the Slaughterhouse and I don’t think I want to leave.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.