Grip of the Strangler (AKA The Haunted Strangler) is a very good idea that doesn’t quite come off but it remains an interesting attempt.
American-born producer Richard Gordon rode the British horror boom fairly successfully, being responsible for a good many entertaining low-budget British horror films.
This low-budget 1958 British horror flick stars Boris Karloff as a man investigating a murder that occurred 20 years earlier. The movie opens with the hanging of Edward Styles, the Haymarket Strangler. The time period is not specified exactly but is presumably the mid-19th century. Since it’s the days when public executions were a popular spectator sport it must be some time before 1868.
A novelist named James Rankin has become obsessed with the case. He is convinced that Styles was innocent. He suspects that a young doctor named Tennant, who performed the autopsies on the strangler’s five victims as well as on the convicted man, had some involvement in the murders. Dr Tennant mysteriously disappeared from Guy’s Hospital in London shortly after the execution of Styles.
Dr Tennant had been an habitue of the Judas Hole, a rather low dive that was also the scene of at least one of the murders. One of the dancers there had been a key witness at the trial of Styles but it now becomes clear that her evidence was much less solid that it had appeared at the time.
Rankin has found personal papers belonging to Dr Tennant, papers that do suggest that Tennant was obsessed by the case to a morbid degree. He has also found Tennant’s surgical kit and believes there is some significance to the fact that a surgeon’s knife is missing from the kit. He thinks the missing knife may be in Edward Styles’ coffin
Superintendant Burk at Scotland Yard has been willing to give Rankin every assistance within reason but decides he must draw the line when Rankin insists that Styles’ body must be exhumed. Rankin bribes a prison guard at Newgate to allow him to enter the prison cemetery at night to dig up the coffin himself. He finds the knife, and he finds the answer to the puzzle, but it’s an answer that will drive him to madness.
The premise is a good one and I won’t ruin it by revealing the twist. The problem is that the movie relies a bit too much on excessive and not entirely necessary makeup effects and these tend to make the movie seem silly when it fact it isn’t. They also draw attention to the low budget and give it a cheap feel that is rather unfortunate.
This minus is more than balanced out however by some impressive pluses, the most notable being Karloff. At the age of 70 he could still deliver a powerhouse performance. The other actors are quite adequate.
The screenplay is a clever variation on one of the classic tales of gothic horror but I won’t tell you which one because this would reveal too much of the plot.
Despite the low budget it manages some effectively atmospheric moments and the black-and-white cinematography is competently handled.
Although it has its faults it’s a reasonably entertaining gothic chiller.
The all-region UK PAL DVD release from 2entertain is barebones and it’s fullframe but it looks reasonably good and it can be picked up very very cheaply.