Saturday, March 14, 2015

Karloff Unleashed: "The Haunted Strangler"

In the late 1950s, Boris Karloff, who had been acting since the silent days, made a bit of a comeback that has recently undergone critical appreciation. As evidence, two Karloff films -- The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood -- have been rereleased under the Criterion Collection banner. Both films were released in 1958 and both were directed by the Englishman Robert Day. Although Day's career stretched into the 1980s, his heyday was in the late '50s and early 1960s, when alongside other Brits like Terence Fisher, Anthony Hinds, and Jimmy Sangster, he helped to turn the dying British Empire into a cultural powerhouse at the box office. The Haunted Strangler, which screenwriter Jan Read wrote exclusively for Karloff, was Day's first collaboration with Karloff and proved to be one his most successful horror films. Interestingly enough, The Haunted Strangler was filmed back-to-back with another British classic, Fiend Without a Face.

The Haunted Strangler tells the story of a Charles Dickens-like novelist who doubles as a social reformer. James Rankin (Karloff) is interested in the case of the Haymarket Strangler, which supposedly concluded twenty years prior with the conviction and execution of the one-armed Edward Styles (played by Edward Atkinson). Rankin and his assistant McColl (played by Tim Turner) do not believe that Styles was the killer, so they set out against the wishes of Superintendent Burke (played by Anthony Dawson) in order to find the real killer. 

Rankin and McColl's journey takes them from the can-can club The Judas Hole to Newgate Prison, where Day seems to make some sort of political statement by producing long shots of floggings and other assorted tortures. As Rankin and McColl get closer and closer to the case, their suspicions fall upon the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Styles's body. We, the audience, know that something has been fishy from the get-go because after Styles is doused in quick lime, an unknown and gloved hand drops a scalpel into his casket before its lowered into the earth. 

After consulting with the chorus girl (played by Jean Kent) who saw the original murders, Rankin comes to the conclusion that the sexually deviant and troubled doctor was in fact the Haymarket Strangler. Then, after bribing a Newgate turnkey (played by Max Brimmell), Rankin finds his way to Styles's grave. He digs through the night and eventually finds the scalpel. But, wait! Upon touching the scalpel, Rankin's features begin to twist, turn, and transform. Now, with the instrument of death in his hands, Rankin becomes the Haymarket Strangler. 

Given that the story reveals that Rankin and the abhorrent medical examiner are one and the same man, it's unlikely that such a facial transformation was necessary. Then again, The Haunted Strangler is an obvious nod to the story of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and therefore this Victorian-era chiller needs to have Rankin take on a pseudo-simian visage. Speaking of murder matters, the Strangler's method of killing is rather unusual. Since his name is the "Haymarket Strangler," he does indeed put the stranglehold on his victims. Then, after squeezing them unconscious, Rankin hacks and slashes with the same hand, which is probably why people originally suspected the one-armed Styles. (For his part, while under the spell of the scalpel, Rankin's other hand shrivels and is kept close to his chest.)

Once under the spell of the scalpel, there's no turning back for Rankin. And although he can manage to turn off his bestial lust for a while, the spirit of the Haymarket Strangler often proves too powerful. After killing his own wife (who knew all along that Rankin was in fact a mentally unstable murderer), Rankin tries to go after his own household but is stopped after a series of flashbacks involving his former victims. Guilt-ridden, Rankin runs off into the night in order to bury the scalpel again. Before he can do it, he's shot and the job of burying the murder implement falls upon Burke. 

Speaking generally, The Haunted Strangler is decent horror film that has almost zero fat (it's only 118 minutes long). A fog-shrouded and psychological horror film that does not skimp on the action, The Haunted Strangler provides a good vehicle for Karloff's style of harried acting. While not "scary" in the modern sense, The Haunted Strangler's plot twist is ingenious enough to keep people interested. Also, given the Jekyll-and-Hyde narrative, there's something sort of timeless about this Eisenhower-era gashlighter. 

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