Supposedly based on the real-life Boston Strangler, The Strangler (1964) wants us to take it seriously. It opens with some words that lead us to believe what we are about to see is true:
We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the police departments of some of the major cities of the United States who have permitted us to examine their files and authenticate the behavior of the suspects of similar crimes.
We also gratefully acknowledge the guidance of the noteworthy psychiatrists who have enabled us to reconstruct this character in accordance with their realistic experiences.
Victor Buono, hot off his Academy Award nomination for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, stars as Leo Kroll, who from the very first scene is identified as the titular strangler. This tells us the movie is not going to be a mystery and will probably have very few surprises, if any. True enough, it plays as a crime drama, yet has enough disturbing material to count it as classic horror.
He’s one creepy character and it’s no wonder the police suspect him fairly early in the story, although there’s no evidence to suggest he’s the killer. Not as complicated as Norman Bates, Kroll nevertheless has some mommy issues. Mrs. Kroll (Ellen Corby) is indeed a handful, and he must provide an explanation for every time he misses an opportunity to visit her at Park Sanitarium.
By day, he’s a hospital lab technician and by night he’s an arcade loiterer. That’s because he fancies Tally Raymond (Davey Davison), the pretty girl who works at the Toss-a-Ring table. He’s quite good at tossing those rings and always chooses a baby doll, ostensibly to give his niece, when he wins. In reality, he keeps the dolls in his desk drawer and occasionally drops one at the scene of a murder.
For a film that isn’t constructed for suspense or thrills, it has a terrific ending. The police convince Tally to act as bait, but the microphone they give her so they can listen is buried in a pile of clothes as she packs to leave town. This gives Kroll the opportunity he needs to jump out of the closet and grab her. The story concludes very quickly after that, but makes a lasting impact.
There are many scenes with the police trying to learn the identity of a serial killer that we already know ourselves. Lt. Frank Benson (David McLean), Sgt. Mack Clyde (Baynes Barron), and Detective Mel Posner (Michael Ryan) spout some of the most cliché lines from 1950s and 60s crime movies and TV. Their scenes sound like they came right out of an episode of Dragnet.
I enjoyed The Strangler, but it’s hard to pinpoint why I thought it was just OK and not great. I don’t believe it’s very well known, and I’m not sure why it didn’t earn more praise or recognition for Buono. Maybe he’s just not a leading man. Neither was Laird Cregar, but he seems to have earned more respect for The Lodger. For me, it’s probably because I can’t help but think of him as King Tut from Batman.
Written by Bill S. Ballinger
Directed by Burt Topper
Starring Victor Buono, David McLean, Diane Sayer, Davey Davison, Baynes Barron, Ellen Corby RT 89 min.
Home Video Warner Archive (DVD)
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