Psycho and Peeping Tom (both 1960) scorched the horror landscape and proffered new skin for the ceremony; these films looked at the monster within, the one unaffected by nuclear power yet obliterated by the implosion of the nuclear family. In their wake came numerous “tributes” including The Strangler (1964), a lurid tale given wings by a knockout performance from Victor Buono as the titular villain; you simply can’t avert your eyes from him. Even if you dare to.
Released April 1st by Allied Artists Pictures, The Strangler did receive a notice from Variety that reads in part, “There’s always a place on the screen for a fat man who can act”. Oh ‘64, you really weren’t that long ago, were you? Obnoxious, tone-deaf reviews aside, it is a compact little thriller that doesn’t necessarily deepen the discussion around mental illness, but offers a longer look for the viewer invested in the psychology of madness and murder.
This is the Leo Kroll (Buono) Show, and we’re all just part of the audience: his sick and domineering mother (Ellen Corby - The Waltons), the numerous nurses he kills due to his job as a lab technician, the two girls who work the ring toss where Leo wins yet another doll for his collection, and us - now forced to see the world through Leo’s eyes.
This is where horror was at; it was time to stop watching evil, and time to try and understand it.
Meet Leo: Just an average man; portly of build, a rascally smile, and a propensity for strangling hospital staff associated with his infirm and suffocating mother. When he isn’t busy doing that, he’s either tinkering with test tubes at the lab, or winning dolls at a local ring toss which he then accidentally leaves at a crime scene. You know, standard day-in-the-life stuff.
Not to the police however; Leo is spoken to early in the film, as he worked at both hospitals where the nurses are dying, but is ultimately seen as a harmless weirdo. Until the doll is left behind, that is - and his connection with the two attendants of the ring toss is sussed out. But then the police have to prove it, even while he continues his spree of terror...
The Strangler, much like Psycho and Peeping Tom, wants to pull back the curtain and show the disheveled and sweaty wizard yanking the levers; such was the loosening of mores, at least to what could be shown - or should be - on the big screen. But to compare it to the others does The Strangler a disservice - because at its heart, it’s quite content to state the case for exploitation through a leering lens, and let the film speak for itself. Besides, it’s directly riffing on the real life case of The Boston Strangler, who terrorized the town between ‘62-’64 killing...you guessed it, nurses. That’s about as exploitive as it comes.
The allusions to reality don’t end there; director Burt Topper (The Devil’s 8) and writer Bill S. Ballinger (Mike Hammer) opts for a “gritty” procedural vibe - the kind found on network TV. So the film is left to ground and distinguish itself through characterization, specifically the relationship between mother and son; from the toxicity the rage rises, and their lives are intertwined in an inevitable dance of destiny. A lot of time is spent with Mom and Leo, and we watch in sadness as she systematically destroys him - no friends, not attractive, and being overweight are the bells she rings to bring him to his knees. And it works, but only for so long.
Whenever Buono is on screen (which is most of the time), The Strangler is mesmerizing; still hot coming off his Oscar-nominated performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), he radiates off the screen: Preening, sardonic, anxious, arrogant, malevolent - in a suave and substantial package. Make no mistake, Leo is no ladies’ man; impertinence and a perceived queerness with his doll collection sees to that. No, he is a man who never had a chance from the start, forever wed to a domineering spirit who all but consumes his.
This all may sound like some kind of Sunday afternoon downer, but The Strangler is entertaining, and not as dour as I may have implied; strangulation is the game, but it isn’t graphic in the least, and don’t get excited about nudity either. (Buono was a devout Christian and proud gay man. The layers.) No, the edge the film brings is the unpredictability of Buono’s Leo; the implied menace no more than a warped smile away, and definitely within arm’s reach.
The Strangler is available on DVD from the Warners Archive Collection.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BEYOND THE DOOR III (1989)