The very first shot in the film—in which the image of a curvaceous young beauty stripping down to her undergarments is reflected in the avid, unblinking iris of a lurking stranger—pretty much sums up the whole movie: rather tawdry, but surprisingly artful. Released just three months after the apprehension of alleged Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo, The Strangler was an unabashed quickie exploitation cash-in, packed with the requisite shocks and titillation that kind of thing demands (there are probably more shots here of curvaceous young beauties stripping down to their undergarments than in anything you’d find outside of a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie), but it’s done with style and wit that not only elevates it above its class, but makes for more entertaining viewing than the better known, big-budget (and no less fanciful) Tony Curtis Boston Strangler movie, which The Strangler beat to theaters by four whole years.
Fresh off his Oscar-nominated role as oily ivory-tickler Edwin Flagg in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Victor Buono here plays Leo Kroll, another misfit with mommy issues. Make that serious mommy issues, as in hates-her-so-much-that-he-has-to-go-out-and-kill-women-who-remind-him-of-her issues. But who could blame him? As played by Ellen (Grandma Walton) Corby, Mama Kroll is a Psycho-inspired, nasty, neurotic, co-dependent nightmare who’s dealt with her disappointment in men by raising her son to be an emotionally crippled eunuch so that she can have him all to herself. Biding his time till the hateful old bag finally succumbs to her weak heart, Leo woos, in his own socially maladroit way, a pretty girl working at an amusement park ring-toss booth, and keeps his frustration and rage at bay by strangling a woman for every doll he wins with his ring-tossing expertise. After Mrs. Kroll finally kicks the bucket, Leo decides to give up his woman-strangling ways and propose to the girl, but it doesn’t go as he’d hoped, and he skulks off with one last doll, promising her she hasn’t seen the last of him….
Of course, sinister, supercilious characters like Leo were Buono’s specialty, and The Strangler crackles whenever he’s onscreen, especially in the scenes with Corby. Nobody projected barely-contained fury quite like him, and watching Leo mouth bland assurances of love and devotion to his horrid mother while his eyes burn with homicidal rage is both darkly humorous and more than a little unnerving: you can practically feel the air pressure spike when these two are in a room together, and you’re just waiting for Leo to clap his meaty paws around the frail old woman’s throat (which he doesn’t do, incidentally—he actually comes up with a better, more gratifyingly sadistic way to be rid of her, which I won’t spoil for you here). Not so exciting are the plodding police investigation scenes, where you have time to notice the various loose threads and holes in the plot, but fortunately these don’t take up too much screen time. You can watch the movie here!