The Boston Strangler

When we grow up I think there is a repertoire of films, music, television shows and other pop-cultural phenomena that occured before our birth, or during our infancy, that nevertheless had a great influence on us through its impact on our parents. There are certain things I remember as being enormously important in the cultural makeup of our family that I couldn't possibly have consumed or understood myself. For me those things include movies such as A Clockwork Orange (which came out when I was 1)and Ode to Billy Joe (which my poor father still isn't willing to believe is all about homosexuality); the music of The Beach Boys and Peter Paul and Mary; and books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Portnoy's Complaint.
One of the films I always recall the adults discussing was The Boston Strangler. Among my parents' circle it was acclaimed as a fine film, uniquely terrifying and somehow definitively modern.
It's taken me until now to get around to actually watching it, and what a peculiar little film it turned out to be. No wonder it had such an impact on a generation.
Of course, it's almost impossible to get past its "look" - its laughable (but wonderfully hip) split-screen effects, and its grim vision of the seedier parts of Boston. Then there is the film's peculiar obsession with homosexuality - homosexual references and characters pop up several times in the film. Vito Russo cited the film as one of the first to realistically (and sympathetically) depict the vulnerable position of queers in a hostile society. It is all part of the veneer of pseudo-psychological sophistication that ultimately spoils the film, providing the premise for the ludicrous ending in which the vicious mass-murderer is exposed as a sad victim of society.
Despite the silly, and deeply unsatisfying, ending, the rest of the film is a polished thriller, quite violent and at times tastelessly titillating. Somehow one can never really suspend disbelief and go with the fact that the really quite handsome Tony Curtis is a violent brute, and Henry Fonda plods along wishing it were still the 1940s.
But it's slick and engaging, and if you're anything like me you will spend hours on the net afterward researching the real story of the Strangler. I recommend you watch it and spend a nostalgic evening immersed in the swinging - and slightly scary - 60s.


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