There’s a killer on the loose in smalltown Hungary. The sicko is abducting young women, strangling them and having it off with their corpses. Árpád Sopsits’ psycho-thriller Strangled is flawed, but still a gripping film with handsome production values.
The theme of monstrous deviancy in a time of socialist conformity is a fascinating one. The authorities are in complete denial that a lust-murderer – ‘serial killer’ wasn’t coined until the late 1970s – is killing and raping women in the village of Martfü, a place dominated by a monolithic shoe factory which employs almost everybody in town. The serial killer figure is used allegorically, too, by director Sopsits. Set in the post-1956 uprising period, where demands for change and demonstrations against Soviet policies were thoroughly quashed, but certain reforms slowly introduced, the maniac is marching to his own drum, acting on his extreme sexual impulses, exercising what is a form of total freedom in a totalitarian environment.
For the authorities of the state, this perverted sense of individualism is anathema. Only the state believes it has the authority and power to execute, as it does in the end, when the hangman’s noose is firmly tightened around the captured killer’s neck. While shooting for the moon, with a captivating real-life murder case and potent themes to draw upon, Strangled occasionally misfires. The killer stalking his victims is played out often like a standard-issue slasher movie complete with Halloween-style music. This just feels dead wrong, especially when Sopsits shows us the maniac getting jiggy with a murder victim, inviting us to witness his erotic emotions, watching his face as he comes in his trousers, or as in the final murder sequence, cutting off a woman’s breasts.
The lingering on misogynistic violence and mutilation feels exploitative and wallowing in baseness for the sake of gory thrills. That the lead up is straight out of an American mainstream horror flick is aesthetically problematic, the director wanting to be a Costa-Gavras and a John Carpenter. Would Strangled have worked better as a longer movie or mini-series? It sure does attempt to cover a lot of ground in two hours, following three separate narratives that ultimately converge in the final act. There’s the man banged up for a crime he didn’t commit, Réti (Gabor Jaszberenyi), the factory worker and killer (brilliantly played by a smirking Hadjuk Karoly) and the young whipper-snapper DA (Peter Barnai) appalled at the lack of standards in rural police investigation.
As it reaches a denouement, however, the plot begins to rely too much on melodrama, a quickened pace and exposition (the killer explaining his first murder in detail to the investigating officer, though he doesn’t end it with “And I would have gotten away with it, if not for you meddlin’ kids!”). Strangled is a solid crime saga, benefitting from atmospheric cinematography by Gabor Szabo (the night-time scenes and lighting is vividly eerie) and a historic backdrop where the murders reverberate into the political arena of the era.