Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler

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Following Johann’s recommendation of Manhunter last week, I keep our RBC Halloween month tradition alive by focusing in the coming weeks on horror films. When Jean Kent died late last year, I decided to watch one of her films that I had never seen, and came away happy that I did. In one of her many roles as a naughty British lass, Kent is a chanteuse/madam threatened by a serial killer apparently risen from the grave in this week’s film recommendation: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler).

This 1958 film has a wonderful backstory involving Boris Karloff. Alex and Richard Gordon grew up loving Karloff in the classic Universal horror films made before the war. When the Gordons were young adults, Karloff’s cinema stardom had faded but he was still working on the London stage. The two fanboys approached their idol, and ever the gentlemen, Karloff treated them kindly. When the great man was 70, the Gordons had the chance they had always dreamed of to produce a movie for him.

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The plot is spooky and engaging, mixing elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and even Frankenstein. You can also see the beginnings of a return to sexual explicitness in British cinema here, particularly in the scenes in Kent’s bawdyhouse (the champagne spill scene with pinup model Vera Day has to be seen to be disbelieved). But those elements work well in the story, which concerns a moralistic late-Victorian Era social reformer (Karloff) who believes a strangler of attractive women is still at large in the streets of London. He’s a hothouse flower of a man who faints when he sees abuse of prisoners, is terrified of rats and is extremely ill at ease interacting with a woman of Kent’s sensually confident ilk. Yet he is also unaccountably obsessed with the strangler’s brutal sex crimes.

It’s not a big budget film, but you largely wouldn’t know it. Director Robert Day started his career as a cinematographer and clearly learned how to use shadows, fog and lighting to keep the audience from noticing any economies in set design and art direction. The professionalism of the cast helps a good deal too. There are some actors who can’t seem to do a B-movie without somehow conveying to their fans “wink wink, I’m phoning in my part just so you know I’m above all this”. But such self-indulgence was unheard of in this era of British film and the result is a much better movie.

Kent is clearly at home in her showy part, even though it is unfortunately smaller than it could have been. Karloff is nothing less than brilliant, conveying the admixture of desire and repression, rage and sadness present in his character.

This is not a widely-known film outside of the horror film buff community. But it has captured some important supporters, most notably The Criterion Collection, who have made a pristine print available for you to enjoy.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: Karloff’s physical transformation is even more impressive when you learn that he did it without makeup!

[Cross-posted at Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.