A speeding sedan races down a deserted road at night. Suddenly a package is thrown from the vehicle as it speeds away. The next morning two matronly women on bicycles notice the package on the side of the road and decide to investigate in case there is something of value inside. Eagerly opening the crudely tied box, they look inside and scream at the sight of a severed head. Thus begins the 1960 German mystery thriller, Der Rasher (English title: The Avenger), one of the earliest but almost forgotten entries among the cinematic adaptations of Edgar Wallace crime novels that enjoyed a revival in Germany in the late 1950s.
Best known as the British author who created the character and story of King Kong in 1932 but died the same year without ever seeing the 1933 screen adaptation, Wallace was a tremendously popular and prolific writer who is said to have penned over 170 novels, numerous plays and countless short stories during a twenty-five year period between 1905 and 1930. Many of his quickly written pulp fiction thrillers and stories were adapted for the screen – Wallace even directed a few himself – during the silent era in England, the U.S. and Germany. After his death, his popularity continued to grow, resulting in more film adaptations of his work during the early sound era. Among the more famous titles are Mystery Liner (1934), The Squeaker (1937), the 15-chapter serial The Green Archer (1939) starring Victor Jory, and The Human Monster (1939), based on his novel The Dark Eyes of London and featuring Bela Lugosi.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s, however, that Wallace’s work experienced a remarkable revival in German cinema beginning with The Fellowship of the Frog aka Face of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske, 1959), directed by Harald Reinl for Rialto Film. It was the start of a popular franchise that combined horror elements (creepy old mansions, sinister servants, diabolical killers and gruesome deaths) with murder mystery tropes that became known as “krimis,” named after taschenkrimis, lurid paperback novels which were similar in nature to their Italian counterpart, giallos.
The Avenger was not one of the early Rialto releases. Instead, it was produced by Kurt Ulrich, an independent rival to that studio, and directed by Karl Anton. Yet, it remains one of the most entertaining, stylish and delightfully macabre entries from the Wallace revival in Germany and is a great place to start for beginners. It also introduced several actors who would become familiar faces in many of the Wallace thrillers produced by Rialto such as Heinz Drache, Siegfried Schurenberg and Klaus Kinski, who often played key suspects but was often dispatched by the real killer before the climax.
Unfortunately, Ulrich was sued by Rialto for copyright infringement and didn’t produce any other Wallace adaptations after The Avenger, but another rival studio, Central Cinema Company (CCC), tried to cash in on the Wallace craze by making film versions of novels by his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, such as The Secret of the Black Trunk (Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen Koffe, 1962) and The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (Der Wurger von Schlob Blackmoor, 1963). These were somewhat successful but the Rialto series became the more popular and visually accomplished franchise of all while The Avenger reminds an often overlooked but essential stand-alone entry.
Karl Anton’s adaptation has all of the compelling ingredients that make an Edgar Wallace thriller so addictive and serves them up in style with a fast-paced narrative. It all begins when Scotland Yard inspector Major Staines (Siegfried Schurenberg) calls in special agent Michael Brixan (Heinz Drache) to investigate the beheading of Francis Elmer, who has a niece in the film industry named Ruth Sanders (Ina Duscha). She is a movie extra with aspirations to become a leading actress and gets her chance when Stella Mendoza (Ingrid van Bergen), a temperamental diva, is fired from a current movie being directed by Jack Jackson (Friedrich Schoenfelder).
Ruth soon finds herself in danger as sinister events begin to occur during the film production and the suspects are numerous including Lorenz Voss (Klaus Kinski), an arrogant but failed film director turned story editor, Henry Longvale (Ludwig Linkmann), the elderly but eccentric owner of the estate where the movie is being shot, Sir Gregory Penn (Benno Sterzenbach), a decadent aristocrat and collector of antique weapons, and Bhag (Al Hoosmann), Penn’s hulking servant from Africa.
[Spoiler alert] Elmer was the 12th victim of the so-called “Executioner,” a serial killer who has been taunting Scotland Yard with letters announcing his impending decapitations. The fact that all of the murder victims had their heads severed in one clean slice indicates that the killer possesses great strength or has a special weapon to do the deed. In fact, it turns out that all the victims had been murdered in a secret location and executed by guillotine, nicknamed “the Widow” by its owner.
I first saw The Avenger at a film series entitled German Film 1945-1960 which was being hosted by New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center in May 2002. The 35mm print was in almost pristine condition and the black and white cinematography by Willi Sohm was clearly influenced by American film noir and the expressionistic mix of shadows and light favored by Fritz Lang in classics like M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).
The film stands apart from the Rialto series entries in several distinctive ways. For one thing, there is a minimal attempt to inject some comic relief into the proceedings which was one of the hallmarks of the Rialto films. Eddi Arent, who serves as a Teutonic version of Tony Randall, was often called upon to play a variety of bumbling servants, amateur detectives or inquisitive assistants in those films and sometimes even emerged as the inadvertent hero who discovers the killer. Apparently German audiences loved his antics but I usually find his presence annoying and a distraction from the storyline, not to mention breaking the suspenseful mood from time to time.
