After Constantin-Rialto made a 1959 hit of the first of their decade-long series of Edgar Wallace krimis with Der Frosch mit der Maske (Face of the Frog), rival Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion beat Frosch’s immediate follow-ups (Der Rote Kreis/The Red Circle, Die Bande der Schreckens/The Terrible People) to screen in 1960 by having director Karl Anton turn out this version of Wallace’s novel The Avenger (aka The Hairy Arm). C-R complained, and KUF changed tracks slightly by making a shorter-lived series of films based on the works of the famous author’s less famous son Bryan Edgar Wallace – but the main series co-opted several performers (Heinz Drache, Klaus Kinski, Siegfried Schürenberg) who make Wallace debuts here, and often covered similar plot ground.
The set-up is that a murderer who calls himself ‘die Wohltäter’ (‘the Benefactor’) – but is also known variously in titles and dialogue as ‘der Rächer’ (the Avenger), ‘der totjäger’ (‘the headhunter’) and the Executioner – has been dropping freshly-severed heads around London neatly packed in cardboard boxes. Because the latest victim was better-connected than previous ne’er-do-well decapitees, Scotland Yard (represented by Schürenberg, in the first of many many pompous top cop roles) call in somewhat smug playboy sleuth Michael Brixan (Drache) and he hares off on a tangential lead which of course turns out to wind up with him cracking the case. Brixan traces the victim’s innocent niece film extra Ruth Sanders (Ina Duscha) to Griff Tower, a large country house being used as a movie location, on the grounds that newspaper notices placed by the killer are written on the same typewriter as the film script. Posing as an entertainment reporter and cruising down the drive in a natty sportscar to ruin an elaborate shot, Brixan settles in to meet a bunch of showbiz types who serve as suspects and victims. Our company includes repressed typewriter-owning screenwriter Lorenz Voss (Kinski), genial if mildly kinky host Sir Gregory Penn (Benno Sterzenbach), high-handed director Jack Jackson (Friedrich Schönfelder), eccentric local comedy dodderer Henry Longvale (Ludvig Linkmann), tight-slacks-sporting blonde diva movie star Stella Mendoza (Ingrid van Bergen), and, most entertainingly, red-herring-smelling, hulking servant Bhag (Al Hoosman). The owner of the novel’s hairy arm (though his hairy unshod feet get more screen time), Bhag is a human-gorilla wild man of Borneo type, with wolfman facial hair and pop-eyes – he dotes on womenfolk but is given to lunging after them at odd times, and beefs up the horror side of the film.
The old dark house is full of the expected clutter from all corners of the Empire (masks, swords, etc), which are good for ominous close-ups, and even runs to a bare-midriff Malaysian dancer (Maria Litto) and (of course) a secret room full of stolen money. Brixan’s detecting style includes a lot of creeping around after lights-out, peering through gothic windows and running into the chain-rattling Bhag. At one point, it seems the apeman will brain him but an Asian martial arts guy in a trenchcoat jumps in and sees off the monster. In a tiny moment prefiguring gialli to come (and Blowup), a clue is caught in the background of the film being shot and frames are pored over – though this doesn’t break the case. Beginning his long run of suspicious-but-innocent creep roles, Kinski is obviously doomed to be a victim, and his head turns up packed in straw in a box – with blaring music and a shock close-up of his staring dead face. In a busy final reel which pulls it all together, Sir Gregory tries to do a runner with ill-gotten cash, Bhag chases Ruth (she falls into a hidden chamber littered with headless corpses), Brixan homes in on the least likely suspect as the guilty person (as in Hound of the Baskervilles, a family portrait gives the game away) and the mad avenging killer drags the heroine to the guillotine he has stashed in the traditionally extensive catacombs under the estate only for Bhag to save her and shove him into his own decapitation device.
It’s too early in the cycle to display the wry black humour which crept in at C-R, though this might have been house style since later KUP krimis are similarly straight-faced in their deployment of melodrama business (like the eyes staring through a mask on the wall or the catchy theme tune composer Peter Sandloff gives the guillotine) which would have been given an ironic turn in the series proper. Instead of Eddi Arent breaking frame at the sign-off (a C-R running joke), Drache smooches Duscha in a punt and delivers his to-camera line to the crew of the film within a film. Like most krimis, it looks wonderful – noirish harsh shadows, classical gothic film sets – and offers a strange, Germanic look at a contemporary Britain which has a few modish aspects but is otherwise rooted in a fantasised idea of what the country was like circa 1928.