Robert Day, 1958
Starring: Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan, Anthony Dawson
Writer James Rankin decides to investigate the potential innocence of notorious Victorian-era killer Edward Styles, a man convicted twenty years earlier of being a serial murderer known as the Haymarket Strangler and executed. As he becomes obsessed with proving Styles’ innocence, Rankin explores the Judas Hole, a music hall where the Strangler chose victims from among the dancers. He also arranges to have Styles’ body exhumed, but somehow this results in the murders beginning again, while Rankin grows more paranoid by the day.
Also known as Grip of the Strangler, this film from director Robert Day was written specifically for aging horror star Boris Karloff by his friend Jan Read. This Amalgamated Productions movie was filmed back-to-back with Fiend Without a Face, another Karloff vehicle, and the two were released in theaters as a double feature. Though it’s easy to remember Karloff’s films from the ‘30s as his best work — and I do love a lot of it — I think that honor actually goes to some of the films made in the last decade of his career: films like The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, The Raven, Black Sabbath, Comedy of Terrors (anyone who doesn’t like this film is dead to me), Mad Monster Party?, The Sorcerers, Targets, and even Curse With the Crimson Altar.
Though the film has plenty of campy moments and an obviously low budget, Karloff is a treasure. I don’t want to totally give away the ending, but needless to say his innocent, somewhat naive investigator goes very, very bad and this is essentially his retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not only is the plot twist enjoyable — speaking as someone who generally hates them — but Karloff’s transformation is primarily delivered through a strong physical performance and is surprisingly effective. Like Frankenstein several decades before, part of his transformation apparently involved removing his dental bridge to give his face a sunken in, totally changed appearance — obvious evidence that practical effects, even inexpensive one, are much more powerful than CGI. Karloff is frightening as a pathetic — sort of sympathetic — researcher and as a more monstrous character, proving
But Karloff isn’t the only star here. Director Robert Day, alongside Fiend Without a Face’s director Arthur Crabtree, represents some of the most interesting genre talent in ‘50s England. The Haunted Strangler’s blend of exploitation, violence, and seediness is an early preview of what would soon appear in the films of Hammer and Amicus. Day would go on to make a series of sci-fi horror blends, including Corridors of Blood (1958) — also with Karloff — and First Man in Space (1959). Though it has the sci-fi themes that would obsess most of British genre filmmaking until Hammer came along, it also has a fantastic period setting (like Hammer) and makes great use of the foggy Victorian streets.
As I mentioned, there are some surprisingly exploitative and sleazy elements with the night club, wonderfully named the Judas Hole, which was initially considered as a title for the film. The tiny blonde Vera Day (Quatermass 2) struts her stuff and, like her role in Womaneater she’s little more than eye candy and/or a helpless victim. Also keep your eyes peeled for some grave robbing and a few disturbing scenes in an insane asylum — elements that would also soon make their way into films like Hammer’s Frankenstein series and The Flesh and the Fiends.
Stylish and solidly directed from Robert Day and with an amazing performance from Karloff, The Haunted Strangler comes highly recommended for anyone who enjoys early serial killer films, sci-fi tinged horror, and Victorian set genre films. And of course, if you like Karloff at all, this is worth watching at least once. Perhaps amazingly, it was released by Criterion in an all-out set called Monsters and Madmen that includes Corridors of Blood, First Man in Space, and The Atomic Submarine (a US film). The set includes plenty of nice special features, such as commentary tracks for all the films and some nice interviews.