Grip of the Strangler
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 20 April 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
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Boris Karloff’s is a career distinguished by macabre countenances. Frankenstein is rightly typified by the image of Karloff’s monster: his brow heavy, his eyes half-open/half-crazed, and his jaw framing a frown. Karloff is even more startling in The Mummy: his eyes are portals that relay permanent agony and anger, open in perfect circles, and concentrated intensely toward the viewer.
His James Rankin, in contrast, retains neither the menace nor fright of Karloff’s earlier characters—he’s a novelist, mannered and totally benevolent. For much of his professional career, he has been obsessed with The Haymarket Strangler, a serial killer some twenty years prior who was discerned only in silhouette, his left arm limp and a surgeon’s scalpel propped in his right. A man was convicted and executed for the strangler’s crimes, but the circumstances of his conviction remain incongruous: the murder weapon was never found, and the executed man exhibited no prior violent behavior. His was an unfortunate fate, Rankin contends, motivated by haste. In the opening scene, as the convict’s feet dangle from the gallows in a populated town square, the townsfolk cheer excitedly.
Rankin’s research leads him to the man’s grave, now covered in vines and moss. He exhumes it with fearful determination, popping off the coffin lid in both shock and revelation—its contents are a stark white skeleton within a bath of lime. Beside it is a surgeon’s scalpel: the murder weapon. He grasps the device in celebration, and instantaneously his left arm falls limp. He collects the scalpel with his right, clasping it improperly as one would a knife. The composition now frames his grimaced face, contorted and lit in bursts of contrast due to lightning, the spirit of the strangler transmitted to a new host.
Karloff internalizes this transformation, portraying it on the fly. He folds his right eye shut, holds his lower lip between his teeth, and projects his mouth into a sort of trunk. (His hair, in a quick edit, becomes menacingly disheveled.) It is a rightfully horrific transformation precisely for the lack of makeup caked on Karloff’s face, his haunted strangler a product of only contortion and performance. The metamorphosis makes Rankin the killer, and his crimes become symmetrical to that of the man some twenty years prior.
The plot contains further revelations I will not ruin, but the lasting intrigue of The Haunted Strangler remains Karloff’s villain, how his transformation deprives him of judgment and bestows him with adrenaline-fueled strength. Each of his victims regard him with great fear just prior to death—this response manifests the film’s horror more explicitly than Karloff’s performance, but it is his performance that anchors The Haunted Strangler’s vintage horror.