Written by: Robert A. Stemmle, Bryan Edgar Wallace (novel)
Directed by: Edwin Zbonek
Starring: Hansjörg Felmy, Maria Perschy, and Dieter Borsche
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Girls menaced! A city terrorized! And the black hooded avengers strike again!
An overlooked stop on the route towards the splatter/slasher crescendo of the 1980s, the wave of German krimi films from the 60s is a distinct, cool little movement. Sprung from the lurid pages of Edgar Wallace’s murder mysteries, the genre is a precursor—or perhaps cousin—to the Italian giallo, at least if you want the most straightforward (and perhaps reductive) introduction. Unlike its Italian counterparts, however, it hasn’t quite gained as much popularity (or even notoriety) over the years: personally speaking, I’ve personally seen dozens of the former but only handful of the latter, so I was intrigued when the New Beverly happened to be screening a double feature during my vacation this year. I can’t imagine a better way to get acquainted with an unfamiliar genre than by sitting down in one of America’s best repertory houses for a couple of “rare Edgar Wallace thrillers.”
Headlining the twin bill was The Mad Executioners, a 1963 effort from Edwin Zbonek spins a mystery around a sinister cabal that holds its own kangaroo court in the bowels of London. Con artists, murderers, and thieves find themselves inexplicably abducted, tried, and judged before being sentenced to a swift death by hanging, their limp, dangling bodies left in conspicuous places. Scotland Yard—particularly lead investigator John Hillier (Hansjörg Felmy)—is baffled and frustrated, especially since the group manages to steal the exact same historical rope for its noose every time it holds court. Dissention grows in its ranks as it becomes likely that someone on the inside is aiding and abetting this rogue group of executioners.
Despite its deceptively straightforward premise, The Mad Executioners zigs and zags through an increasingly labyrinthine plot and various tones. The opening sequence sets a sinister, almost gothic mood: the camera captures a skull sitting in a decrepit, cobwebbed crypt before panning over to the group of black-masked hangmen. Only one speaks in a booming, ominous voice to read off a list of charges; he then turns to his fellow conspirators, who silently judge the bewildered defendant. There’s no doubt of their verdict or their punishment, which is repeated throughout the course of the film: guilty, to be immediately sentenced to death by hanging.
In this case, the camera lingers on the victim’s legs dangling from a bridge, still an unusually grisly image for this time period, only it’s couched in a vintage aesthetic. It almost feels like a couple of eras clashing together: there’s the fog-draped, somewhat stagey black-and-white murder mystery bumping up against wild, trashy pulp. A push-and-pull struggle emerges during the course of The Mad Executioners, a film that alternates between those sinister, bleak images and light-hearted, Old Dark House stuff. One minute, you’re watching Scotland Yard’s finest pull down another hanged body, the next you’re watching an almost playful dinner scene where Hillier yuks it up with his fiancée (Maria Perschy) and her old man, a now retired judge whose brutal reputation still precedes him. Hillier is also constantly badgered by eccentric private eye Gabby Pennypacker (Chris Howland), a sort of Fletch-like character who provides wacky comic relief (an aspect that is apparently typical of the krimi formula).
Inconsistencies of this sort will seem familiar to anyone who’s seen a giallo or two. It’s truly in this respect that the krimi is an obvious forbearer, as it blends macabre artistry with ludicrous plot twists. While The Mad Executioners isn’t as outwardly outlandish as some of its descendants, it doesn’t lack for a dizzying plot, especially once it veers off course into another subplot altogether: if a group of mysterious executioners weren’t enough, London has also been plagued by a rash of sex murders, with Hillier’s own sister being claimed as one of the early victims. Unfolding in conjunction with the main plot, this diversion adds another layer of sleaze and intrigue.
I love that the film doesn’t exactly bother to drop one plot in favor of the other, at least at first, so it’s certainly not lacking for incident nor plot. An awesome mid-movie fake-out—complete with a gripping cross-cutting sequence—only further muddies the waters about the titular executioners, and then the script promptly reminds you that, hey, there’s also a goddamn sex murderer lurking about, decapitating women. Better yet, the film unravels this mystery in most unexpected (but nonetheless awesome) fashion: when I settled in for The Mad Executioners, I had no idea it would take a hard turn towards a mad scientist scheme. Watching its script wedge all of these disparate parts is akin to watching someone jam incompatible puzzle pieces together, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t amusing.
Oddly, it does have the effect of almost drowning out the main plot surrounding the executioners—by the time we discover the ringleader (at literally the last minute), it feels like something of an afterthought. The sex murder stuff effectively upstages the main concern here, though I guess one could lob worse criticisms at a film. If nothing else, The Mad Executioners is consistently compelling in its relentless twists and turns: it’s the type of movie that flings a lot at its viewers in the hopes that something will stick between its gothic atmosphere, ghastly imagery, psychological intrigue, and ridiculous plot. Remarkably, it not only sticks but mostly coheres: like its titular band of vigilantes, The Mad Executioners attempts to bring order to a chaotic blend of murder, deception, and paranoia. It succeeds and then some--provided I can find the time, I'm eager to check out more krimi films in the future.
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