Having been balls deep in black horror for a number of years, it’s always fascinating to come across a film of significance that’s been hidden in plain sight for so long. Nothing about the generically titled Night of the Strangler and its lily white poster screams blackness (and what it DOES scream — a serial strangler — is inaccurate, given there’s nary a strangulation in the entire film), but lo and behold, it ends up having one of the most substantial black presences in a non-black horror movie of the Blaxploitation era.
The story begins whitely enough, with Southern belle Denise (Susan McCullough) returning to her New Orleans home from Vassar to announce to her older brothers, liberal-minded* Vance (Micky Dolenz, fresh off the Monkees breakup) and old school racist Dan (James Ralston), that A) she’s dropping out of school, B) she’s getting married, C) she’s pregnant and D) the baby daddy is BLACK.
*Southern liberal = probably not a Klansman
Cartoonishly evil Dan, who’s acted like the de facto father after their parents died (presumably, since the script doesn’t seem to care enough to explain where they are), loses his shit, demanding that Denise get an abortion and threatening to kill her fiance if she sees him again. Of course, she runs back to her lover in New York, and when they inexplicably decide to picnic in the middle of a winter snow bank, he’s shot dead by a sniper. She’s then drowned in her bathtub by a mysterious figure whose peace symbol belt buckle makes it clear he’s a murderer who enjoys a sense of irony.
Fast forward a year or so, and back in New Orleans, black priest Father Jessie (Chuck Patterson) returns to his hometown parish from a stint at a monastery and is asked to help with the rift between his old friends Vance and Dan, which has grown since Denise’s “suicide.” It doesn’t help that Dan is marrying Vance’s ex-girlfriend, Carol (Ann Barrett). When Vance confronts his brother before the wedding, Father Jessie has to physically break up the fight. Dan’s reflexive racism kicks in, and he calls the priest the N-word, allowing Jessie his Mr. Tibbs moment: “I may be a nigger, but this is the Lord’s house and no man, black or white, is going to defame it!”
Later, the movie fulfills its “nigger” quota when Father Jessie gets deep into racial politics with Vance: “I get it from both sides,” he says. “For some whites, I’m a ‘good nigger’. The only difference between a good nigger and a nigger is the word ‘good’. But for some blacks, I’m an Uncle Tom nigger. Believe me, it’s all the same thing. Nigger’s an ugly word, but it is, after all, only a word.” As this wokeness shows, the plot gets bogged down in talky sociopolitical discourse for stretches, which is admirably high-minded for a movie called Night of the Strangler, but it’s also not particularly thrilling.
EVENTUALLY, the white people begin to get bumped off — first Carol, then Vance’s new girlfriend Ann (Katie Tilley) — by a mysterious figure who utilizes a variety of lethal methods…none being strangulation. Along the way, a pair of local homicide detectives — one black (Harold Sylvester, later of Married with Children fame), one white, both mustached — pick up the case, providing even more opportunity for racial commentary, albeit on a more lighthearted, “You honkies are crazy” level.
The killer uses the animosity between the brothers to get them to suspect — and eventually kill — each other. As Vance lies dead from a gunshot and Dan lies dying from a knife wound, in walks the killer…FATHER MFIN’ JESSIE. He reveals that he’s actually Jessie’s twin brother, Jake, and that Jessie was the one who knocked up Denise. When Jake found out that Jessie had been killed because of his relationship with her (Dan hired the sniper), he vowed revenge, cold-bloodedly killing Denise and then posing as Jessie to go after her family. He gloats to Dan as he relates the details, capping it off with, “This jive-ass nigger got you all!”
It’s a great reveal, a mic drop moment where the movie SHOULD’VE ended. But alas, I suppose a black man getting away with murdering three innocent white women wasn’t a good look, even in the Blaxploitation era, so they tacked on an ending where bootleg Riggs and Murtaugh solve the case and (presumably) arrest Jake in a goofy, almost comedic manner that undercuts the power of the climactic revelation. It’s indicative of the schlocky nature of the production, although this is still the best effort of B-movie director Joy Houck Jr.’s career (best known — or not known — for Creature from Black Lake).
Despite its faults, Night of the Strangler presents a rare, refreshing instance of a black character being unmasked as the killer in a mainstream (non-black) horror/thriller whodunit. Some might argue that cinematic representations of black criminality are nothing to celebrate, but in horror, the killer occupies an esteemed position, and in this film in particular, Jake’s ingenuity in crafting booby trap kills and cunning in manipulating his victims’ dysfunctional family dynamics are worthy of genre-based respect.
Fun Titular Facts:
It should be noted that the misnomered title has a long and involved history that reveals the array of ways in which a movie can be marketed to different segments of society. Apparently, the original title was The Ace of Spades–which, racial epithet aside, is truer to the actual film than Night of the Strangler. It appears, though, that it wasn’t actually released under this name, despite this artwork:
Instead, it went through a series of even more inexplicable titles. First, upon its release in 1972, there was Dirty Dan and//or Dirty Dan’s Women, which positioned it as some sort of Caucasian sex romp centered for some reason around around Dan the racist, who’s involved with only one “woman” in the film and is an odd choice to anchor a movie, given he spouts lines like “No nigger is a man, much less a man of God!”
Another ad at least tries to play up the horror angle, merging the Ace of Spades artwork with the Dirty Dan’s Women moniker:
Then, in 1973, after poor box office returns and seeing the explosive success of Blaxploitation, the film returned to the racial angle of Ace of Spades, doubling down with an over-the-top Blaxploitation spin, including a title that sounds like a Maury Povich episode — Is the Father Black Enough? — and an even more inflammatory tagline: “A racist wind blows the dust from a Black man’s grave to choke the honkies to death!!!” (Three exclamation points!!!)
(This, of course, begs the question of how wind can be racist, and if it IS racist, why it would blow dust OFF of a black man’s grave — essentially cleaning it — much less why it would then blow said dust into the mouths of honkies.)
Eventually, the producers settled on the generic (white) horror title Night of the Strangler (note Patterson’s name doesn’t even appear on the poster) and packaged it as part a triple bill with director Joy Houck’s other two films, Night of Blood Horror and Women and Bloody Terror. It wasn’t until years later, when it hit VHS, that the movie received perhaps its most representative (and understated) name — Vengeance Is Mine — and artwork:
These both worked because, despite its taboo themes and violence, Night of the Strangler/Ace of Spades/Dirty Dan’s Women/Vengeance Is Mine isn’t the sleazy exploitation its posters promised. It’s more of a whodunit wrapped around earnest, if awkward, attempts to address racism.