While the 30s and 40s were dominated by the villainous portrayals of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Jr., Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill and others, occasionally a strong female antagonist would peek out from behind the blood stained curtains. While Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Captive Wild Woman (1944) are prime examples of this, Republic Pictures’ little known Strangers in the Night (1944), released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films in 2013, features both a very strong female lead and a truly disturbing dowager femme at the heart of this shadowy production’s mysterious and deadly doings.
Sgt. Johnny Meadows, an injured marine, travels to a small seaside town to meet his female pen pal. Though they have never met, the two have fallen in love and are destined to marry. Of course, Johnny happens to encounter Leslie, the town’s beautiful young doctor, on the train ride in and his attraction to her, coupled with the fact that his never seen sweetheart is mysteriously missing, soon has him switching his affections. Of course, Hilda, his pen pal’s mother, who keeps on insisting her daughter will arrive shortly, is not too happy with this. Seemingly possessed by the enormous living room portrait of her daughter, Hilda eventually succumbs to her darker impulses and it seems, no one, not even her devoted companion Ivy, will escape from her homicidal wraith.
As this film whispers with shades of such classics as Rebecca (1940) and Laura (1944), director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Reggie Lanning nicely fill it with moody noir lighting and establish Hilda’s cliff top mansion as a haunting presence unto itself. Their work is truly exemplified, though, by the fine portrayals of Virginia Grey, as Leslie, and Helen Thimig, who truly radiates with a glowering sense of madness as Hilda. With simple majesty, Thimig makes this proud woman, crippled both emotionally and physically, one of the most intense presences of those early exploitation years.
Granted, the mystery surrounding Hilda’s daughter can only be resolved in a number of ways, yet the trio of writers (Philip MacDonald, Bryant Ford, Paul Gangelin) do surprise those expecting a more deadly offering with their resolution. They, nicely, also give Grey’s Leslie plenty to do. She is both humble, recognizing that her position is rare for the time, and determined in her vocation. While annoyed with Hilda’s interference, she is also exceedingly kind. Grey, brightly, handles all these facets and is particularly poignant when discovering that Johnny is, initially, claimed by another.
The lovely Grey, best known to terror freaks for her role opposite cult icon Rondo Hatton in House of Horrors, also, appeared in numerous other cult titles such as Who Killed Doc Robbin and Unknown Island. But, Strangers in the Night, also, contains an interesting, round-about connection to horror via the presence of Edith Barrett. Barrett, who brings a leveled humor and hesitancy to the nervous Ivy, was the first wife of the legendary Vincent Price. According to published reports, in real life, Barrett, an esteemed stage actress, was actually a combination of the jittery Ivy and the deluded Hilda, but here she is quietly luminous, rivaling the performances of Grey and Thimig for attention.
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!