In the tradition of Laird Cregar and Raymond Burr trod (and not lightly) the sinister footsteps of Victor Buono, and there’s no better example of his corpse-strewn trail than the actor’s first starring vehicle, THE STRANGLER, a 1964 horror thriller, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.
Buono kinda achieved the impossible – he copped some limelight from costars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the 1962 smash What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination) His brooding, overpowering appearance (particularly those deep-set eyes) practically guaranteed that Hollywood would come a-calling with a terror follow-up. And so they did.
A low-budget though nonetheless tense item, THE STRANGLER was the brainchild of Bill S. Ballinger (Richard Quine’s excellent 1954 noir Pushover was based on Ballinger’s novel Rafferty); it was directed by exploitation maven Burt Topper (Diary of a High School Bride, The Devil’s 8, Soul Hustler) and produced by the psychotronic dream team Sam Bischoff (A Bullet for Joey, King of the Roaring 20’s, Operation Eichmann) and David Diamond (The Raven, Revolt in the Big House, The Giant Behemoth). The story, an unsavory mix of junk psychology and contemporary fright culture, carefully stalks the murky [socio]path paved by Hitchcock. Leo Kroll (Buono), a super-intelligent medical research technician, has more secrets than than a D.C. brothel. For example, he’s a mother-fixated introvert (or, perhaps, more precisely mother-smothered), living with and caring for a vicious, diminutive, verbally abusive single parent; succinctly, his quiet demeanor masks a raging misogynist. This contradicts Leo’s curiosity of being in a sexual relationship with a woman, but despising them for what he concludes would be rejection. Oh, yeah, and finally, he’s the maniac strangling women left and right, plunging the city into fear (mostly nurses, who, after all, are the ones helping keep his invalid mater alive and kicking). His unique calling card: a tiny effigy doll placed at the scene of the crime.
Had they not just gone for the cheap thrill crowd, THE STRANGLER could have been a genuine classic horror flick. Certainly, Buono’s performance as the serial killer is top-line, as is Ellen Corby’s turn as the hideous mother from hell. But the cardboard police investigation and its practitioners (the lousy sub-Dragnet emoting of David McLean and Baynes Barron) bring it down to a near laughable level. Yet, whenever Buono and his lady victims occupy the screen (which, fortunately, is quite often), this pic’s a creepy souvenir of 1960s modern horror.
It’s no accident that in a post-Psycho universe, the cinematic floodgates had been ripped off its hinges to unleash all sorts of monsters plagued by (now marketable) mental illness. Homicidal, Maniac, Fanatic, Paranoiac, Berserk!, Strait-Jacket, Pyro are merely a sampling of some of the titles that graced theaters between 1961-1967. The m.o. of THE STRANGLER went a bit farther, having gone into pre-production during the reign of Massachusetts’ serial killer Albert de Salvo, aka The Boston Strangler. All Topper, Bischoff and Diamond did was leave off the “Boston” (which wasn’t the case outside America). One look at the credits, and Hollywood studio buffs will immediately glom the fact that virtually the entire crew hails from Paramount. I suspect (and, again, this is wholly my theory) that the project originally was greenlit by the company that started the Psycho ball rolling, but was eventually put off by the sleazy tie-in to an ongoing slew of murders. Trying to avoid any controversy, I believe they optioned THE STRANGLER out to anyone willing to bite, and before the Paramount suits could start to sweat, Allied Artists chomped on the bait. Rather than remove themselves from notoriety, AA took the picture one step further, reviving it throughout the grindhouse and drive-in circuit two years later when Richard Speck tortured, raped and slaughtered eight nurses (ironically, by this time Paramount had The Psychopath in wide release, a Robert Bloch-authored Amicus entry that also a utilized doll plot points). Nothing like taste in showmanship.
When it comes to sleazy ballyhoo and psychotronic expertise, THE STRANGLER doesn’t miss a trick. It’s got it all – beautiful nurses in peril, horrific sex crimes, carny ambiance (it’s where Leo picks up his dolls, and where he becomes obsessed with lusty lady barker Davey Davison). I know it’s over fifty years old, but the sexist dialog absolutely made me cringe. When the chain-smoking detectives get the autopsy results of the victims, they are a taken aback by the negative rape kit findings “[If he doesn’t rape them], what does he get out of it?” Aforementioned tongue-lashing monster-mom Corby’s words comprise a barrage of evilspeak that is almost painful to endure. With Cruella de Vil precision, she cuts down the near-weeping/near-seething Buono with “poor, not good-looking, fat…” epithets, crowning the drubbing with and “funny,” mid-20th-century coded language for queer. Truth be told, both male and female viewers in my living room wanted to whack her. The linchpin that finally sets Leo on his worses-for-nurses purge is when he overhears mother telling her favorite RN home worker “If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead now.”
There’s actually one unsung hero performance that desperately needs mentioning. The smart portrayal of Leo’s medical associate (Mimi Dillard), a savvy mistrusting professional, increasingly suspicious of her coworker. That this character is a female and an African-American is remarkable for this type of a movie at that time in history.
The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE STRANGLER is aces, an almost pristine 35MM widescreen transfer (with some crisp, striking monochrome camerawork by Jacques Marquette); the excellent audio is punctuated by a post-production score by AA resident Marlin Skiles.
Buono, who became an integral part of the Robert Aldrich stock company, as well as one of the favorites of the Sinatra Rat Pack, rarely had his own movie (his next lead would be in 1971’s The Mad Butcher). Thus, for his many fans, as well as Sixties horror enthusiasts, collaring THE STRANGLER for your movie library is a no-brainer.
THE STRANGLER. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Mono audio. Warner Archive Collection. CAT # 1000577509. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com.