In the nineteen thirties, Universal Pictures was busy making legendary monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy that would turn stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff into household names. However, across the pond in England, a director by the name of George King was making a horror star out of another actor: the aptly named Tod Slaughter. In 1939, after making a handful of pictures together, King and Slaughter closed out the decade with the creepy The Face at the Window.
The Face at the Window takes place in France during the 1880s. The city is being plagued by a wave of murders that police are attributing to a “wolf-man,” since a loud howl can be heard after each time he strikes. The latest victim is a worker at a bank owned by M. de Brisson (Aubrey Mallalieu from Devil’s Plot). Not only was the worker killed, but the bank was robbed as well, sending Brisson into financial ruin. As luck would have it, a strange client named Chevalier Lucio del Gardo (Slaughter) suddenly appears offering to deposit money into the bank on the condition that he be allowed to court Brisson’s daughter, Cecile (The Crimes of Stephen Hawke’s Marjorie Taylor). This is bad news for Cecile, because she is secretly engaged to one of her father’s employees, a poor but loyal man named Lucien Cortier (John Warwick from Horrors of the Black Museum). After Cecile rejects Chevalier’s advances, Chevalier plants a package of gold in Lucian’s locker and sends a letter to Brisson, framing Lucian for the robbery and, therefore, marking him as the murderer. Lucian escapes and, as the victims of the wolf continue to pile up, he seeks the help of his friend, a scientist named Professor LeBlanc (The Second Mr. Bush’s Wallace Evennett) who has figured out a way to communicate with the recently dead through electricity. With LeBlanc’s help, Lucian plans to clear his name and discover the true identity of the creepy killer.
As tame as it seems by today’s standards, The Face at the Window was shocking for its time. George King made his name pumping out exploitative melodramas like The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, short and cheap films that could be produced quickly and painlessly in order to comply with a British law that mandated that 20% of all films exhibited in the country must be made locally. Based on a play by Brooke Warren (which had been adapted for film three times prior), the screenplay was written by Ronald Fayre (The Chinese Den) with dialogue assistance from A.R. Rawlinson (The Man Who Knew Too Much). The script seems almost like a precursor for the sci-fi B-movie; in addition to the ugly love triangle, it also features a psycho killer who may or may not be a werewolf, a mad scientist who experiments on dead people, and a neat little twist ending that keeps the audience guessing until the last frame. Shocking stuff indeed, considering it wasn’t coming out of Universal Studios.
Tod Slaughter cut his teeth on the British stage where, in his early career, he was most often cast as the hero. In fact, in the twenties, he played the part of Lucien in a stage production of The Face at the Window. It was when Slaughter began working with George King on motion pictures that he began to play villains, lighting up the screen as Sweeny Todd in The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and as the title character in The Crimes of Stephen Hawke. Slaughter quickly proved himself as a formidable antagonist, playing the moustache-twisting, Dick Dastardly type of cad to perfection. His performances were so convincing that he would end up being typecast as a villain, even when he returned to the stage during World War II. With Tod Slaughter, George King had literally created a monster.
The Face at the Window takes its name from the film’s iconic image; the wolf makes a habit of peering into houses before he attacks, striking fear into the heart of his intended victim with his grotesque leer. The Face is played by Harry Terry (The Showman in Hitchcock’s The Ring) and is brought to stunning life by cinematographer Hone Glendinning (who shot Crimes at the Dark House, also directed by King and starring Slaughter). Glendinning puts just enough light on the face outside the window to illuminate the features, but still keeps it shrouded in darkness. Glendinning’s use of shadows plays a large role in the effectiveness of the film; as a filmed play, the sets and locations are limited, but Glendinning lights them to make the most of the set design, with shadows being cast and darkness enveloping the corners of every scene. It may not have been a Hollywood production, but The Face at the Window is shot like one, and the creative photography goes a long way towards making the simple production look complex.
When horror fans think about the classic actors of the genre, the big three of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. are the names that come immediately to mind, and with good reason; these are the memorable characters of the formidable years of the genre. However, one has to wonder what might have happened if Tod Slaughter had found his way to Hollywood. Would he have met the same kind of success? The world will never know, but movies like The Face at the Window are around to plead the case for Slaughter’s being one of the greatest screen villains of all time.