Those of you with long memories might believe that The Strangler was released in order to cash in on Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler, who committed 13 similar murders. And you would be right. In fact, everything, from the lurid poster right down to the title is right out of Exploitation 101, taught by better independent studios everywhere.
|The smile only a mother could love -- and even then...|
But what separates The Strangler from other mad-killer movies -- aside from a fairly sophisticated (for its type) script -- is the titular performance by Victor Buono, the heaviest of all screen heavies. While you can trace the "crazy fat guy" character at least as far back as the 1940s with Laird Cregar in Hangover Square and The Lodger, Victor Buono's performance has astonishing, unexpected depth, as he reacts to his murders with orgasmic joy, quickly followed by confusion and a pathetic regret that signal an awareness that his actions are, to put it mildly, wrong.
|The eye of the (psycho) beholder.|
Equally essential to the success of Buono's performance is his sheer size. He was only 25 at the time of filming The Strangler, but convincingly plays what is probably a middle-aged man. While his smile is friendly, there's definitely something of a madman lurking not far from the surface. His tiny eyes peer out of a chubby face that resembles nothing so much as a psycho baby, his tiny moustache giving the only hint of masculinity. You almost -- maybe more than almost -- feel sorry for the guy. Even if he does have 10 murders under his size 64 belt.
|Oh, you beautiful doll...|
Ratcheting up the creep factor, Kroll also has a thing for undressing and destroying dolls that he wins at the local arcade, where he's secretly in love with Tally, the young woman who runs the ring toss attraction. (That Kroll scores perfectly at the ring toss whenever Tally's around provides some sexual symbolism, but maybe that's just me speaking.)
Tally's professional friendliness would be more tempered if Kroll hadn't told her he was a successful businessman who breezes into town once in a while, rather than the lunatic who lives down the block. Too, she and her colleague, Thelma, might not have been so quick to give Kroll the nickname "Deadeye".
|M is for the murders he's committing...|
Kroll's friendly/creepy demeanor continues even when questioned by police Sergeant Frank Benson. His simple yes/no replies are spoken in an innocent, sing-song manner, as if he didn't have a care in the world. Only when he's visiting his mother does he show just a hint of the fury bubbling underneath.
As Mrs. Kroll repeatedly reminds her son that even as a child he was always fat, friendless, and "funny" (meaning anything from crazy to gay), you must wonder how much pain Buono really felt during their scenes together. Ellen Corby, the future Grandma Walton, plays Mrs. Kroll as such a twisted, selfish harridan that not only can you tell why Kroll turned out the way he did, you're sorry he didn't kill her 20 years earlier.
Per usual for movies made before our allegedly-enlightened times, The Strangler features the occasionally now-unintentionally humorous moments. People smoke everywhere -- laboratories, police stations, hospitals (when was the last time you saw a cigarette machine?). The psychiatrist called in on the case casually refers to the killer as a "schizo". And, of course, everybody is obsessed with referring to Kroll's weight. To them, being fat isn't just a description, it's a reason.
In lesser hands The Strangler would be just another cheapo shocker meant to capitalize on the latest scary headlines. But writer Bill Ballinger, who worked mostly on TV, and director Burt Topper (whose credits include Diary of a High School Bride) give their movie a serious base under its macabre setting.
But ultimately, credit must go to Victor Buono, whose despondent, chilling performance elevates the movie to even higher levels. At once subtle and horrifying, Buono's Leo Kroll is the guy you see at the post office, grocery store, or, in this case, hospital lab.
And yet, he is so much more: bitter, disconsolate, childishly in love, utterly psychopathic -- and totally convincing at all stages. Even as he meets his fatal end, you can't help sympathizing with him. Thanks to Buono, The Strangler is one of the few post-1960 movies I would be happy to watch a second and even third time. Would that more people watch it just once.
One of the few times when the trailer isn't as good as the movie: