Monday, August 31, 2015

The Night of the Strangler (1972) review


Mickey Dolenz (Vance Robear), Michael Anthony (Lieutenant De Vivo), James Ralston (Dan Robear), Chuck Patterson (Father Jesse), Susan McCullough (Denise), Katie Tilley (Ann Novak), Ann Barrett (Carol), Warren J. Kenner (Willie)

Directed by Joy N. Houck, Jr.

The Short Version: Everyone's a suspect in Joy Houck, Jr's well-crafted, racially charged murder mystery starring Monkees front man, Mickey Dolenz. After an inter-racial family squabble turns deadly, an unseen killer turns members of the Robear family against one another in between knocking them off in this fairly elaborate thriller from the guy who gave you the Sasquatch classic, CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976). Shot in New Orleans and consistently cited as a Southern Gothic, Houck's movie never feels like one, lacking down-home accents and any identifiable atmosphere indigenous to Southern Fried cinema. It does run the gamut of nearly every other Drive-in and exploitation genre trope, though. Capped with a cold-blooded coda, Passion Pit lovers are in for an intriguing 90 minutes, but trash film fans should take heed this is diet exploitation soda at best.

Two brothers, Vance and Dan Robear, are at odds over their sister, Denise, being pregnant with a black man's baby. Upon learning this, Dan disowns her after a tense confrontation. Soon after, Denise returns to New York only for her lover to be murdered by a hitman, and she, too, is killed by an unseen assailant soon after. Both brothers become suspicious of one another, as well as become suspects in the wake of a mysterious string of bizarre murders.

Wedged between his more descriptively titled fare like NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (1969) and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976), is Joy Houck, Jr's quaint thriller--a film that bears overtones of the giallo, the crazed Nam vet sub-genre, and black action style of cinema. Essentially a revenge movie built around sibling rivalry, the script juggles a lot of themes and ideas and rarely, if ever, drops a single one of them. Surprisingly engaging, it only stumbles occasionally--like a scene where a man is shot, and instead of falling backwards on cue, turns and moves himself to assure he's landing in the right place. Were hippies ever hitmen? And who has a picnic when there's snow on the ground?

Minor quibbles aside, this is possibly Houck's best directed effort. It's not a movie that gets much discussion, nor does it owe allegiance to any one genre style. Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the film is its title. There's no strangling, but you will see lots of familial struggles, racial tension, a black gloved killer who favors quasi-slasher death scenes, and a surprise ending that reveals its killer to be even more cruel than the motives necessitating the revenge.

Shot in New Orleans, this production is from the New Orleans based Howco International--the same company that brought you such antiquated celluloid anxiety relief as THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957) and TEENAGE MONSTER (1958). If you're familiar with those movies, and those directed by Houck, Jr., than STRANGLER is something of a surprise in comparison. 

Often described in ways to suggest it's a selection of a more tasteless vintage, the use of incendiary language is about as sleazy as NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER gets. That in no way means it's a bad bet; only that, if you're looking for the sort of sanguinary thrills promised in Vinegar Syndrome's DVD synopsis, you may want to fold your hand on this one. There's very little blood, but some creatively nasty methods of dispatch are on display such as an Elapid snake hidden in a bouquet of flowers and a spring-loaded metal arrow laced with Curare poison.

What makes STRANGLER engaging is its subject matter and Houck's handling of it. Prejudice is color blind in his movie--where a villain isn't necessarily defined by his use of the word 'nigger'. Father Jesse sums up his personal experiences with hate, a human emotion that doesn't recognize the shade of one's skin, thusly, "... I get it from both sides. For some whites, I'm a... a good nigger. The only difference between a good nigger and a nigger is the word good. For some blacks, I'm an uncle tom nigger. Believe me, it's all the same thing. Nigger's an ugly word, but it is after all only a word." There's quite a bit more that's worth discussing regarding the script's treatment of race, but to do so might spoil some things. 

All you really need to know is that James Ralston is very good as mega-bigot, Dan Robear, the film's central antagonist. He has a seething disdain for blacks that really sinks in during the scene where the kindly Father Jesse pays a visit to Dan to discuss an earlier, tense exchange. Father Jesse apologizes for striking him and Dan apologizes for calling him a nigger, stating, "You're not one of those... well, you're a black man". For a moment, the character of Dan appears to display a tiny glimmer of hope that he can evolve beyond his prejudice. However, barely 20 seconds later, all that is thrown away after his wife discreetly asks him to be nice to Father Jesse; to which Dan responds, "No nigger is a man, much less a man of God!" From that point onward, the audience eagerly awaits his fate, and that it will be satisfactorily meted out. This is a Drive-in movie, after all.

Aside from Ralston, performances are uniformly strong even if the bulk of the material requires lines to be shouted or uttered through gritted teeth. 

Mickey Dolenz is arguably the major drawing card, and, for an actor primarily in television, it is a bit awkward to see the Monkees singer in a movie like this. Ralston dominates the picture, although Dolenz's hairstyle and fashion sense are distracting when he's onscreen.

As for its promotion, THE NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is a classic example of deceptive marketing strategies (somewhat reflective of the varying genre elements found therein) that rarely accurately summarized what the actual film was about. The original title was ACE OF SPADES--a title that suits the picture, and makes the most sense in the context of the movie. Considering the topical theme of race relations, the picture was promoted elsewhere as a blaxploitation effort with the IS THE FATHER BLACK ENOUGH? moniker. In other markets it was advertised as something of a more salacious nature with titles like DIRTY DAN and DIRTY DAN'S WOMEN. Despite garnering theatrical play in 1972, the movie wasn't submitted for an MPAA rating till 1973 when it was christened as NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER, its final appellation. Houck and his Howco company also paired STRANGLER with two of their earlier flicks, WOMEN AND BLOODY TERROR (1969) and NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (1969). From '73 onward, the NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER title remained while the others seemingly never surfaced again.

Lost in a sea of obscurity for years, NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER (the onscreen title adds the article 'the') certainly doesn't deserve to remain there. Likely a hard sell, it's not trashy enough to satiate the harder exploitation crowd, nor is it slick enough to appeal to a broader audience. Houck's elaborate tale of familial strife, bigotry and revenge will likely remain a minor footnote in Drive-in history. Still, it's surprisingly good for what it is, successfully melding a number of genre styles not known for subtleties nor for being tame. What it lacks in budgetary resources it makes up for in its storytelling and craftiness.

***Thanks to Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali for information on this films theatrical release history. You can visit their website HERE and their Facebook page HERE.***

This review is representative of the Vinegar Syndrome DVD. Specs and Extras: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. There are no extras.

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