Release Date(s)1951 (April 23, 2019)
Studio(s)Universal International Pictures/Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The Strange Door is a costume picture with elements of horror – a powerful madman, a huge gothic mansion, a dungeon filled with torture equipment, and a servant with suspicious loyalties. Made by Universal in 1951, years after the studio’s monster vogue had passed, the movie is a low-budget attempt to move in a new direction while hanging onto the genre’s successful traditions.
Set in 18th century France, The Strange Door revolves around the plan of Sire Alain de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) to marry his niece Blanche (Sally Forrest) to wandering scoundrel Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Shipley). Years earlier, de Maletroit loved a woman who married his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) instead. This woman died giving birth to Blanche, and de Malatroit wants vengeance. He imprisoned Edmond in the dungeon shortly after the birth. Now that Blanche is of age, he intends to complete the last stage of his plan – forcing her to marry a rascal and be miserable for the rest of her life. The Sire’s plans are derailed when Denis and Blanche actually do fall in love.
Lurking around the castle is Voltan (Boris Karloff), the Sire’s servant who appears about 20 minutes into the film and intermittently after that until the end, when he becomes crucial in the film’s climactic scene.
The screenplay by Jerry Sackheim, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a potboiler elevated by the florid presence of Charles Laughton in the lead. If ever an actor chewed up the scenery, it’s Laughton in this film. With quirky line readings, odd posturing, effete mannerisms, and broad acting, he dominates the film. It seems as if he’s intentionally undermining the movie because he feels it’s dumb. And maybe he is. Nevertheless, he’s fun to watch, and easily overshadows the rest of the cast, including Karloff, who has a much smaller role. This was the first screen pairing of Laughton and Karloff since 1932’s The Old Dark House. Ms. Forrest and Mr. Stapley lack charisma and deliver their lines like automatons. Their love scenes are awkward and unconvincing.
For a low-budget picture, The Strange Door is quite atmospheric and has an appropriately sinister mood. This is due to Universal’s art department and years of making monster movies. At 81 minutes, the film seems rushed in places – scenes in which suspense could have been built gradually with tension mounting. Instead, director Joseph Pevney flits from one scene to the next to maintain a brisk pace at the expense of texture and nuance.
The Unrated black-and-white Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Picture quality is good, considering the age of the film. Shadows are deep and rich, with nicely defined gradations. There are no dirt specs, scratches, or other print imperfections. Lighting plays a significant role in creating atmosphere, particularly in the scene in which Denis approaches de Malatroit’s castle and sequences in the corridors and cells of the dungeon. An early scene in a Parisian tavern is filled with extras drinking and carousing. A layer of smoke creates a haze. Costumes are ho-hum studio wardrobe department issue with the exception of Laughton’s get-ups of satin, lace, and other fine fabrics that lend the actor – along with his peculiar posturings – a campy appearance.
The English mono DTS-HD soundtrack is typical of Universal programmers of the period. Most of the score is by composer Hans Salter, with bits and pieces from several other scores, some from the studio’s previous horror pictures. The music is used sparingly, allowing the dialogue to dominate. All actors can be heard clearly, even Laughton, who often provides odd line readings and trails off when he speaks. Sound mixing is first-rate, and is most noticeable in a climactic scene in which various characters are in peril. Voices, sound effects, and music are blended to maximize dramatic impact. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and a series of theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historians Tom Weaver, David Schecter, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss begin by referring to Universal as the studio that became known as the “House of Horror.” The 1951 movie was based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story. Though there’s no reference in the script to de Malatroit being gay, Laughton’s mannerisms and looks suggest it. Laughton’s salary was $25,000, considerably less than he had received for earlier pictures. “The approach of Laughton was to make the absurd script more absurd.” Laughton didn’t think overacting was bad if it was authentic. Richard Stapleys’ stunts, such as swinging from a chandelier, are reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling in silent films. Laughton gave Stapley a hard time on the set. An overview is provided of Stapley’s career. Though it never got off the ground, he co-authored with Gloria Swanson and another writer Starring Norma Desmond, a musical based on Swanson’s Sunset Boulevard, decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber tackled the project. Sally Forrest started as a dancer at MGM and later became a dancing coach there. She starred as an unwed mother in Not Wanted and returned to MGM as an actress. She worked on the stage and on TV. There are 54 music cues, which combine a score by Hans Salter with sections from She-Wolf of London and The Wolfman. Weaver compares The Strange Door to Universal’s The Raven, made 16 years earlier. Plot elements are similar. Boris Karloff stars as a servant of a madman in both, and both feature devices of torture, including walls that close in on their victims. The Strange Door received a staggered release from late 1951 to August, 1952. Preview audiences gave the film high ratings. Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife, comments in an audio clip that Laughton believed his performance in the film was a triumph. Actors provide recreations of comments from cast members.
Trailers – Five theatrical trailers are included, two featuring Charles Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution, The Paradine Case), two with Boris Karloff (Black Sabbath, The Crimson Cult), and Joan Crawford (Female on the Beach).
– Dennis Seuling