DVD Review: Vintage Universal Horror with Karloff in ‘The Strange Door’

Posted on February 10, 2011 by Ben No Comments

The Strange Door (1951)
Distributor: Odeon Entertainment
DVD Release Date (UK): 28th February 2011
Directed by: Joseph Pevney
Starring: Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Sally Forest
Review by: Keri O’Shea

Another lesser-known Karloff Universal movie here in The Strange Door; this one is based loosely on the minor Robert Louis Stevenson story The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, only with added dungeons… hey, this is a Universal horror after all.

Three men in a tavern (including the eponymous Charles Laughton as Alain de Maletroit) carefully observe a carousing, brawling, womanising noble by the name of Dennis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) who, it seems, fits some scheme of theirs perfectly. He has been set up, and, when he adds murder to his retinue after winning a duel, he is pursued out of town in the direction of Paris. Before his enemies can catch him he takes shelter in a remote chateau – and hides himself behind a heavy oak door. He’s safe – or so he thinks.

However, when he tries to leave the way he came, he cannot escape. Beaulieu instead begins to explore the mysterious property and encounters, amongst the grandeur, the enigmatic Sire de Maletroit himself. Maletroit is quick to make his intentions clear: Beaulieu must immediately marry his niece, Blanche, and enjoy all the money, comfort and protection which go along with this, or he will remain a prisoner. Understandably a bit piqued to find himself involved in an arranged marriage at the end of an already trying evening, Beaulieu realises that the depth of the intrigue surrounding him is only just starting to become clear.

Where the film version majorly departs from the short story (apart from being set around 300 years later) is by the inclusion of Karloff’s character, Voltan. Voltan is a servant whose chief responsibility – naturally – lies in taking care of the chateau’s dungeons and looking after the prisoners kept there. He’s also a loyal old retainer of the first Sire de Maletroit, Alain’s brother, and fiercely protective of Blanche.

As events unfold, it seems that this sham marriage is part of a long scheme of family revenge perpetrated by Alain de Maletroit: Dennis, roused to a sense of honour by Blanche’s plight, makes it his business to oppose Maletroit. Slow, labyrinthine plotting finally gives way to a properly Gothic-styled conclusion…

There are some strong – albeit stagey – performances here, with a special mention for Laughton, who manages to communicate the ingratiating nastiness of the original fictional character really well. Karloff too plays an interesting role here as a go-between of sorts, and he’s pivotal in the film’s conclusion  – although he’s sadly underused, and plays no more than a bit part, despite being a magnetic presence when he is on-screen.

The Strange Door is for the most part a rather gentle period drama, its plot is revealed slowly and its horror elements are concentrated largely in the last scenes. Judging by the poster art and lobby cards presented on the DVD, Universal were keen to play up the horror aspects of this film, even to the point of using scenes as illustrations which did not happen! And then, some horror elements are introduced into the plot and then barely used – like the infamous Maletroit torture chamber – so part of me wonders what sort of film this would have been had the horrible been ratcheted up a bit more. Ultimately, this is a complex story predicated on something quite simple: avenging oneself on a family member by getting one’s niece to marry a loser. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is wedding horror.

That said, The Strange Door is an atmospheric little rarity and an enjoyable Gothic melodrama: it’s not in the big league of Karloff’s horror career, but it’s diverting, if a tad slow. The print and sound quality here is good and the poster art is enjoyable, although I would quibble that charging £10 ($16 at the time of writing) for just the film and the gallery is a little steep. I’d be more likely to purchase this if it included a decent trailer reel or some additional material too.

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