TCM Underground: Night of the Strangler (1972) and The Strangler (1964)

Night of the Strangler (1972)

A young girl returns home to New Orleans to the only family she has left, two brothers, Dan (James Ralston) and Vance (Micky Dolenz of The Monkees), to tell them that she’s dropping out of school to get married.  Dan doesn’t like this one bit.  When she explains further that the man she plans to get married to is a Black man, Dan becomes furious.  Shen she tells him that she’s pregnant with his child, Dan physically assaults her.  Vance tries to console her, but she runs away.

Dan puts a hit out on both the man who got his sister pregnant and his sister herself.  Denise’s husband-to-be is shot by a man with a sniper rifle and then Denise is killed in her bathtub, her wrists slit posthumously, and the death is made to look like a suicide–that she was so distraught by her lover’s death that she took her own life.

Father Jessie (Chuck Patterson), after a period of absence, returns to his church and due to his excellent work and reputation is assigned to repairing the bonds between Dan and Vance, who are now feuding.  Dan, a vitriolic racist, does not take kindly to Father Jessie’s presence.  He fakes nice well enough, but when he’s just out of earshot, refers to him as an ugly racial slur, someone who could never be considered a man at all, nevertheless a man of god.

Someone is trying to kill Dan.  But the thing is, there are a lot of suspects.  His longtime gardener, he fires for speaking too friendly with his new bride.  His gardener pleads with him that his wife is dying and that he can’t afford to take care of his wife’s health and look for new work, especially with work being as rare as it is.

Dan’s new wife, Carol, was almost his brother Vance’s.  When Vance was away serving in Vietnam, Dan swooped in with his bag of money and stole her away.  Vance, confiding in Father Jessie, says that she had a chance at being a good person, renouncing her “Daughters of the Confederacy” bullshit, only to wind up in the arms of a racist that can enable her.  When Dan gets a bouquet of flowers with a poisonous snake hidden inside that bites and kills Carol, it could be anyone.  And when the killers responsible for taking care of Dan’s sister don’t get their money, they demand restitution–violently.

It’s worth noting that not one person is strangled in Night of the Strangler.  Someone gets shot.  Someone gets drowned.  Someone gets speared.  Someone gets stabbed.  And someone gets bit by a snake, but no one gets strangled, oddly enough.

Movies like this are always fun.  Night of the Strangler predates the slasher genre by a bit, and it plays out sort of like a giallo crossed with a blaxploitation picture.  The cinematography is dirty and grimy and dingy and the film itself is proudly sleazy.  It knows that it isn’t so-called “high art” but also understands, with self-awareness, exactly what it is, and doesn’t succumb to the doldrums these kinds of films usually do.  It supplies the audience with plot twist after plot twist, logic be damned, and builds to a somewhat contrived, predictable twist, and then puts a twist on that yet again.

Most importantly, Night of the Strangler has a conscience.  It abhors racism and has progressive views on race relations (although not all of it has aged well, Micky Dolenz’s impression of the Father Jessie is a little… cringe-y).  It doesn’t seem to mind revenge too much, but with an exploitation picture, you know what you’re getting into.  It views Dan’s opinions with disgust and draws him into a web of deceit all of his own making.

As a piece of sleazy, dingy exploitation, Night of the Strangler succeeds better than your average entry, but it also works a Southern Gothic melodrama, with two brothers at each other’s throats over a woman.  It was written by three writers whose other work and filmography I’m unfamiliar with, which is a shame.  I really enjoyed this movie.  I’m not about to run off and buy it on DVD or Blu-ray, but I thoroughly enjoyed its various twists and turns that kept me on my toes all the way up until the end.

The Strangler (1964)

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Despite their similarities in the title, there is no connection between this film and Night of the Strangler–this film actually does feature strangulation, and quite a bit of it, as a means of committing murder.

Victor Buono (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) is a lab technician with mommy issues who has a penchant for murdering nurses.  The film begins with a lengthy title card about how much research had gone into making the story as realistic as possible, which I tend to believe, actually, since it’s a bit better than most similar kinds of films.  It plays out sort of like an episode of Law & Order (or, given the time period, maybe Dragnet), with an emphasis on the killer’s psychology.  The Strangler wants to know what makes the killer tick, and why he does the horrible things that he does.

Leo Kroll (Buono), according to himself, is trapped as long as his mother is alive.  With her around, and her constant haranguing of him for being too fat, too stupid, too undesirable, he’ll never find true love.  He finds a release of sorts in sneaking into the apartments of single women, nurses who also happen to work at the same hospital as him, and murders them.

When his mother dies, his desire for murder remains, however, and he continues without missing a beat, still convincing himself that he’s “free” of her.

Much of The Strangler seems to be a little ahead of its time.  Some of the terminology used by the police in terms of sexual assault, fetishes, rape, etc. is spoken of frankly, almost clinically.  With so-called sexual deviance, it doesn’t seem to be judgmental.  When it comes to “schizos” though…. it’s a little less charming.  It holds some outdated ideas.  With a movie well over fifty years old, it’s bound to have some outdated ideas.

Buono is a great actor and does very well in the lead role, playing Leo with great menace, but also a smugness to him… but really, beneath it all, just someone who’s absolutely pathetic.  While I think that The Strangler is actually a pretty good movie, considering the time it was made, the plot elements dealing with the investigation itself drag the movie down.  Too many impossible coincidences occur to lead the police from one scene to the next and then inevitably to the killer.  Those scenes also tend to drag a bit; when Buono isn’t on the screen, it’s just not as engaging, there isn’t the same kind of energy.  If the investigatory scenes had been revamped, if the lead detective, for example, had been played by an actor with Buono’s skills or general onscreen charisma, it would have had a legacy as a worthy film to follow in the wake of Psycho.  Instead, it’s merely a decent-enough movie to catch on cable TV.  It’s good, much better than it has any right to be, but buried within itself, it had the potential for greatness.

The Strangler was written by Bill S. Ballinger who had a great career writing for some of the best TV shows of the era.  He wrote for The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Next Week: Next week is The Brood and Repulsion, both of which I’ve already reviewed.