There was a period in the early to mid-1950s where the horror genre, in hindsight, was appearing to go through somewhat of a period of transition. Not just caterpillar to butterfly in terms of the material, but also the beginnings to a passing of the torch from the Universal Pictures horror icons to the next generation of scare feature personalities.
The 1940s, arguably, began the period of movement away from the creature features of the Universal monster pictures and started to explore deeper psychological, and supernatural elements of the horror genre over the course of the decade with the output of films from the Val Lewton team of collaborators at RKO. That period could possibly mark the first time that a major studio distributed a sequence of psychological thrillers sold as horror pictures over that length of time here in the United States, and probably the most significant since the silent-era German Expressionist pictures of the 1920’s.
In the 1950’s the drive-in crowd and genre enthusiasts began to be transfixed by the earlier period of science-fiction thrillers, which boomed all throughout the decade and into the next; thus leaving a relatively barren hole for patrons looking for either that next stage of evolution on the horror ladder, or even trying to find a decent number of pictures akin to the films of the Universal monster pictures of the 30s or Lewton inspired thrillers of the 40s.
Enter Britain’s Hammer Studios who began to re-explore the classic monster characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and others in the mid-to-late 1950s. Their output would be monumental over the course of the next few decades, as well as their artistry and the performance prowess of oft-used actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; and the pictures would prove to be considerably popular.
So, the Universal films enthusiasts would have their reminiscence reignited; what of the fans of the Lewton form of horror?
Enter Britain’s Robert Day with his late 1950s double-punch of Corridors of Blood and today’s entry into the Criterion Files – The Haunted Strangler
The Burgundy-Skinned Bridge
Amongst all of those evolutions and changes in focus throughout the decades from the 1930s through the end of the 1950s there remained one constant – Boris Karloff. He was a very prominent figure in the early days of the Universal monster pictures, followed those up with some of the best work of his career in three pictures with Val Lewton in the 1940s, had more than his fair share of mad scientist characters in the ’40s and ’50s; and then there were Robert Day’s two pictures coming in right near the early days of the eventual Hammer horror boom from his fellow Brits.
The Haunted Strangler may contain one of the more compacted, multi-faceted performances of Karloff’s career. The James Rankin character, as we first meet him, has a little bit of Karloff’s mad scientist characteristics. He’s a relatively pleasant individual, but noticeably driven and potentially obsessive. Then, when finds the missing piece to the puzzle he’s been searching for (the murder weapon to a resolved case in which he believed the wrong man was sentenced to death years prior) and it uncovers, immediately, a dark, suppressed secret about himself we see that element of the maniacal and sadistic personalities he portrayed with Val Lewton – only this time combined with the disfigurement of that of Frankenstein’s monster. And, this time, done with no real make-up effects.
The lack of extensive make-up due to budget constraints might be the single most impressive feat of the film when you see just how different Karloff is capable of making himself look by contorting certain sections of his face; mainly at the mouth. In an instant he alters from subdued, to pained, to Quasimodo with a desire to commit murder – and the appearance is considerably more frightening to behold over most every other picture in which Karloff was working under a vast amount of latex and plaster, because it looks natural. Because it was natural.
The New Breed
Corridors of Blood and The Haunted Strangler would probably mark the final hurrah for Karloff as the preeminent figure in horror pictures. Around the time of the release of these two films he had started to work a lot on the small screen and would appear most prevalently post-1950s in two horror comedies with Peter Lorre and the man who, arguably, took the reigns as the most prominent Stateside genre figure – Vincent Price; who himself was beginning to see his career take off down the path of what he’d become most famous for in the mid 1950s as well. Across the Atlantic, where these two pictures were filmed and funded, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had a stronghold grasp on the British audiences for nearly the same duration as Vincent Price did on this side of the ocean.
It always seems to come back to Karloff though, no matter where you start. His imprint on the horror genre is permanent and his body of work, range, and visible effortlessness in convincingly displaying the right presence at the right moments mark the skill of a truly talented actor the horror genre would need in order to be taken as a serious form of artistic expression – while also being very fun to experience. He was, at once, probably too good to be doing what he was doing for as long as he did it, and yet too instrumental for its development for it to have not been someone like him doing it.
The Haunted Strangler fits in nicely to Karloff’s exceptional body of work and is probably, unjustifiably, one of the more overlooked features of which he’s the star. It displays a lot of what made Karloff great (possibly the best) at what he does and employed some rather darkly appealing black-and-white photography and cinematography like the pictures put out by the Val Lewton team. Along with Corridors of Blood it’s one of the last times we would see a horror picture of that kind with that kind of aesthetic and that kind of 1940s feel, and with the star that helped make those films what they were.
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