Director: David Macdonald
Cast: Tod Slaughter, Jack Livesey, Marjorie Taylor
It is with much joy that I review my first Tod Slaughter film on this blog, heving been a fan of this one of a kind barnstormer for many years. Tod is horror's forgotten man, a totally bizarre and over the top character actor who could out-ham Bela Lugosi, Charles Laughton, John Carradine, John Barrymore, combined. His films are creaky melodramas, often about a lecherous madman, played by Slaughter and old hat plost lifted directly from the stage, which is where most of his stories derived from. However, they are presented straight faced and that just makes them more loveable and watchable.
Never Too Late To Mend is one of Slaughter's best films, though not a horror film. It's a crime melodrama with some horrorific undertones, reminiscent of both the work of Charles Dickens and the later Val Lewton film, Bedlam(1946). Slaughter stars as Squire Meadows, who feigns kindness, but is really a madman who revels in sadism, visiting the local prison as a hobby and inflicting brutal punishment upon the inmates often for minor infractions. He also conspires to wed a beautiful young lass from his village, Susan Merton(Marjorie Taylor) who is in love with a young man named George Fielding(Ian Colin). He sets the young man up on a poaching charge, but George's good friend, Tom Robinson(Jack Livesey) takes the rap and goes to prison instead, while the penniless George goes away to South Africa to work in the mines and raise money to start a family with Susan.
Tom discovers that the prison is a hell, a torture chamber with needless brutality and where all the inmates are treated with callous indiffernce. The Squire goes there daily, referring to the inmates as his "children" and delights in their collective hardship, inflicting punishment and laughing away the miseries of the inmates with fellow justices of the peace, who share equal amounts of apathy.
The prison contains prisoners of all sexes, races and ages, including a 15 year old boy who was imprisoned trying to get bread for his impoverished mother, who passes away anyway. Nearly driven mad by the work, which includes moving a heavy crank at least 1500 revolutions per day, the boy is placed in a steel jacket, a really nightmarish torture device, resembling something from the inquisition.
A pastor(Roy Russel) arrives from the local church and sees the brutality and is powerless to stop it, as is Tom, who attempts to aid the tortured child who dies from his mistreatment. Meanwhile, word of George returning home terrifies the Squire who spreads rumor that he is already married and steals away his fiance as his own, much to her displeasure. Tom is set free and George comes back, a wealthy man. The Squire aware of this, steals the young man's bank notes, after slipping a mickey in his drink, but Tom is able to retrieve the stolen bank notes and reveal the Squire for the criminal he is. His wedding destroyed, as are his chance at happiness, the Squire goes insane, as Tod does at the conclusion of all his films and he pulls a pistol and threatens to kill, when the pastor arrives and condemns his soul to perdition. The Squire is dragged away, wild eyed and insane, crying out at the top of his lungs, "He'll break you're heart! He'll Break you're heart!", before being placed on the crank, repeating the film's title to himself, as the film ends.
The film was based off of a highly influential book by Charles Reade in 1856 that led to prison reforms after Queen Victoria read it, unaware of the terrible conditions within the system.
Never Too Late To Mend is hardly a subtle film, but one guaranteed to inspire audience reaction and sympathy. It's in some ways comparative to many other prison reform films of the period like I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang(1932) and The Mayor Of Hell(1933), but presented with more horrorific undertones. Certainly, as despicable as the villains were in these contemporary films(who could forget Dudley Didges warden in The Mayor Of Hell!), none of these films had a villain quite like Slaughter, who delights in chewing up the scenery with more passion than just about anyone who has ever lived!
His Squire Meadows is a truly delightful villain that is so despicable that it adds to the situation immeasurably. The prison is already a dank and dark moody place, heightened by the grainy black and white photography of the period and the faces of the starving prisoners who exist on a diet of skilly(gruel), pea soup and hash and are often denied food for infractions anyway. The tortures like that awful steel jacket and the black room, where Tom ends up after attempting to save the child, are truly creepy and disturbing and the Squire's delight in there purpose is just bone chilling.
Most of the cast are merely adequate, appropiately melodramatic for what the film is, though Livesey is a nice counter-balance to Slaughter's villainy, as the noble Tom, whose transformation from cocky go-getter to haunted prisoner is very potent and memorable. His scene in the dark room, a small prison cell with no light, where he starts to go insane is a very nicely directed scene.
The message in this film is still relative to today's society, as we still deal with reforms and injustice internationally and while the melodrama may not be to everyone's liking, the point is made clear and it's a good one, for what it's worth. Tod Slaughter made several other thrillers during this period with even more blood and thunder, but the combination of this film's message and some truly disturbing scenes help make this one of his best efforts. It is never too late to mend and it's never too late to discover the unique and unbridled joy that is Tod Slaughter.