The Monkees' Micky Dolenz goes grindhouse in Joy N. Houck's odd take on racial intolerance with NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER, on DVD from Vinegar Syndrome.
Released under the titles IS THE FATHER BLACK ENOUGH?, DIRTY DAN, and THE ACE OF SPADES (in fact, the "He gets them all" tagline on the DVD cover art comes from this release) before arriving at its popular handle (despite the fact that there are absolutely no stranglings amidst the various other forms of murder demonstrated herein), NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER opens as Southern Belle turned Vassar undergrad Denise (Susan McCullough) rushes home to reveal to her domineering, "Southern bigot" lawyer brother Dan (James Ralston, THUNDER RUN) and more easy-going florist middle brother Vance (Dolenz) that she is pregnant with a black man's child and intends to marry him. The rift between Dan and Vance created when Dan seduced and proposed to his brother's "Daughters of the Confederacy" girlfriend Carol (Ann Barrett) while he was in Vietnam is torn asunder when Dan threatens to kill Denise and her lover if she does not have an abortion. Denise flees back to New York but her happiness is cut short when a hippie hitman (THE CHEERLEADERS' Patrick Wright) takes out her fiancé and then arrange her own suicide. Back in New Orleans, no sooner Father Jesse (Chuck Patterson, THE FIVE HEARTBEATS) returns to the fold after sewing some wild oats and take over his old parish than he is asked to intervene in the conflict between Dan and Vance before the former's wedding. Jesse learns from Vance that the rumors about Denise are indeed true, and that Vance – who has moved on romantically with schoolteacher Ann (Katie Tilley) – holds Dan responsible for her death. When Carol is killed by a deadly Asian snake hidden in a bouquet sent by Father Jesse, Dan feigns ignorance about any possible motive for the murder to investigating detective De Vivo (Michael Anthony, who looks like a taller Ron Jeremy) and his black partner Jim (Harold Sylvester, INNERSPACE) but swears vengeance on Vance at the funeral. Dan remains steadfast in his suspicions despite having accrued a number of other recent enemies, including fired longtime servant Willie (Warren Kenner, MIRRORS) and the New York hitman who he has not paid in the seventeen months since the deaths of Denise and her lover.
More (only slightly) polished than Houck's earlier but more widely seen NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR, NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is an odd duck of a thriller that chokes on its red herrings while boasting a contrived ending reveal that is simultaneously easy to guess yet surprising because the killer's motivations are just as bigoted as those expressed by the primary target. The methods of murder include the aforementioned snake, as well as curare-tipped arrows, sniper rifles carried in guitar cases, and a few razors and knives with nary of drop of blood spilled. While it is nice to finally see this film after being unavailable for so long, it makes one wish for new transfers of Houck's NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR, THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE or, better yet, a video transfer of the irresistibly titled WOMEN AND BLOODY TERROR period. Houck Jr. owned a number of theaters in the South and, in conjunction with fellow theater owners Ron Ormond (MESA OF LOST WOMEN) and Francis J. White, formed Howco International as a means of producing product for their venues. Perhaps because the film was intended primarily for Southern audiences, the film does not dwell too much on the atmosphere of the New Orleans setting in the manner of Hollywood films. Fans of THE MONKEES may be surprised to hear Dolenz swearing and cuddling up with nude actresses, and he would appear a few years later in the R-rated LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT and the pot comedy KEEP OFF MY GRASS! The cast also includes Stocker Fontelieu, an actor whose many Louisiana-lensed credits also include MANDINGO, Brian De Palma's OBSESSION, PRETTY BABY, CAT PEOPLE, and ANGEL HEART.
Released on VHS by Paragon – presumably the source of Synergy's unauthorized disc – NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER comes to Vinegar Syndrome in a progressive, anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer from an American Genre Film Archive print that is in much better condition than the source they provided for SUPERSOUL BROTHER. Detail is good when the image is in focus, it looks like the cinematographer either had no focus puller in some shots where the camera or the actors had to move outside of the limited depth of field in the night exteriors and interiors. The original shooting and perhaps some muddy processing result in a grainy and harshly contrasted picture that might have either been blown-up from 16mm or shot on reversal film, but it must be the preferred viewing option over the Paragon tape (if their tape of NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR is anything to go by). The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is in fair condition, with the dialogue and music of Jim Helms (THE PSYCHO LOVER) rendered cleanly enough (although some buzz during some of the scenes at Dan's stately home might have been recorded on the set. There are no extras. (Eric Cotenas)
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