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The galumphing hulk who terrorized early sound cinema audiences in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), Boris Karloff was the movies’ politest monster. Even in his darkest on-screen moments, the London-born Karloff (né William Henry Pratt) exhibited a regal calm that allowed for surprising poignancy, the gentleness of his gestures and the silkiness of his lisping speech always seemed fruitfully at odds with his ghoulish roles. He remains a unique figure in the annals of horror cinema—the kind of ogre you can take home to Mom (“Sure, he may rob graves . . . but such a gentleman!”).
A plum example of that Karloff amalgam of the comforting and the forbidding is his performance in British producers Richard and Alex Gordon’s atmospheric 1958 shocker The Haunted Strangler, directed by Robert Day. The film came at an in-between moment professionally for Karloff—more than twenty years had gone by since his days as a hallowed horror star at Universal Studios, and the revival his career was to see in the sixties thanks to his work for Roger Corman, his hosting duties on the television anthology series Thriller, and that animated holiday chestnut How the Grinch Stole Christmas (in which, as the voices of both the kindly, dulcet-toned narrator and the nasty protagonist himself, he nicely demonstrated that even split between the benign and the baleful) was barely on the horizon. By the time he began working with the Gordon brothers (he would do so again the next year, on Corridors of Blood), he was seventy years old, and he brought a profound gravity even to such seemingly negligible B-movie fare, making of it (no joke!) as much a melancholy meditation on one man’s madness as a tale of bloody murder.
In The Haunted Strangler, set in foggy 1880 London, Karloff plays the upstanding James Rankin, a novelist and social reformer committed to exonerating wrongly convicted criminals, alive or dead. With his bow tie and pocket square, Rankin cuts a charmingly grandfatherly figure, and he seems to receive warm welcomes from all he encounters, including a maid who thanks him for helping her wayward brother avoid a prison sentence. Rankin grows oddly obsessed with one case: the twenty-year-old execution of Edward Styles, a one-armed man known as the Haymarket Strangler, whom he is convinced was innocent of the brutal murders of five young women. The more Rankin digs into the cold case, the further he descends into a kind of derangement, and the film ultimately reveals itself to be a twist on the Jekyll and Hyde tale, as the squeamish do-gooder (Rankin freaks out at the sight of rats and faints when he sees a whipped convict’s bloody lash marks during a visit to the prison where Styles was incarcerated) betrays his own sinister side.
Karloff’s depiction of this metamorphosis eschews gothic theatrics in favor of an embodiment of mounting dread, underpinned with a profound sadness. Maitland McDonagh, in her liner notes for the Criterion release of the film, points out that, “where lesser actors might have squeezed every drop of pulp melodrama from Rankin’s agonies, Karloff taps into a vein of pure, understated tragedy.” Of course, when the evil within overtakes him, even the most sympathetic viewer may recoil.
After Rankin ventures to Styles’s lonely grave to excavate his coffin and retrieve the murder weapon buried with him, a possession seems to take hold of him, Karloff’s face morphing into a beastly contortion of its former self. In interviews included on the Haunted Strangler DVD, Karloff’s costars and other collaborators reveal that Karloff achieved this, amazingly, without the aid of any makeup. He simply removed his false molars, sucked in his bottom lip, and lowered one eyelid for a grimace so grotesque it would make Lon Chaney wince. Watch the transformation below.