The Haunted Strangler [DVD]
Director : Robert Day
Screenplay : Jan Read and John C. Cooper (story by Jan Read)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1958
Stars : Boris Karloff (James Rankin), Jean Kent (Cora Seth), Elizabeth Allan (Barbara Rankin), Anthony Dawson (Supt. Burk), Vera Day (Pearl), Tim Turner (Dr. Kenneth McColl), Diane Aubrey (Lily Rankin), Max Brimmell (Newgate Prison Turnkey), Leslie Perrins (Newgate Prison Governor), Jessica Cairns (Asylum Maid)
By the late 1950s, Boris Karloff, one of the great icons of the horror cinema, was falling on hard times. Part of the problem was that the genre with which he was so completely associated was fast becoming a joke, plagued by artless, quickie B-movie garbage and goofy parodies like the horror comedies Abbott and Costello made for Universal, two of which Karloff starred in. With the once frightening specters of Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, and an assortment of deranged scientists and lunatics now the stuff of hokey humor, Karloff had taken refuge in the new medium of television, becoming a regular guest of Milton Berle and numerous anthology series.
Karloff’s silver screen renaissance, which would be fueled primarily by the films of Roger Corman in the 1960s, began with 1958’s The Haunted Strangler (aka, Grip of the Strangler), a British horror thriller with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde vibe that offered him his first genuinely meaty role in close to a decade. In fact, Karloff’s role was written explicitly for him by screenwriter Jan Read in his original 1956 story titled “Stranglehold.” The role allowed Karloff to play both with and against type, at times a decent, highly conscientious man and at other times a deranged killer. Known for roles that required extensive make-up, Karloff pulls off the switch with old-fashioned acting, turning his face into a contorted grimace that is perched uneasily somewhere between the comical and the truly unnerving.
The story in The Haunted Strangler takes place in late-19th-century England. It begins in 1860 with the hanging of a man named Edward Styles who has been convicted of strangling and stabbing to death numerous young women. Twenty years later, a social-reforming novelist named James Rankin (Karloff) reopens an investigation into the execution of the so-called “Haymarket Strangler.” Rankin is convinced that Styles was an innocent man wrongly convicted, and a significant part of his investigation is in pursuing the doctor who performed Styles’ autopsy and subsequently disappeared.
The mystery element of the film’s narrative is brisk and effective, drawing you quickly into Rankin’s investigation. It takes us to a number of seedy and creepy locations, including a lively brothel called The Judas Hole (which has to be the greatest name of such a place in all of cinema), a dank prison in which inmates are brutally whipped, an insane asylum, and an overgrown graveyard. Director Robert Day, who worked with producers Richard and Alex Gordon again the next year on the sci-fi/horror hybrid First Man Into Space (1959), creates an eerie atmosphere on a limited budget, making the most of the well-designed sets, which were also used for Corridors of Blood, another Gordon production starring Karloff. Day has a good sense of what gets under your skin, and the film’s images of such horror staples as digging up graves and a sinister killer lurking in the shadows, as well as its emphasis on obsessive behaviors, are effectively unsettling.
Like most low-budget affairs, The Haunted Strangler has its weaknesses. Some of the scenes, particularly the lingering shots of dancing girls at The Judas Hole, are clearly padding included to stretch out the running time and offer a little sex appeal for its audience. The script by Jan Read and John C. Cooper is not entirely airtight, either, as it relies on the gimmick of a character’s multiple personalities being set off by the presence of a particular surgeon’s knife, but then giving us a scene in which the personalities shift without it. Nevertheless, The Haunted Strangler is an effective horror thriller, one that works out of an underlying sense of intensifying dread, rather than the cheap and easy thrills that were so typical of the era.
|The Haunted Strangler Criterion Collection DVD|
|The Haunted Strangler is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection’s four-disc box set “Monsters and Madmen,” which also features The Atomic Submarine, First Man into Space, and Corridors of Blood.|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$79.95 (box set)|
|Release Date||January 23, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new digitally restored, high-definition transfer of The Haunted Strangler, which was made from a 35mm fine-grain print, is excellent. The black-and-white image is sharp and well detailed, even in the darkest of scenes. Contrast is strong throughout, and there is barely a hint of age or damage. The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack negatives, is also excellent for its age.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary features genre writer Tom Weaver interviewing executive producer Richard Gordon, who produced 16 horror and science fiction movies from 1957 to 1981. Weaver, a fount of knowledge about science fiction and horror movies of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, has published several collections of interviews, including 1988’s Interviews With B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers (which was expanded and updated in 1999) and 1994’s Attack of the Movie Monsters: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants (which was recently republished in 2006). As with the other commentaries recorded by Gordon and Weaver, this is a lively and informative affair, with Weaver drawing all kinds of interesting anecdotes and memories from Gordon. In addition, there is roughly half an hour of audio commentary near the beginning from producer Alex Gordon, who passed away in 2003. Additional memories about the film’s production and what it was like to work with the legendary Boris Karloff can be found in “Haunted Memories,” a 12-minute featurette that includes interviews with director Robert Day, writer Jan Read (who complains about both what he sees as the excessive brutality in the prison sequence and the fact that the film was novelized without his input), and actresses Vera Day and Jean Kent (who admits that her death pose in the film falls somewhere short of convincing). Also included on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, a radio spot, and a stills gallery of production photos, poster art, and newspaper ads, most of which tout the film as a double feature with Fiend Without a Face (1958).|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection