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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

VHS Vednesday: Night of the Strangler

NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER (1972). Directed by Joy N. Houck Jr. Starring Micky Dolenz, James Ralston, and James Patterson.

A combination of murder mystery and social-issue drama, Night of the Strangler opens with a tense family scene of a young Louisiana woman (Susan McCullough) informing her two brothers of her pregnancy and impending marriage, from an interracial relationship. While younger brother Vance (Micky Dolenz) is sympathetic and supportive, her bigoted older brother Dan (James Ralston) explodes in a fury, making threats against them both. Shortly afterwards, the sister and her lover are both murdered, with the sister's killing arranged to look like suicide. (And arranged very poorly at that--she's dragged to a bathtub and drowned fully clothed, then the killer undresses her and slits her wrists. Now, I know this was decades before the rise of CSI, but you'd think the cops would catch one of the many clues--the signs of struggle, the wet discarded clothes, the actual freaking cause of death--but no, everybody accepts the suicide story.)

But this is only the start of a series of murders centering around the two brothers and their loved ones. The killings continue as Vance and Dan blame each other, and the police strive to uncover the truth.

Night of the Strangler is an interesting time-capsule movie; the filmmakers make a well-intentioned attempt to expose the evils of racism by presenting Dan in such a hateful, ugly light, but he's such a two-dimensional cipher that the point is hollow and obvious. The murder-mystery aspect is somewhat more effective, though it suffers from a shallow pool of suspects.

One curious note: For all the murders in the movie, Night of the Strangler contains not a single strangulation. Oh, there's shooting, stabbing, drowning, snakebite, poison...but no strangling.

Who's Leaving This Off Their Resume?

Apart from Micky Dolenz, the cast was assembled from local Southern talent, only a few of whom have any other film credits; the most recognizable player is television actor Harold Sylvester (probably most familiar as Al Bundy's co-worker in Married...with Children) making his screen debut as one of the detectives investigating the murders. The supporting cast generally does well in crafting convincing characters; James Ralston, unfortunately, is saddled with such a hollow, empty role that he's unable to bring anything to it beyond "Look at the bigot! Isn't he eeevil?" An admirable sentiment, but hardly the basis for a strong performance.

As for Micky Dolenz himself, he does a fine job in a straight dramatic's just too bad that his goofy Monkees image makes it difficult to look beyond the preconceptions and take him seriously as an actor, but that's more of an issue with the viewer (myself included) than the performer.



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