MARK FRYERS looks at how the tragic tale of Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn endures on film…
If you visit the dungeons below Norwich Castle, amongst the grisly trinkets of yesteryear’s crimes are a number of criminal death masks- a reminder of the days of phrenology, a primitive attempt to link brutal and criminal nature with the bumps and undulations of an individual’s skull. Amongst these is a replica of William Corder’s, who was hanged in 1828 for the murder of his ex-lover Maria Marten.
Corder was a son of a farmer and petty criminal who had an affair with Maria Marten, the attractive daughter of a local molecatcher who had already had a couple of children out of wedlock. When Corder discovered she was pregnant with his own child he falsely lured her to meet him in a night-time rendezvous at the local ‘Red Barn’ under the illusion that they would elope to Bury St. Edmunds. He had other ideas and strangled her and buried her in the barn. He was traced to Brentford where he was living with a new wife, tried and hanged.
Preceding Jack the Ripper, the case was one of the most famous of the 19th Century, prompting lurid newspaper headlines at the time and inspiring songs, ballads and long-running theatrical melodramas including ‘penny gaffs’ (often performed in the backrooms of pubs). Perhaps the story’s fascination lay in a spiritual element that heightened the mystery. Maria was not originally deemed missing as Corder continued sending mail detailing her activities, but her step-mother was suspicious, not least as she alleged to have dreams where her dead daughter appeared telling her she was buried in the barn. She convinced her husband to dig it up, which revealed the awful truth.
Unsurprisingly, there were several efforts to convert the famous true-crime story into a film in the early years of the twentieth Century. The first was produced in 1908 by the William Haggar and Sons movie company under the title, The Red Barn Mystery. The picture went down well: Moving Picture World described it as ‘one of the finest sensational feature films of recent times’.
Another version was made by Maurice Elvey in 1913 for George King Productions for which Illustrated Films Monthly reminded viewers of the origins in great detail. It reports that the story was toned down for cinemagoers as ‘it has no liking for horrors’ but congratulates a ‘remarkable film’. By contrast, when George King’s updated version was released in 1927 it prompted the highbrow cinema magazine Close-Up to declare ‘Has there ever been an artistically satisfying British film? No’. Sadly, none of these survive.
The first sound version of the film mercifully does. Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn was released in 1935, again for George King productions. Starring the aptly named Tod Slaughter (he also played Sweeney Todd amongst other villains), this version cleaved close to its origins as stage melodrama, including an introduction from the stage. This was unsurprising considering Slaughter was a veteran of the role, having played it in stage versions for a number of years, inviting the audience to theatrically ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’ at his Corder as they would on the provincial stages.
The BBC also produced a TV movie in 1947 and a mini-series in 1980 which was more sober in tone. Versions of the play continue to be produced throughout the globe, testimony to its enduring qualities. In an era in which true crime proliferates, it is surely only a matter of time before the events at the red barn are once again re-enacted for 21st Century viewers.