The Avenger is also less explicit in depicting the murders, which lends it a bit of subtlety and class. Yes, it displays the grisly aftermath but not the actual killings, although it is believed that Voss’s on-camera execution was deleted from the U.S. release. Instead, the horrific parts of the film are achieved through classic stalking sequences in the forest at night or in the catacombs of Longvale’s forbidding mansion. Plus there are plenty of scenes with clutching hands, eyes peering through masks and portraits on walls and near-death encounters like the scene where Brixan is dangling from a collapsing balcony.
There are even some leering sexual undertones in scenes with Penn such as the sequence where an exotic dancer and her four-piece band perform a private show in his lair. And who is the mysterious woman imprisoned in his attic and for what purpose?
The Avenger also functions as a movie-within-a-movie since a film location shoot is the main setting which allows the narcissistic and volatile behavior of some of the actors and crew to ramp up the tension, creating further confusion as new suspects emerge. You never really learn what movie Jackson is directing but it looks like some innocuous Bavarian costume drama with musical numbers. (By the way, The Avenger is set in rural England but was filmed in Germany like the majority of the Wallace Krimis.)
Like most Edgar Wallace thrillers, there are a lot of red herrings introduced and some of the more obvious suspects end up either being killed off or are proven to be innocent of the crimes. In this case, the mad killer turns out to be the least likely murderer of all but his obsession to rid the world of “bad people” isn’t so much an evil plot as it is the deluded attempt to punish criminals via vigilante justice.
The one negative element of The Avenger resides in the characterization of Bhag, who is played by former black heavyweight boxer Al Hoosmann as a ridiculously absurd Wild Man of Borneo-like figure from the Belgian Congo who doesn’t speak and carries out objectionable demands from his predatory, woman-chasing boss. Not only is Hoosmann made up to look like some feral savage with bad teeth and oversized bushy eyebrows but his body is also covered with thick fur. The result looks suspiciously like a white actor in blackface but the reality is even crazier – a black actor in blackface.
Offscreen, Hoosmann was a fascinating figure who was born Alston James Hoosman in Waterloo, Iowa in 1918. He started boxing as an amateur heavyweight before WW2 and later in his career he was the sparring partner of Joe Louis aka The Brown Bomber, who was Heavyweight Champion of the World between 1937 and 1949. Sometime in 1943 Hoosmann moved to Australia (Brisbane in southern Queensland) and became a bouncer at the Doctor Carver Club and returned to his boxing career. He was later stationed in Munich but remained in Germany after the war and operated his own bar. He also founded Cause, an organization for fatherless children of mixed race. Because of his impressive size (6 ft. 5 inches) and athletic skill, he also began appearing in films starting with the 1952 feature Toxi, which dealt with a subject dear to his heart – the story of an Afro-German girl who was abandoned on someone’s doorstep. Hoosmann also appeared in small parts in several other German features like Paul May’s Das Phantom des Grossen Zeltes (1954) and the German-American production Town Without Pity (1961), directed by Gottfried Reinhardt and starring Kirk Douglas. Hoosmann died in Munch on Oct. 25, 1968 at age 50.
As for the other stand-out actors in The Avenger, Heinz Drache would go on to portray a variety of carefree, playboy-like detectives in other Edgar Wallace chillers like Der Zinker (1963) and The Indian Scarf (Das Indische Tuch, 1963) but he doesn’t quite rival the classy matinee idol looks and unflappable cool of Joachim Fuchsberger, who played the main police inspector in so many of the Rialto Wallace films. Siegfried Schurenberg would also go on to co-star with Fuchsberger in numerous Wallace thrillers as Sir John, the Scotland Yard inspector. And Klaus Kinski would pop up just as often as a major suspect/victim in more than 12 Wallace thrillers including his dual role in 1967’s Creature with the Blue Hand (Die Blaue Hand).
For the record, Alfred Vohrer was the director most often associated with the Rialto Wallace thrillers (he helmed 14 of them) and was the first to move the series out of its atmospheric black and white domain into the garish world of Eastmancolor with the 1966 The Hunchback of Soho (Der Bucklige von Soho). Some of his best entries include Dark Eyes of London (Die Toten Augen von London, 1961), The Inn on the River (Das Gasthaus an der Themse, 1962) and The College Girl Murders (Der Monch mit der Peitsche, 1967), which may have influenced Dario Argento’s stylistic approach to horror.
As for director Karl Anton, he was at the end of his career when he made The Avenger. In fact, it was his final feature film but his earlier filmography includes the 1957 remake of Victor and Victoria (which was first made in 1933 and later refashioned for the Blake Edwards musical comedy Victor/Victoria ) Immer nur Du (1941), a musical romance which won Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival, and Monsieur Sans-Gene (1935), a Fernand Gravey comedy co-written by Emeric Pressburger, later the producing partner of British director Michael Powell.
The Avenger is available in an English-dubbed DVD-R from Sinister Cinema but anyone interested in seeing the original German version can probably find a DVD import from an online distributor if you own an all-region player. It definitely deserves to be remastered on Blu-ray and released in the U.S.
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