Director: Burt Topper
Warner Archive Collection

Honored for his unforgettable work opposite Bette Davis in 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, “Best Supporting Actor” nominee Victor Buono gets an immediate follow-up starring role in THE STRANGLER. The psychological horror film now gets a DVD release through The Warner Archive Collection.

Leo Kroll (Victor Buono, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES) is an obese hospital lab technician whose severe mommy complex prompts him to strangle pretty nurses. His invalid mother (Ellen Corby, “The Waltons”) is in a sanatorium and under the care of her new nurse Clara (Jeanne Bates, ERASERHEAD), and Leo ends up at her apartment, grasping his hands around her throat as well. After Clara's murder, Leo is questioned by the police – Lt. Benson (David McLean, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS), Sgt. Mack Clyde (Baynes Barron, SPACE PROBE TAURUS) and Detective Mel Posner (Michael Ryan, SLAYGROUND) – for a second time, and he’s subjected to a polygraph test, which he easily passes even when outrightly lying about the murders he’s just committed. A police psychologist (Russ Bender, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST) then admits that for those with “schizophrenia” lie detectors or useless, but regardless, Leo is not charged with any crime and sent home. Leo’s fetish for female dolls has him frequenting an arcade to win them, with his next victim being a worker there (Diane Sayer, KITTEN WITH A WHIP). When the police tie in that murder with a doll found on the scene, they give full protection to Tally (Davey Davison, ANGEL, ANGEL DOWN WE GO), another blonde arcade worker who has refused Leo’s awkward and sudden proposal of marriage.

Independently produced by Samuel Bischoff and David Diamond (whose career went as far back as Universal’s THE RAVEN in 1935), THE STRANGLER was shot in ‘63 but released the following year by Allied Artists to sensationalize on the “Boston Strangler” murders which were still unsolved at the time (this is some years before Richard Fleischer’s excellent film with Tony Curtis in the lead role). With its obvious low budget, the results of THE STRANGLER lie somewhere between sleazy 1960s exploitation and 1940s film noir, with the script by television writer Bill S. Ballinger playing up the fact that it’s been ripped from today’s headlines (the film has an introductory onscreen exclaimer, telling of the extensive research that went into it) but like a number of other thrillers of the period, it was somewhat influenced by PSYCHO with the a bulk of the story being very typical of an episode of a detective/crime show from that era. But Ballinger’s script sufficiently avoids the whodunit angle by introducing Leo as the killer from the onset, and it also includes the slick element of having the character elude the police twice, despite the improbability, with Buono’s confidently egotistical killer making it all plausible. The direction is well handled by Bert Topper (who would later do some AIP actioners such as THE DEVIL’S 8 and THE HARD RIDE), with the murders all coming off as disturbing without being graphic or drawn out (and then there's the safe pre "ratings system" titillation of having the victims in a state of undress or in the shower).

The supporting actors in THE STRANGLER are all well cast but pretty ordinary; in fact it’s Buono’s perfect casting and extraordinary performance that make the film. As Leo, Buono plays him mild-mannered when not in strangling mode, then turning on his extreme insane side as a sweaty, sexually frustrated killer who actually does what he does out of despise for his domineering mother who he is simultaneously obsessed with. Corby (who was only in her early 50s at the time) is also perfectly cast as the shrewd and “elderly” mom, belittling her son by calling him fat, poor and useless, causing him to take it out on innocent young women. This is a relatively early movie role for Buono, who would continue to play characters who were much older than him (it’s hard to believe he was only around 25 at the time of making this), and although he was soon to be a household name by portraying the villain King Tut on “Batman”, this film is arguably his finest hour. Roger Corman regular Wally Campo (THE SHOP OF HORRORS) plays Eggerton, the guy giving the lie detector test to Leo, and James Sikking (later a regular on TV’s “Hill Street Blues” and then “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) is the police sketch artist who renders a hilariously accurate charcoaled depiction of Buono.

Previously available on VHS through Fox in the early 1990s, and more recently on an “AMC Monsterfest” DVD (with THE DEVIL’S HAND) of questionable quality and questionable legitimacy, Warner (who has rights to most of the Allied Artists catalog) now releases THE STRANGLER on their Warner Archive Collection as a manufactured-on-demand DVD. Here we get a serviceable transfer which presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The black and white image has decent shadow detail and inky black levels, with good contrast and clarity. Foreground images tend to be on the soft side, and there is some dirt and debris on the source element, but the image is satisfying overall. The mono audio is decent, if unremarkable, and there are no extras (not even the trailer) or subtitle options on the disc. (George R. Reis)