Tuesday, October 01, 2013


It's October so it's time for a month of horror/sci-fi movies, and I've got a good one to start with. Set in 19th century Baltimore, this shocker has an effectively creepy opening scene in which Jason Cravette (Patrick O'Neal) forces a minister at gunpoint to conduct a marriage between him and a dead woman. It turns out that Cravette is the Baltimore Strangler, and not only are the police on his trail, but so are two amateur criminologists, Draco and Blount, who also run a "chamber of horrors" wax museum where they build an exhibit of the Strangler. Eventually Jason is tracked down to a brothel where he's been indulging in fantasies involving whores dressed in wedding gowns. He's tried and found guilty, but while being transported to prison on a train, he escapes by hacking off a handcuff, hand and all. After he gets a hook to replace the hand, he sets out to get revenge on everyone responsible for sending him away. A new bloody swath of death is loosed by "The Butcher of Baltimore" who, substituting a cleaver for his hook, cuts his victims up good. Can our cops and criminologists catch Cravette a second time?

This movie is known for its gimmicks, the Fear Flasher (bright lights) and Horror Horn (blaring horn) which appear just before particularly horrific scenes. They're fun, but even if you don't like such campy accoutrements, this is a must-see for fans of classic horror. It's colorful with good period sets and costumes and a fine cast. O'Neal (pictured above with his cleaver hand) had a lengthy career, mostly as a guest star on TV dramas, but this is probably his meatiest role ever. A young and handsome Wayne Rogers (later Trapper John on M*A*S*H) is a policeman, and there are nice turns by Suzy Parker, Jeanette Nolan and Marie Windsor. Cesare Danova (as Draco) and Wilfrid Hyde-White (as Blount) are not especially memorable as the wax museum guys, but they're adequate—the film was originally shot as a pilot for a TV show that would follow the adventures of these two (and their dwarf assistant Tun Tun), and at heart, this is, rather than pure horror, a detective story, albeit a bit grislier than most of the era. It's not graphic by today's standards, but a few scenes still shock, not so much by what you see but what is suggested—the dreamy but grotesque opening, the hacking off of Cravette's hand, the scene of Cravette carving up a judge with his cleaver hand. Given its origins as a TV show, the direction by Hy Averback is quite stylish. Weirdest of all is a cameo by Tony Curtis, who has one line, stares right at the camera, and is never seen again. Recommended. [DVD]

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