When I first discovered that this was an AMC Monsterfest release a shiver went down my spine. Not because of their commitment to supply us with scary films that chill the blood, but because my experience with AMC has been of terrible print quality, hissy sound and, well, that's bad enough. I was also nervous to discover that Victor Buono was playing a serial killer. I have only seen him in his Oscar nominated performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, where he seemed to be channelling Oliver Hardy. It was with some trepidation that I finally slipped the DVD in and turned down the lights.
My worst fears were confirmed right from the beginning. I'm grateful to AMC for making these films available to us at such a low price, but a little care in the transfer process wouldn't go amiss. The opening title sequence reveals it has been cropped on the sides, leaving you to guess what some of the words are supposed to be. However, once you get into the film itself this becomes less noticeable. But enough of my whining about the print, what about the movie? The Strangler is purported to be based on the case of the Boston Strangler (also the basis for a Tony Curtis movie of the same name), but how true to life it really is I couldn't say. Buono plays Leo Kroll, an overweight, single man who until recently lived with his overbearing invalid mother, played by Ellen Corby. She is now in a hospital, and berates and nags him every time he visits, reminding him that he is unattractive to women and only she can love him. It is this dominating, controlling mother that presumably led him down the path of serial strangling. He is a pleasant, unassuming lab assistant by day and a meticulous murderer by night, whose method involves strangling women with their own stockings. This conveniently means he has to wait until they've stripped down to their underwear before he moves in for the kill. It is here that the filmmakers reveal their true intentions, that titillation is the order of the day, rather than a revealing insight into the schizophrenic mind of the serial killer.
Much of the film time is spent following the police efforts to catch Kroll, who manages to elude them despite being interviewed twice as a suspect, once with a lie detector test. They also manage to miss him during a stakeout, as the police man takes an ill-timed coffee break. They also allow their chief witness, and potential next murder victim, to go home unprotected with Kroll still at large. You would not want this police force protecting you.
One of the most interesting story elements is Kroll's obsession with china dolls, which he collects and then strips after each murder. This is somehow used to signify Kroll's disturbed mind and his sexual thrill from killing these women, as the victims themselves are untouched. Unfortunately more is not made of this predilection, perhaps for fear by the director of presenting him as too perverted for audiences to relate to. We do pity Kroll, particularly when he visits his mother, and is rejected by the woman he loves/ has an unhealthy obsession with. We even view the murders through his eyes, making us complicit voyeurs in his nocturnal activities. It is as though we are meant to be on Kroll's side, and you do begin to feel concern for him that he might get caught if he's not careful.
So despite my initial misgivings and complaints about the print (yes it is over-scanned, scratched, and occasionally missing frames), I would have to recommend this film to those interested in low budget crime and thrillers. It is worth it just to ask the question "How does such a large man (and he really is) manage to break into women's apartments without being heard, or getting stuck?" The filmmakers use their low budget creatively to draw you in to the complex mind of Leo Kroll, and although there are shortcomings, particularly the convenient ending, it is definitely a good example of what can be done with a couple of cheap sets and a lot of imagination. Buono also puts in a great performance, demonstrating his immense capabilities as an actor that would also be put to use in such roles as King Tut in Batman and, er, Fat Man in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.