As the decade of the 1950s was coming to a close, horror films were ready for their resurgence. Hammer was returning them to prominence with new stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee leading the charge. Boris Karloff had made only one recent dip into the horror pool with the disappointing Voodoo Island. However, in 1958, he was ready for a whole new generation with The Haunted Strangler (aka Grip of the Strangler).
Boris Karloff’s friend Jan Read had written a script entitled Stranglehold and given it to producer Richard Gordon (Fiend Without A Face, Island of Terror). Gordon had wanted to make a film in England for some time and saw this as the perfect film in which to start a new film company, Amalgamated Productions. Gordon brought in writer John Croydon to rework the script so that the killer was like Jack The Ripper. With director Robert Day (First Man Into Space) on board, Karloff was soon signed and filming was underway.
As The Haunted Strangler begins, a man, Edward Styles, is convicted of the crime of killing five women and is hanged in front of a rather bloodthirsty crowd. As his body is placed in the coffin, we see a hand casually throw in a knife. Then, at the graveside, we see an individual pass out as the body is being lowered into the grave. We move forward twenty years as we see Boris Karloff, who stars as James Rankin, a writer who begins researching the killer, now better known as the Haymarket Strangler. He believes Styles was innocent and begins to unravel the mystery. We are witness the sleazy world of can-can dancers and the prison where Styles was hanged. Once he manages to pay off a guard and get to the body of the killer, he digs up the coffin and discovers the knife. Once in his hands, we see Rankin transform, his left hand becomes twisted and his face distorted. He goes on a murderous rampage, almost turning into a Jekyll and Hyde persona. Is Rankin really the killer or is it all in his mind?
Director Robert Day handles what could have been a throwaway effort with masterful style. Karloff turns in a much better performance here than he did with Voodoo Island. We see a man tortured by his past and physically altered, seemingly before our eyes. Yet, it is done not with makeup but through Karloff’s acting abilities. The only physical thing Karloff did was to remove his dentures as he transformed into the killer, helping his face appear distorted. The effect works, if not a little cheesy, and helps us believe Rankin really is the Haymarket Strangler.
There are some elements in The Haunted Strangler not seen in previous Karloff films. The can-can dancers certainly flash a little leg and there is one close-up of a woman’s breasts as wine is splashed upon them. Clearly, people were noticing what Hammer was doing and the influence had already taken place by 1958. These factors do not deter from the film at all.
I first discovered The Haunted Strangler many years ago through a random VHS purchase and was pleasantly surprised. Criterion released it as part of a four movie set called Monsters and Madmen. It also seems readily available on YouTube. Enjoy the trailer as this is another to add to your collection. Next up, we jump ahead to look at Karloff’s other film for Amalgamated, Corridors of Blood, which pairs the legend with the new kid on the block, Christopher Lee.