I would have had no idea that this film existed had it not been mentioned in the British comedy-thriller series “Psychoville,” which I have been watching. Made for TV by Yorkshire Television in 2002, this is the story of notorious serial killer John George Haigh, a dapper, charming English conman who killed between six and nine people during and after World War II. Haigh often posed as an inventor or engineer, seeking wealthy patrons to support his projects. When he found them, he would invite them to his workshop in a small town south of London, kill them, then dissolve their bodies in acid, mistakenly believing that with no corpses, he could never be convicted. He then would use his long-held skills as a forger to take possession of his victims’ cash and property. When a wealthy widow who lived in Haigh’s hotel disappeared, followed by her friend, suspicion fell on the resident tinkerer. Examining the grounds around his workshop, Scotland Yard detectives found several human gallstones which had not dissolved in the acid, and Haigh confessed, still believing he could not be convicted. It turns out he had not misunderstood the legal concept of corpus deliciti, and was tried, convicted, and executed in a sensational trial.
Haigh is played by Martin Clunes, who is mainly known for his comedy work in British sit-coms. Clunes being cast so against type as a serial killer was probably part of the reason this aired only once on British TV. I am not familiar with his comedy work, but found his portrayal of the conniving Haigh pitch-perfect. Although he is quite a bit taller and heavier than the real Haigh, he captures the detached mannerisms of the calm and calculating killer, whom contemporary reports describe as proud of his cunning. Despite the the made-for-TV budget, the costumes, sets and cars do well to establish the look of wartime Britain and the soundtrack of contemporary popular songs is priceless.
The writing and directing team of Glenn Chandler and Harry Bradbeer covered another historical British serial killer, George Joseph Smith, in Brides in the Bath in 2003 and clearly know their stuff. Chandler and Bradbeer open the story with Scotland Yard officials combing over Haigh’s workshop property and finding the undissolved gallstones that would become key evidence, before going way back to the killer’s odd childhood, in which his religious fanatic parents taught him his family was part of “God’s Elect” and that they were different and better than their neighbors. As an adult, Haigh’s motive is shown to be not so much greed as his belief that he should never have to work for a living. When Haigh’s dog, which he has inherited from two of his victims, becomes ill and has to be put down, the killer of men is visually moved to learn the animal must die. It is not entirely clear whether the filmmakers want us to feel sympathy for Haigh or not. It is also not clear what to make of his claim that he was actually a vampire who killed his victims in order to drink their blood. This is probably how the British people felt about the real Haigh, and why his trial so captured the attention of the nation.