I first became aware of the rotund character actor Victor Buono from his role as the comical schizoid villain King Tut on the 1960s Batman TV series. Ever since I’ve been a fan, regarding Mr. Buono as one of those special personalities that you can never quite pin down or know really well. The kind that are forever part of that “unique eccentrics” category in your film geek world.
Burt Topper’s tautly directed 1964 thriller The Strangler was in fact inspired by The Boston Strangler, the infamous real life killer who had been a big part of the news at the time the film was made. In the movie, Buono stars as Leo Kroll, a heavyset, mild mannered lab technician. We learn that there have been several unsolved murders of various nurses in the area and Kroll has already been interviewed by the police several times because of his being a suspect. He is very much a Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde type character whose calm demeanor hides a cold blooded psychotic side. He also has a strange obsession with toy dolls that he saves as mementos which represent the various women he’s killed. The only family Kroll has is his elderly mother (Ellen Corby) who has been hospitalized for a few years after suffering a heart attack, leaving him on his own in the home they shared. She constantly tries to get him to visit, but he does his best to stay away.
When another dead woman is found, the police bring in Kroll for a lie detector test. This is where we see how he uses his sociopathic personality to leave the police scratching their heads. They seem to have very strong suspicions about him but are unable to come up with solid proof. Kroll triumphantly leaves the police station and heads to the local amusement arcade where he’s set his sights on a pretty blonde gal named Tally (Davey Davison) who runs the Ring Tossing Game. Kroll puts on the moves, playing it smooth while hitting every toss. The prizes for winning: the same dolls he’s been collecting. Tally and her co-worker seem oddly enamored with the mysterious Kroll and when they inquire about what he does, he just says he’s a traveling salesman that passes through town now and then.
The film does an excellent job bringing us into Kroll’s unhinged existance, showing where his disorder really stems from, namely his mother. In one scene, Kroll visits the old shrew and we get a quick glimpse of how she’s been mentally abusing him since his childhood telling him women are evil, that he’s no good, fat and unlovable to anyone but her. Kroll takes his pent up anger at her out by killing the beautiful women he thinks he can’t have. Only after his mother finally dies is he released from her psychological grasp. Kroll’s immediate reaction to hearing his mother is gone is to go home and smash her personal belongings to bits. He finally seems to be freed from his murderous urges as well. He celebrates this liberation by proposing to Tally but his brief moment of hope for change is ruined when she turns him down cold.
This was the first movie in which I saw Buono as the main star and he gives an outstanding performance as the maniacal Leo Kroll. Buono was able to actually create a level of sympathy for the character much like Anthony Perkins’ did for Norman Bates in Psycho. Buono certainly doesn’t play Kroll as the bad guy so much as another victim whose own mental abuse at the hands of his cruel mother made him the way he is.
The Strangler was shot on a low budget and it’s right on the cusp of being an exploitation film, but the lack of lurid sequences or graphic violence really keeps it from being one. Buono could’ve played it over the top and more outrageous but his attention to keeping Kroll subdued and realistic just enhances the emotional reaction we have towards him.
This is a perfect late night gem that I’d put alongside another favorite of mine that came out the same year: Lady In a Cage.