Dir. Paul Vecchiali (1970)
A man murders unhappy women in what he believes to be mercy killings, but a detective is hot on his heels.
Giallo is an acquired taste. The genre as a whole is entirely foreign to most Americans, and even some who are more versed in horror find the films within giallo difficult to parse and even harder to enjoy. It's a genre that is based on horror aspects of crime, often involving convoluted storylines and supernatural elements that don't seem to fit with their slasher-esque premises. For me, in my pursuit of a deeper understanding of horror and its history, giallo was the hardest subgenre to truly get into, but once I was able to clear the hurdles of overcoming its potential negatives, I found a wildly rewarding category of films that encompass some of the most legendary foreign horror movies ever made. This film may not be included in that list, but it's a certifiable giallo that just so happens to be one of the very few that were made during the golden age of the genre in a country other than Italy.
The Strangler is a French film from director Paul Vecchiali from smack-dab in the middle of when gialli were the most popular genre in the region. As much inspired by French arthouse cinema as Italian gialli, the film follows a young man named Émile (Jacques Perrin) who has been killing women who are depressed. Viewing his actions as mercy killings on the unfortunate women, he calls a "psychologist" named Simon Dangret (Julien Guiomar) who made a televised plea to him in an effort to stop the deaths. Dangret is secretly a policeman, looking to take down Émile with his cat and mouse games before another body drops. With the help of a young woman named Anna (Eva Simonet) who has offered to be a lure for the killer, Dangret manages to make contact with Émile and become part of the killer's own game.
Vecchiali crafts a film that is visually interesting while strictly adhering to the crime aspects of the giallo genre from which is borrows. Much of the film feels like a watered-down example of the Italian staple, however: there's very little sex (save one ill-advised and bawdy rape scene), the actions are all in the open from the start, and the film shies away from the metaphysical in favor of a more realistic portrayal of a serial killer. There's almost zero gore (except the dream sequence with the aforementioned rape scene), with this killer favoring strangulation by scarf in a way that's almost beautiful in its simplicity. There's a method to his madness, to the point where the audience is forced to question whether it is madness that drives him at all.
The actors do a fine enough job in their roles, especially Perrin and Simonet as killer and victim respectively. Guiomar is the prototypical policeman, a role that feels very similar to Dennis Franz' character in NYPD Blue, and as such feels a bit rote and not particularly interesting. Don't get me wrong, Guiomar is, like his costars, fine, but there's nothing particularly impressive about his performance. Because The Strangler differs so much from its genre forefathers, it never really transcends anything other than what is put on screen. Thankfully, that isn't in and of itself a bad thing.
The real star of the show is the artistic direction, the attempt by Vecchiali to create an arthouse giallo in a different European country. The color palette, especially in the flashback scenes and dream sequences from the killer, are interesting and flat-out gorgeous at times. The insistence on its independence from the larger giallo movement is also an interesting choice. It's a ballsy move, and it's not one that particularly bears fruit. Despite the outward appearances of the genre, gialli utilizes simplicity to excuse its larger, supernaturally-infused leaps of logic. The Strangler lacks these interesting and often-dated tropes and often becomes more boring than it perhaps should be.
The Strangler can't ever decide what it really wants to be: is it slightly pretentious painting-on-screen, or is it a proto-slasher? Crime story, or romantic cop drama? One of the things that has always struck me about gialli is that they don't seem too terribly difficult to make. The stories are simplistic and bizarre, without too many coherent threads that are worth unravelling, and they tend to give the audience what it wants in the way of sex and violence without any pretension or preface. It's easy to see a movie by one of the masters, like Bava or Argento, and feel like you, too, could've made a movie like that once upon a time. The Strangler shows that that may not actually be the case, and that the giallo filmmaking process is a lot harder than it looks.
Who this movie is for: Giallo fans, French crime drama fans, Scarf salesmen
Bottom line: The Strangler doesn't quite scratch the giallo itch, but it is a worthwhile effort nonetheless. It's a good looking film, and it's one that occupies a fascinating place in the history of the genre as an incredible rarity that departs from the genre's home country. The new 2k restoration of the film is excellently done by Altered Innocence, and the film will be opening in American theaters for the first time in its history this month. It will also no doubt be getting a physical release from the boutique company as well. If you're a fan of the genre, and you're interesting to overlook some flaws, this is definitely one you'll want to check out.