vt The College Girl Murders; vt The Monk with the Whip; vt The Prussic Factor
West Germany, Denmark / 84 minutes / color / Rialto, Preben Philipsen, Constantin Dir: Alfred Vohrer Pr: Horst Wendlandt Scr: Alex Berg (i.e., Herbert Reinecker) Story: The Terror (1927 play) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Karl Löb Cast: Joachim Fuchsberger, Uschi Glas, Siegfried Schürenberg, Grit Böttcher, Konrad Georg, Harry Riebauer, Tilly Lauenstein, Ilse Pagé, Siegfried Rauch, Claus Holm, Günter Meisner, Hans Epskamp, Heinz Spitzner, Jan Hendriks, Rudolf Schündler, Narziss Sokatscheff, Tilo von Berlepsch, Kurt Waitzmann, Suzanne Roquette, Susann Hsiao, Inge Sievers, Ewa Strömberg, Bruno W. Pantel, Kurt Buecheler, Wilhelm Vorwerg.
One of the long series of krimi movies loosely (usually very loosely) based on works by Edgar Wallace and designed to make as little sense as possible. This one seems intended especially to appeal to fans of the Diana Rigg-era The Avengers (1965–8), with touches of Bondesquerie thrown in.
A mad scientist, Cabble (Vorwerg, who was also one of the movie’s art directors), invents a new poison, based on prussic acid, that can used in aerosol form. He demonstrates its efficacy first on rats and then on his hapless assistant (uncredited), in the latter instance using a spraying device concealed within a hollowed-out book. No sooner has he handed over the formula and the device to his unseen paymaster than he is himself murdered—by a monk clad from head to toe in red, complete with KKK-style hood, who wields a bullwhip Indiana Jones-fashion, wrapping the lash around the victims’ throats and then, with a jerk, breaking their necks.
Sinister chauffeur Greaves (Günter Meisner).
Meanwhile, in a nearby prison, old lag Cress Bartling (Sokatscheff) is instructing somewhat younger lag Frank Keaney (Rauch) in a way to make himself some money—quite a lot of money, in fact. The mysterious master-criminal who has bought the venomous formula has set up a system, organized through corrupted guard Carrington (Waitzmann), whereby prisoners can be smuggled out of jail to commit nefarious deeds on his behalf—their alibi for these crimes being the perfect one that they were behind bars at the time. Keaney eagerly agrees. He’s smuggled out inside a gizmoed garbage can with instructions to exchange Bibles in church with Pam Walsbury (Strömberg), one of the students at a snooty girls’ college nearby. Of course, the Bible has been rigged with Cabble’s device, and Pam heels over into the aisle to the backdrop of many a shriek. Keaney bolts from the scene and is driven away in a big gray Rolls by the mastermind’s chauffeur and general factotum, Greaves (the great Meisner).
Keaney (Siegfried Rauch) gets his next set of instructions from the big boss.
Keaney’s none too pleased to discover he’s been tricked into committing murder, but he decides to go along with the plan when he discovers how much money the killings are worth. Next time, armed with a pistol-shaped spraying device that looks like it was designed for treating greenhouse plants and seems to be powered by compressed air (far more cumbersome and obvious than a water pistol, which might achieve the same effect), he’s set to murder Pam’s schoolmate Betty Falks (Böttcher, looking way too old for the role) on the bus to the local railway station—she’s decided to go home rather than hang around at school waiting to be murdered.
Ageing schoolgirl Betty (Grit Böttcher) is revolted by Keyston’s proposition.
It might seem footling to complain about a glaring plot error in a Wallace krimi, but there’s one here. On her way through the lonely, mist-shrouded nighttime wood to the bus stop (because, with a murderer on the loose, this obviously is a wise route to take), Betty is threatened by the Red Monk. Salvation is at hand, though, because one of the teachers, Bannister (Epskamp), turns up in his car and gives Betty a lift to the bus stop so she can be murdered on the bus as planned. This might seem good plotting at the time, but later on we discover (and this is hardly a major spoiler) that Bannister and the Red Monk are in alliance. Why are they here operating against each other? Why not let the Monk finish Betty off so that Keaney doesn’t have to?
Scotland Yard’s finest? Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) and Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger).
By now Scotland Yard’s Inspector Higgins (Fuchsberger) and his boss Sir John (Schürenberg) are all over the school, having been called in as soon as crafty Dr. Shinewood (von Berlepsch), the coroner, realized that Pam died of poisoning rather than a heart attack, as initially diagnosed. Sir John has recently attended night classes in criminal psychology and throughout the movie attempts to apply what he’s learned to the case; since his “psychology” is complete codswallop, he serves as the movie’s Resident Buffoon, alongside whom Higgins’s ratiocination (such as it is) can shine. It’s interesting that, in the series’ previous movie, Die Blaue Hand (1967), while Sir John definitely played second fiddle to the investigating officer, Inspector Craig (Harald Leipnitz), and his conclusions were often wrongheaded, he was by no means the figure of derision that he is here.
Who’s peeping into the girls’ dormitory?
