“The Strange Door” (1951)
by A.J. Hakari
1951’s The Strange Door hails from a rarely-recounted chapter of Universal Horror. Released alongside the studio’s well-documented monster movies were titles like The Black Castle and Tower of London, period pieces that drew from historical events and even classic literature to offer a different sort of thrill. These films didn’t possess the marketable creatures of their more popular brothers, and they didn’t always properly utilize the classic horror stars upon whose backs Universal crafted its frightful reputation. Still, such works retained their suspense all the same and featured better-than-average production value, inspiring Roger Corman to be a bit more extravagant with his own Poe adaptations in the ’60s. The Strange Door (based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson) is in the same boat, placing greater emphasis on elements of romance and costume drama than of blood-curdling terror, though it remains a perfectly gripping experience through and through. Not only does the film use its medieval setting to its atmospheric advantage, it also serves up a pair of sympathetic leads and a series of ordeals both physical and psychological that we’re actively rooting for them to escape.
By all appearances, Denis (Richard Stapley) is a consummate scoundrel. At any given time, he can be found at the bottom of a bottle, picking fights and flirting with tavern wenches if he isn’t passed out drunk. In other words, he’s the ideal candidate for a devious plot that the Sire de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) has been cooking up for two decades. As payback for stealing the woman he loved, Maletroit has imprisoned his brother (Paul Cavanagh) and assumed guardianship of his niece, Blanche (Sally Forrest). For the final step in his plan, this deranged nobleman aims to ruin Blanche’s life by marrying her off to the most loathsome rogue he can find — which is where Denis comes in. But unbeknownst to the Sire, the lad is a fairly upstanding fellow once he sobers up, as he soon warms up to his bride-to-be and goes about helping her find a means of fleeing her uncle’s house of horrors. However, with only the help of loyal servant Voltan (Boris Karloff) to depend upon, this is easier said than done, as Maletroit has invested too much into seeing his scheme come to fruition for a couple of lovestruck kids to bring the whole thing crashing down.
For a Universal Horror nut like myself, watching The Strange Door is fairly bittersweet. As with other production houses of the era, the studio’s swelling science fiction slate took over the monster trade, with special effects wizardry supplanting iconic actors as the new genre draw. This development saw the likes of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. unflatteringly cast in hokey horror shows, and while Karloff exhibits as much effort as he can under the circumstances, the thankless role that The Strange Door saddles him with is a waste of his talent. Romance is the undisputed center of attention this time around, so fright fans needn’t expect very many Middle Age torture devices and whatnot cluttering the set. On the other hand, this means that an aspect of the story that more maliciously-minded movies would begrudgingly include for posterity gets promoted to the forefront. The relationship between Denis and Blanche isn’t as muted as such a plot thread usually would be in horror flicks, with the characters allowed to make a connection that’s integrated into the narrative, rather than be around just so teenagers can have some down time to neck during. While part of me would love to have seen Karloff have more to do, it’s an acceptable sacrifice, if the focus is instead trained on better acquainting the viewer with leads whom they actually want to survive through to the final credits.
But The Strange Door‘s greatest coup is in casting such an immensely charismatic performer as the baddie, we couldn’t care less about the absence of some creature that can have the hell merchandised out of it. Laughton’s excursions into horror were few (his most notable being 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), but when he made the trip, you could count on it being a memorable occasion. His performance as Maletroit here is no exception, as the man pitches in as gleefully evil of a turn as one could hope for. He oozes sliminess and contempt out of every pore, bringing the character to life with a potent blend of menace, dark comedy, and just the slightest glimpse at the human he once was before all those years of conniving did a number on him. The Sire comes across as just the sort of threat the story needed, and while Stapley and Forrest’s acting can’t help but feel a touch vanilla in comparison, you really do feel for Blanche and Denis as they work to get out of their plight. The supporting cast is rounded out by such faces as Cavanagh (whose character feigns insanity in order to survive the Sire’s wrath), William Cottrell as one of Maletroit’s servants, and Alan Napier as a man from Denis’ past recruited to save the young lovers. Also, while the movie’s production design isn’t precisely lavish, it’s far from cheap and suits just fine in supplying Laughton’s antagonist with a claustrophobic domain.
It’s understandable if someone feels let down by The Strange Door, but it’s nowhere near as disposable as you might assume. While certain elements of the film may not work as well as they have before in similar stories, others are glad to pick up the slack, resulting in a vehicle that aims to satisfy audiences one way or another. Its edge may not be as diabolical as particular tastes wish it to be, but The Strange Door nevertheless pulls through as an appealingly ominous little ditty.