October Horror Movie Series-The Haunted Strangler

October 30, 2008

The Haunted Strangler(1958); Dir. Robert Day. Criterion Collection DVD(2007)

I cannot say that I had very high expectations for this movie but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story and film making despite a somewhat convoluted plot and some overeager acting. It would be easy to classify The Haunted Strangler as a B-movie horror picture and dismiss it as having a limited scope and all the trappings of its genre. However, that would be overlooking the wonderful performance that Boris Karloff gives as the social reformer/novelist James Rankin who sets out to prove the innocence of the man hanged for being The “Haymarket Strangler” twenty years ago. Karloff’s performance plays on the contrast between the polite and compassionate English gentleman and the murderous monster that literally paralyzes Rankin when he grasps the ominous surgeon’s scalpel which appears throughout the movie as a symbol of terror.

Boris Karloff makes the transition from gentleman to monster with the ease of an actor who is greatly skilled at tapping into the dark recesses of human nature while at the same time remaining sympathetic and vulnerable. What is impressive is that Karloff is able to convey this transition with virtually no makeup and you really feel like you are watching a monster emerge out of this character. There is a scene at the end of the film where Rankin is strangling his daugther Lily and he suddenly comes out of his trance like paralysis and realizes what he is doing. The pitiful look and anguish he conveys is very moving and captures the torment that Rankin feels as he is trapped between these two personas. The fact that no one wants to believe him until it is too late makes his torment all the more palpable and even early on in the film when Rankin is following the trail of the mysterious Dr. Tenent there are cues from Rankin that he might be onto something that could be a horrible truth.

Where the problems in the film seem to arise is from the unclear nature of the “Haymarket Strangler” and his origins. It is never clear whether the knife that keeps disappearing and reappearing in the film has some curse on it that makes the person holding it kill or if holding the knife triggers some psychotic response in the form of murderous impulses and paralysis. What the actual nature of the evil is never really gets defined and that makes it a little hard to keep up with and takes away from the impact of some of the scenes. There is one scene between James and his wife Barbara that reveals where James Rankin came from but this comes so late in the film that rather than moving the story along, it seems to confuse it and leaves the viewer even more unclear of what the “Haymarket Strangler” is supposed to be. It is never really clear if the murderer is supposed to be a split personality or a force of supernatural possession or some strange mixture of the two but it does feel like the film makers can’t decide which it is and this makes things a little muddled as the story plays out.

The way the violence plays out is also an interesting aspect of the film. While it is not overly graphic it is very unsettling the way the camera alternates between close-ups of the victim being strangled and the contorted face of the murderer. These scenes use the point of view shots very effectively to heighten the atmosphere of the killings. Some of the best scenes are those where Rankin lurks in the shadows watching his victim, as he does when he is at the dancehall. The dark presence and heavy breathing establish an unsettling apprehension of what is to come even when it is predictable. Some of the predictability comes from the fact that the story seems to take a lot of cues from the Jack The Ripper story.

Since it is a Criterion disc, there are some great features that are worth watching along with the movie. One is a series of taped interviews with cast and crew of the film talking about the experience of working on the movie and about working with Boris Karloff. It is very interesting to hear about Karloff and how kind of a man he was. Another feature of interest are original radio spots for The Haunted Strangler along with the double billing of the film with Fiend Without A Face. A few of the radio spots feature Boris Karloff and it is really interesting to listen to since they don’t do that type of promotion anymore. From a historical point of view, the features are really very interesting. Being an early example of a slasher film makes this movie very interesting but it also avoids being just a curiosity, mostly due to Boris Karloff’s performance.  

Well, this is not related to the movie at all but here is a link to Stan Lee reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Something fun for halloween!

http://www.quickstopentertainment.com/2008/10/30/halloween-havoc-2008-stan-lee-presents-the-raven/

Up Next The October Horror Movie gets a little funky with William Marshall and Pam Grier in 1973’s Scream, Blacula, Scream!

Charles;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

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