Dennis de Beaulieu (Richard Wyler under the name Richard Stapley) is a decadent nobleman in late seventeenth century France, and he has an eye for the ladies. Tonight he is in a tavern, harrassing the young women who come into his orbit, little knowing that he is being watched by a group of men led by Sire Alain de Malatroit (Charles Laughton) who have their own plans for him. When a fight breaks out, Denis believes it is nothing more sinister than a brawl, yet when he ends up killing the other man he has to flee - and Sire Alain's coach is awaiting him...
This is because it's all a set up, you see, for this adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story. Scripted by Jerry Sackheim, it brought together two star British actors in Laughton and Boris Karloff, although it's the former who is the real villain here. Although commonly regarded as a historical horror movie, there's nothing especially horrific about it and could just as easily fit into the genre of historical thriller: there are no monsters here, unless you count the twisted mind of Sire Alain.
It is the performances of those two distinguished Englishmen that actually distinguish The Strange Door, although in connection with this film you will often hear that Laughton started way over the top and stayed there, where if you watch it you will find this is not the case. This is not the all-out scenery chewing ham of legend, but a slyer personality who seizes his chances to go overboard only rarely here. Much of the time Laughton delights in hooding his eyes and purring his lines, so if not underplaying, he is not exactly yelling his head off either.
The plot takes a while to come together, but after Denis has been taken to and trapped in Sire Alain's castle, behind the strange door of the title which will open to let him in but will not open to let him out, it all falls into place. Karloff fans will be disappointed that he is very much taking second billing here, with only one scene in the first half hour to his credit, but he does end up being integral to the tense climax. In the meantime, Denis must get to know Alain's niece Blanche (Sally Forrest) who he is supposed to marry, much to his surprise.
The reason for that is Alain is determined to make poor Blanche's life a misery, having already locked up his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) in the dungeon where Karloff's Voltan looks after him. Why this state of affairs? Alain's lovesickness has sent him barmy, because Edmond married the woman he was enamoured of, and if there's one thing Laughton does right it's amusingly suggest his character is a few sandwiches short of a picnic (although he does get plenty of mutton chops to give it the full Henry the Eighth at the dinner table). With a water wheel-closing cell walls interface for the finale, The Strange Door does make the most of its thrills, but they are so protracted, even in a short film such as this, that they fast become ridiculous. For some, that will be entertainment enough.