There is a belief that serial killers are a new phenomenon, something which has only arisen since the industrial revolution and the advent of the great cities of the last two centuries which have forced whole communities to live in stifling proximity, but it would be more correct to say that it is the advent of dedicated police teams and the development of forensic science and criminal profiling skills which has revealed what was present all along, undetected.
Inspired by true events, in the central Hungarian city of Martfű from 1957 to 1966 the authorities refused to accept that such a thing was permissible in their community of hard working and upright citizens, the investigating officers instructed to solve the case and restore order swiftly and by the most efficient means possible.
Conveniently, when the body of Erzsébet Patai (Anna Mészöly) was pulled from the river there was an obvious suspect, Ákos Réti (Gábor Jászberényi), who had recently divorced his wife to be with Erzsébet, witnesses saying her suitor met her at the gates of the shoe factory after her shift, Réti visibly distraught and confused when the police came to question him.
The contradictions of his statement and the circumstances of his confession brushed aside, Réti’s initial death sentence is overturned in favour of the living hell of a life sentence, while beyond the bars of his cell time moves on until 1964 when, following a tragic death labelled a suicide, further attacks on the women of the town make it inescapable something darker is at work in Martfű.
Sent to the region to lead the investigation, supervising prosecutor Szirmai Zoltán (Péter Bárnai) immediately engenders the resentment of the local officers and is blocked by his superiors who want him to solve the case without looking too closely at the wider picture and previous cases, yet that is where his instincts keep leading him.
Released as A martfüi rém in Hungary, “The Martfü Monster,” Strangled is a psychological thriller which owes as much to John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en as the works of Alfred Hitchcock in the way the camera stalks the intended victims, teasing the identity of the masked killer as he follows the lone women through the night on his motorcycle.
The fifth feature from writer/director Árpád Sopsits it perhaps brings nothing especially new to the genre but it is well done throughout and occasionally generates genuine tension, as in the early scene when the killer stages what he hopes will appear to be an accidental death on the train tracks.
A convincing recreation of the period, it is a time before the modern trappings of police procedurals such as mobile phones, CCTV and crime databases to facilitate investigations, any progress as much luck as detection, Zoltán hampered by the primitive skills of the local police, trampling crime scenes and failing to process evidence.
Often brutal in the graphic detail of the killings and the rudimentary autopsies, in the treatment of women as little more than objects, as much time devoted to their degradation as to them as people, the murder of a child particularly overemphasised and unnecessary to the point of glorification, Strangled is often more disturbing for how it presents the subject than the subject itself.
Where Sopsits has done better is in the performances he has drawn from his cast, Jászberényi, Bárnai, Zsófia Szamosi as Réti’s still devoted former wife and Károly Hajduk and Mónika Balsai as another husband and wife caught up in the terrible events, none of them faces familiar to audiences not versed in Hungarian cinema granting the film an air of tragic veracity heightened by the knowledge that this is a true story.
Strangled is on general release from Friday 17th November