Higgins and Sir John have unearthed that Pam, Betty and their friend Mary Houston (Roquette) have been accustomed to attending “pretty wild” parties organized by lecherous, borderline-pedophile chemistry teacher Keyston (Georg)—never seen without red-rimmed rolling eyes and a cascade of guilty sweat—and Mark Denver (Riebauer), raffish writerly brother of the school’s headmistress, Harriet Foster (Lauenstein). Keyston, we eventually learn, has already served twenty years inside for murdering a female pupil; it seems Harriet Foster didn’t bother to check his references before hiring him and putting him back into the way of temptation.
Keyston gets an anonymous message!
Mary (Suzanne Roquette) has a way to deal with Denver . . . she thinks.
The bus conductor (Pantel) got a good look at Keaney after the murder of Betty and, while the matter of alibi is still baffling, Higgins is certain that Keaney is their man. Clearly Keaney has outlived his usefulness so far as the conspirators are concerned . . . Likewise Keyston . . . Another to die is Mary Houston, who has apparently been carrying on an affair with Mark Denver . . .
Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) interrogates Keyston (Konrad Georg). No prizes for guessing what subject Keyston teaches.
The monk “interrogates” Keyston (Konrad Georg).
Higgins stages a mock abduction by the Red Monk of yet another girl, Ann Portland (Glas), who in mere days, on her 21st birthday, will inherit the vast wealth of the Portland Aviation corporation. It’s clear to him that she must be the real target—that the other girls have been murdered as mere camouflage. But cunning Greaves has spotted what’s going on, and follows Higgins to the remote salt mines where the cop stashes Ann under heavy police guard . . .
Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) takes Ann (Uschi Glas) to what he assumes is a secure hiding place.
I’ve mentioned already the occasional Bondishness. This is nowhere more apparent than in the lair of the master-criminal. Keaney and later Bartling receive their briefings here in a large, dimly lit room that features glass panels behind which turtles lazily swim. The boss speaks only with his back to them, his voice electronically distorted, Dr. No-style. In fact, the seated figure proves to be a mannequin.
The lair also features an alligator pit, above which at one point a skimpily clad Ann is—as could happen to any Bond girl—suspended in a cage. When Greaves brings her lunch, she vexedly sweeps it from the plate and it falls into the pit, where the alligators squabble over it. A good piece of theater, you might think, until you start wondering why Greaves thought a suitable lunch for a young woman was a hunk of raw meat about half the size of her head.
And then we have the protracted scenes—two of them—in the school’s swimming hall, where scores of attractive young women disport themselves in their bikinis (except Ann, who has a more conservative one-piece, as befits a demure heiress who’ll eventually be kidnapped and suspended over an alligator pit). The pervy Keyston likes to spy on the submerged jailbait through an underwater window as they swim around in almost the altogether; we of course are treated to the same sights that he sees, so presumably the moviemakers’ assumption was that we’re pervy too.
What the teacher saw.
Many of the actors in Der Mönch mit der Peitsche appeared in multiple other krimis, while the characters of Higgins and Sir John did likewise. Clearly the krimis served rather the same function to the West German acting community as the EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERIES (1960–64) did for the UK equivalent: just about everyone got a minor part or three during the series’ run, and some of the principals were lucky enough to pin down more than that. Among the actors with a small part here is the very lovely Hsiao as Pam’s (and Betty’s and Mary’s . . .) friend June Bell; she’d already turned up, likewise in a small part, in such krimis as Der Unheimliche Mönch (1965; vt The Sinister Monk), which similarly features a whip-wielding monk and of which movie this is essentially a retread.
One of the appealing features of the Rialto/Constantin krimi movies is that they seem to take place in some alternate world where logic is eternally skewed and where plots and motivations are not so much magic realist as magic surrealist. When Higgins at one point says to the school’s enigmatic gardener Glenn Powers (Claus Holm), “You both worked in a traveling circus. Your wife used to ride a horse and snap glasses off a table with a whip,” it seems to make perfect sense in context even though, in most other movies, you’d hardly be able to hear the line for the sound of the audience’s collective jaw dropping. The same applies to the movie’s eventual revelation—a sort of double revelation, in fact—of the identity of the master-criminal, and, quite separately, of the identity of the Red Monk. If you happened to read this extended denouement in a detective novel you’d be throwing the book at the wall and scuttling off to pen a major one-star “Worst Book I’ve Ever Read, Three Days of My Life I’ll Never Get Back!!1!” rant on GoodReads. In the alternate universe of the Edgar Wallace krimis, though, it all seems fair enough.
And that’s the whole point of these movies, really. If you go into them with the notion that they fall into the “so bad that they’re good” category you undermine your enjoyment of them and seriously underestimate both the movies and their creators, who knew exactly what they were doing. Among the many self-referential and self-parodic elements here is the final scene, which is marked by Sir John and Inspector Higgins noticing that a sign has appeared in one of the criminal kingpin’s turtle tanks saying ENDE (“The End”).
This is a contribution to the 1967 signup at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog.
On Amazon.com: College Girl Murders [DVD].