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Noble-born cad Denis (Stapley) has been tricked into a forced stay at the eerie manor of the Sire de Maletroit (Laughton), an evil madman who can't get over the death of his beloved, twenty years after she married his brother (Cavanagh) instead and subsequently passed away during childbirth. Maletroit is determined to have his revenge: the brother has been stowed away in the dungeon for two decades, while he's convinced his disreputable house guest will make a suitably hellish husband for his niece. As luck would have it, the young couple manage to fall in love, and with the help of manservant Voltan (Karloff), they try to make their escape, but not before a final confrontation with Maletroit in the dungeon's crushing deathtrap. Written by
Stephen Cooke <email@example.com>
Pedestrian horror brought to life by its two stars
There were many horror titles released by Universal around the 1940's and 50's which told short stories (usually adapted from literature) within a slim running time - routine B-movie fare bolstered by one of the many fantastic actors they had on their payroll. The Strange Door is one such example. It's a rather daft story, adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson short about a playboy high-born caught up in the sadistic plans of a sadistic lord. With a tacked-on romance, this is pretty pedestrian stuff for the most part. But when Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff are on screen, this timid horror comes alive.
Sire Alain de Maletroit (Laughton) and his cronies manipulate troublesome rake Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Wyler) into a mansion. While the front door opens from the outside, the inside contains no handle, trapping Denis within the strange castle. Alain explains to Denis that he intends for Denis to marry his lovely daughter Blanche (Sally Forrest). At first apprehensive, Denis meets and eventually falls in love with the delicate Blanche, infuriating the huge lord who naturally has an ulterior motive to his sweet-sounding deal. Alain has imprisoned and tortured his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) for the past 20 years, with the hope of making the poor man's daughter miserable as well. However, he doesn't anticipate Denis's redemptive qualities.
Laughton doesn't so much chew the scenery but swill it around his chubby cheeks. Whenever he is on screen, it is impossible to take your eyes from him. Alongside looking like he's having a ball, every gesture, eye movement and idiosyncratic ramble seem almost improvised, as if he knows how forgettable this movie is but wants to make damn sure you'll be entertained while you watch it. Karloff also brings wide-eyed sympathy to the faithful servant Voltan, a man tasked with the dirty job of watching over the prisoner but does all he can to help the poor man. Wyler is less impressive; a constantly wooden presence with a voice that almost hurts the ears. The film is formulaic and stretched, but is occasionally very entertaining and a must-see for fans of its two lead stars.
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