If you’ve been reading my babblings for any length of time, you know that my childhood occurred during the Great Monster Revival of the late 50s-early 60s, sparked by that upstart medium, television and its dependence on older movies. Oh, how I recall poring through every issue of TV Guide, seeking out horror movies, especially those gems I read about in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the Universal cycle of the 30s.
I watched them all, but I can’t say I really appreciated them until I was older. The thing I’m reaching for here is Frankenstein, which has become something of a touchstone for me. I didn’t really give it a serious rewatch until Universal put out a deluxe version in 1999, and a lot was suddenly made clear to me, particularly why the Monster had garnered our sympathy all these years, and that is due in no small part to director James Whale and a 44 year-old actor making the most of a long hoped-for and worked-for break: Boris Karloff.
Karloff proved to be an actor of great sensitivity who was immediately typecast; he made his peace with that, referring to it as a trademark he was given for free. He worked steadily through the 30s and 40s, but in the opening years of the 50s, he was seen as less useful, relegated to supporting roles. He moved into television, and his first love, theater. When he did return to movies, it was in drivel like Voodoo Island and Frankenstein 1970 – so it must have seemed a very pleasant change when, in 1957, he agreed to do two movies for producer Richard Gordon which feel like welcome throwbacks to a bygone era: Corridors of Blood and The Haunted Strangler.
Karloff plays James Rankin, a successful novelist and social reformer in 1880 London. His newest project concerns one Edward Styles, a one-armed man hanged twenty years earlier as the Haymarket Strangler (before you ask the very same question I did, his victims were only “half-strangled, then slashed to death”). Rankin feels that Styles was railroaded, and his research puts him on the trail of a Dr. Tennant, who autopsied the Strangler’s victims and seemed to know far too much in his reports. Tennant disappeared soon after Styles’ execution, and Rankin discovers the missing doctor’s kit, which has its scalpel just as obviously missing.
Rankin suspects what the audience has known since the movie’s opening: the scalpel was placed in the coffin with Styles’ corpse. Since no one will believe his theories, Rankin resorts to bribery to exhume Styles in the prison cemetery in the dead of night. He finds the scalpel, but his triumph turns to horror as his body twists and contorts, and soon he is apparently possessed by the spirit of the Haymarket Strangler, once again preying on dance hall girls after an absence of twenty years.
Despite its low budget, The Haunted Strangler manages the look of a much more expensive picture. The supporting cast is full of solid British performers like Anthony Dawson and Vera Day, but the movie rests solidly on Karloff’s shoulders, and he once more grasps the opportunity – no pun intended – with both hands. He’s nearly 70 years old during filming, suffering chronic back pain and emphysema, but nonetheless turns in an astoundingly physical performance. Oh, I know that’s not him doing the John Wilkes Booth leap off a balcony onto a stage, or hurling himself through a window, but the later scenes when an increasingly distraught and violent Rankin is committed to an asylum, wrestling with orderlies, you would swear you were watching an actor half his age.
This also brings up what has become one of my favorite Karloff stories: he and director Robert Day were discussing the transformation scenes, and how they could be accomplished with what little makeup they could afford – it is a plot point that Rankin is unrecognizable while possessed. Karloff’s solution was elegant in its simplicity: he took out his lower dentures and sucked his face into the resulting void. He had done something like this earlier in his career, when he was playing Frankenstein’s Monster, in fact: to get the proper cadaverous look, he removed a dental bridge and sucked his cheek in. Simple, inexpensive, effective.
So consider The Haunted Strangler the Jekyll-and-Hyde story Karloff never got to make. There is a major plot twist three-quarters of the way in that I admit caught me flat-footed, and that happens rarely for me, so familiar am I with the tropes of the horror movie. Karloff had other memorable roles ahead of him, but not many – The Sorcerers and Targets (and arguably The Terror and The Raven), so it is very nice to see him in great form in a tidy little thriller.
Also, there was no place to put it in that last paragraph, but I find him absolutely hilarious in The Comedy of Terrors, but, again: supporting role. And now, as is usual, I find myself fighting the impulse to replace every single movie I’ve planned to watch for this project with Karloff movies.