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Smooth Kriminal: The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle [1963]

The krimi is synonymous with German adaptations of classic British mystery novelist Edgar Wallace, but it is worth noting that his son Bryan Edgar Wallace was also involved in the 1960s film cycle. In the 1930s he wrote a number of screenplays for Britsh films, and then by the 60s, much of his work was being adapted for the German market. One such Bryan Edgar Wallace novel is The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle, which was adapted for the screen by director Harald Reinl in 1963. It involves aging characters who possess fortunes, torrid affairs haunting from the past, and diamonds hidden by a wall of flames. 

The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle opens with a dinner party of old folks in a lofty castle owned by Lucius Clark (Rudolf Fernau), discussing prospects of nobility. We cut to an employee wandering around outside trying to figure out why the watch dogs are barking, only to see him jumped by a leather-jacket-wearing, black-gloved killer who strangles him to death. This opening murder is similar to the one seen the following year in Mario Bava’s early giallo Blood and Black Lace (1964). In Bava’s film it is an attractive woman dressed in red who is the victim, as opposed to the man rendered in black and white outside of Blackmoor Castle. The faceless killer of Blood and Black Lace, wearing pantyhose or some such on their head, is similar to the balaclava-clad, titular antagonist of Blackmoor, but when he initially confronts Lucius once the old man is alone, the strangler begins talking of vengeance and diamonds. The stock giallo killer which became solidified in the late 1960s and early 70s was so often voiceless, lending an extra eerie quality to the figure–that is not the case in this earlier krimi. 

Our villain brandishes a revolver straightaway, which leads to more firepower later in the film. Here is a bad guy who does more than just strangle, apparently, indicating that his misdeeds are not particularly psychosexual like so many other movie killers. This guy has an agenda that makes him just as similar to a criminal mastermind one might see in a James Bond picture, as similar to other krimi super-villains like those in Fellowship of the Frog (1959) and The Red Circle (1960). While it is fun to make connections between the krimi and later horror/thriller-style genres, they diverge as well. For example, ominous killers of the American slashers from the late 1970s and 80s would never think of using a gun to kill their victims. Meanwhile, the strangler stalking Blackmoor uses whatever he sees fit, including machine guns and wire stretched across a road to induce decapitations. 

Like the eponymous villain in The Red Circle, who left his circular mark at the crime scenes in various ways, the strangler has a calling card–an “M” placed on the forehead of each victim (regardless of whether that head is decapitated or still intact). It is common for mystery yarns to include calling cards, and in this case it is also a nod to Fritz Lang, that original auteur of German thriller cinema. An “M” is prominently seen on the hand of a blind man and the shoulder of the murderer in the very film called M. The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle was flanked by an outpouring of Dr Mabuse films in the early 1960s, and Lang’s presence is just as easily noted in this Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation.    

In my writing on The Mysterious Magician (aka Der Hexer) a few months ago, I mentioned that there is not a strong female presence in krimi films, and if there is, it is in the form of a stereotypical supporting character like a secretary or girlfriend. The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle *kind of* proves my observation about this wrong. After Lucius is terrorized by the man in black, his niece Claridge Dorsett (Karin Dor) enters and partially takes control of the film. A young woman of just 21, she has a right to some of the assets her uncle is in charge of, but she also happens to be a talented and determined journalist who wants to get to the bottom of the murders for career purposes along with the more personal ones. She makes sure that her colleague Mike Pierce (Hans Reiser) knows that her byline will be bigger than his, and she goes about the film like it should be. At some points it seems like she is a suspect–even though the perpetrator had a deep, manly voice in earlier scenes–while at other times she is sleuthing around like a regular krimi detective.

Karin Dor is one of the more prominent women to appear in the krimi cycle, and this most likely had something to do with her marriage to Harry Reinl, who directed many of the films. They collaborated on a number of projects including The Forger of London (1961), The Carpet of Horror (1962), The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962), and Room 13 (1964). In the late 60s, she worked internationally, most memorably as the Bond girl Helga Brandt in You Only Live Twice (1967), and in Alfred Hitchcock’s late picture Topaz (1969).

As Claridge in Blackmoor, Dor does quite well in narrowing down the case before being eclipsed by detective Cliff Mitchell (Harry Riebauer), who becomes the focus of the last third of the film. Claridge regresses into a damsel in distress, while Mitchell becomes the more active character. At the beginning of the film, Claridge’s dominance creates some speculation as to whether the lead inspector is himself possibly the perpetrator, a notion that does not happen too often in krimis, since this figure is usually in separate places from the killings as they occur. The film becomes one of those strange, undulating narratives in which identifying the protagonist becomes difficult. Is it Uncle Lucius? Claridge? Mitchell? Either way, Anthony (Dieter Eppler) the diamond-cutting butler does a lot of leering. Confusion over the protagonist does not make it a bad film per se, but rather just an odd story that becomes hard to follow–something that often works to a mystery thriller’s advantage.

The film has a great, spooky, electronic soundtrack that adds an element that was uncommon for film scores of the time. A pioneer of electronic music, Oskar Sala played a trautonium, an instrument somewhere in between a piano and a synthesizer. Sala is noted as providing sonic talent to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which is confusing for a moment since that film notably has no musical score. The haunting, tension building bird sounds are what Sala contributed. In addition to The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle, he worked on many short films and television programs in Germany. Sala’s work can be considered something of a precursor to Wendy Carlos’ electronic music soundtracks that have since been immortalized in A Clockwork Orange (1972) and The Shining (1980).   

The husband and wife team of Reinl and Dor returned the following year for another Wallace krimi, Room 13, which is one of the more well thought out and psychological of the genre. I’ll return in the coming weeks and months with more on that, and more 60s, German crime goodness. 

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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