The Strange Door
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // $29.95 // April 23, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 3, 2019
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The big surge of Hollywood-made horror movies of the 1940s came to an abrupt full stop in late 1945 and early 1946. Overnight, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula and other gothic stalwarts vanished, except in Abbott & Costello's low-brow comedies. There would be no more Universal horrors, no more atmospheric fright films from RKO producer Val Lewton. Even Poverty Row companies like Monogram and PRC stopped making them. By the early ‘50s, new kinds of horror emerged: science fiction movies incorporating horror elements, movies about the threats posed by nuclear weapons, radiation, and - gasp! - Communist spies. Old-style horror had become passé.

One of the reasons for this is that studios like Universal were trying to get out of the B-picture business. When Universal became Universal-International in 1946, for several years they stepped up their game, producing and/or distributing classier, more expensive movies, culminating with their release of Laurence Olivier's film of Hamlet (1948). But the studio's low-brow fare, the Abbott & Costellos, the Ma & Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule movies remained Universal's bread and butter. Eventually, they dipped their toes back into the horror movie market they once so dominated.

But they did so cautiously. The Strange Door (1951) just barely qualifies as a horror film, it being more a historical melodrama with film noir elements. The following year's The Black Castle is a bit more luridly entertaining, but both are pretty tepid, if handsomely made.

But because both of those films feature Boris Karloff, the completest drive of most horror fans draw them to these films, however minor.

In 17th century France, gleefully evil aristocrat Sire Alan de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) engineers a plot in which drunken rogue Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) is forced into hiding at Maletroit's castle, locked behind the strange door of the title which has no inside handle. The lord of the manor announces that Denis will be forced to marry Maletroit's young and attractive niece, Blanche (Sally Forrest).

It's all part of an elaborate, sadistic plot by Maletroit against his brother (and Blanche's father), Edmond (Paul Cavanaugh), secretly locked away for decades in the castle dungeon, looked after by servant Voltan (Karloff). Maletroit's years-in-the-making scheme begins to unravel, however, when a) Denis turns out not to be a fey rapscallion but rather a titled gentleman; that b) Denis and Blanche, in fact, really do fall in love; and, c) Edmond, long assumed to have been driven insane by his years of confinement actually has all his wits and with Volton's help prepares to undo Maletroit's many injustices.

Though prominently featured in the advertising, Karloff's role is almost depressingly minor, with Laughton in the far showier leading part. After 1947, Karloff's movie work pretty much dried up, despite being part of the (misnomer) title in 1949's Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. The Strange Door was his first movie in two years, and he worked in that medium sporadically during the ‘50s, preferring the stage and live television drama, which he found more personally rewarding.

Laughton fared a bit better, but both a pretty much slumming, with Karloff on autopilot, delivering the type of performance that was expected of him, and Laughton hamming it up, nearly spoofing his acclaimed early film of Henry VIII much like he would send up his Captain Bligh in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd the following year. And while the plot hinges on heterosexual jealously, as audio commentator Tom Weaver notes, there's a strange gay subtext to the film, exemplified by Laughton's mincing playing, and the fact that, like Laughton, two of the actors playing his co-conspirators, William Cottrell and Morgan Farley, were also gay men.

Richard Stapley (aka Richard Wyler) is about the most colorless British important imaginable, a veritable hole on the screen. Rather, what little life The Strange Door offers comes from the supporting cast, some like Cavanaugh and Alan Napier (as an ally of Denis's) a familiar presence from Universal's earlier mystery and horror films, and Australian Michael Pate (another henchman), then near the beginning of his long career.

Actor-turned-director Joseph Pevney does an adequate job, and the art department make the castle appropriately moody but the entire picture has a generic, disinterested air that fails to generate any excitement at all until its reasonably tense climax.

Video & Audio

Kino's Blu-ray of The Strange Door, licensed from Universal, looks pretty good, not great, and presumably derived from the earlier high-def master when the film was released to DVD. The mono audio (DTS-HD 2.0) is adequate. Optional English subtitles are included.

Extra Features

Far better than the movie itself is the reliably excellent audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, aided and abetted by Dr. Robert J. Kiss and David Schecter, offering exhaustive but never exhausting detail on the film's source (Robert Louis Stevenson's novel), the production history, cast biographies, musical score, release and reception. For genre films these guys have, along with Tim Lucas, set the Gold Standard for such things, and making this a far more desirable purchase than the disc would be without them.

Parting Thoughts

The Strange Door isn't much, but the aforementioned commentary track make this a must for genre fans and, for them at least, it's Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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