The Haunted Strangler (1958)

HauntedStranglerPosterBoris Karloff (Frankenstein) runs around with a gimped-up arm and makes faces to show us that he has turned from a genteel novelist to a serial killer who likes to slash the pretty girls that work at the local strip joint somehow named “The Judas Hole.” (I just looked this up and it means something like “peep hole”. If nothing else, this movie taught me some cool new slang.)

It sounds like a fairly good premise for a Karloff movie, but somehow The Haunted Strangler manages to be little more than a less-than-memorable vehicle highlighted by Karloff’s efforts to do the Jekyll and Hyde gimmick and lowlighted by the film’s inability to really get going for the first half hour and the sudden dropping of The Judas Hole story line. Nothing is more irritating than when a movie abandons its strip club setting before it should.

Karloff is James Rankin, a man engaged in a rather drab investigative effort into the identity of the Haymarket Strangler. He’s convinced that a doctor named Tenant must have been involved in the killings somehow. Why does he think this? Because this doctor was the one that did the autopsies on all the dead girls and he kept really copious notes on the victims.

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As his assistant/daughter’s love interest points out, this Tenant guy may have just really been wanting to do a good job. Rankin and I both give him this look that says, “you young whelp, don’t you recognize the diary of a madman when you see one?”

Rankin heads off to the last known place of the residence of Tenant: an asylum. No one knows what happened to Tenant after he ran off with a nurse, but they still have his personal effects. Since showing Rankin all these clues is strictly against rules and regulations, they go on down to the basement and show him all these clues.

Rankin latches onto the set of surgical tools that is missing a knife. Rankin tells his assistant that this means that Tenant must have buried the knife with the body of the person wrongfully hanged for the crimes so that he wouldn’t be tempted to slash exotic dancers with it. I think at this point, that it is understandable why the assistant’s interest wanes in the investigation and he spends more and more of his time investigating Rankin’s daughter’s bodice.

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Rankin goes to Newgate Prison and digs up the grave of the man thought to be the Haymarket Strangler where he finds Tenant’s knife. As soon as he holds it, a startling transformation takes place!

His arm cripples up and his face contorts into this hilarious mess of grimacing puffy lips and bad dental work. His hair also gets mussed quite a bit. I always like an actor who can get his hair to carry the load in tight spots.

When I saw this bit with the knife, I thought that the movie should have been called The Haunted Butterknife because this dang knife was the least scary knife I’ve ever seen. It was good sized, silver, and in an ironic twist considering how the film turned out, it looked incredibly dull.

After a trip to The Judas Hole, he returns home and he and his wife have a pow wow where she reveals his secret origin.

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To me, it was just another example of some gal trying to change a guy. Why couldn’t she just be satisfied with him being a serial killer? Why did she have to go and try to mold him into a genteel novelist/amateur sleuth? You didn’t see him trying to change her from an unethical nurse into something she wasn’t, did you?

A decidedly minor entry in the Karloff cannon. The movie attempts to give us some psycho babble about the Strangler’s motivations, but they’re half-hearted and brief bits of dialogue that have no bearing on anything.

The movie could have benefited from some type of exploration of the mental problems Rankin was suffering from and his own attempts to reconcile what he was and what he was becoming again with the rather prosaic life he was currently leading. Instead, they wanted to get “Boris Karloff the Horror Icon” out there and have him running around like Mr. Hyde hacking up strippers and dumb wives.

Despite being known for horror films, Karloff was always able to bring a great deal of humanity to characters like the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster, and he does a good job with what he has here. There’s an earnest and gentlemanly quality (a bit like Peter Cushing) so you’re always rooting for his pictures to work, but the promising set-up is ruined by the “mad ghoul on the loose” final third of the film.

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