The Avenger is one of the odd films out amongst the 40 odd krimis made between 1959 and 1972, as the sole film within the cycle to be produced by Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion rather than the more familiar Rialto or CCC.
Seeing the success of The Fellowship of the Frog, Ulrich quickly moved to make an unofficial Edgar Wallace adaptation, beating Rialto's Die Bande des Schreckens to West German screens by a few weeks in August 1960. Rialto had the last laugh however, taking Ulrich to court and preventing his company from making subsequent films – a decision which in turn explains why CCC used the work of Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his better known father when they began making krimis shortly thereafter.
Though Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion only made one krimi, it was nevertheless to prove an influential one, featuring the genre debuts of a number of krimi stalwarts in Heinz Drache, Siegfried Schurenberg and Klaus Kinski, along with one of the cycle's more memorable monsters in the form of Al Hoosman's Bhag, a non-too PC primitive type (variously referred to as “a negro”; “an animal from the jungle”; “a demented creature”, and “The best servant in the world: he doesn't think, he doesn't speak, he doesn't answer” brought to England from the wilds of Borneo.
Additionally, it also pushed the self-referential aspect that bit further than its immediate predecessor by locating the investigation amidst the making of a film, giving Kinski an early opportunity to play the tortured artist as its highly-strung screenwriter.
Though far from this type himself in own approach to writing, Edgar Wallace had started working for the cinema in the 1920s (most famously penning the original story for King Kong shortly before his death) while Bryan Edgar Wallace would subsequently actually work in the film industry, including with CCC on adapting some of his own thrillers.
A painting that may or may not prove important
Besides this, we also see an early – albeit quite possibly coincidental – instance of the krimis influencing the later Italian giallo when the film's director, Mr Jackson, elevates an extra, Ruth Sanders, to the position of lead after getting fed up with the diva antics of his star, Stella Mendoza, in a manner reminiscent of Dario Argento's Opera. It is, as Jackson says, the sort of incredible thing which normally only happens in the movies.
If this connection seems a spurious one, we can also note that the German name for the killer, der kofpsjager, or 'the headhunter', also prefigures that of the maniac in the Italian director's Trauma. (Admittedly here the killer does not keep the heads, however.)
Faces at a window
Similarly while The Fellowship of the Frog had featured covert filming that revealed a vital detail, here we have a similar detail – a woman at the window, no less – being captured purely by chance, much like the murder in the park in Antonioni's anti-giallo Blow-Up.
Some nice old dark house thing lurking in the shadows action
The typically convoluted plot opens in media res: An apparent maniac known as 'The Executioner' has struck no fewer than 12 times, decapitating his victims on each occasion. The last victim was beyond reproach, a fact which seems to have spurred the authorities into action at last, the majority of the previous victims having been incorrigible criminals.
Fortunately special investigator Brixan (Drache) has several clues to work with: the killer is extremely strong, having beheaded his victims with a single blow from a heavy blade; uses a typewriter on which a couple of the keys are distinctively out of alignment, and posts cryptic messages in the newspaper under the name of “the Benefactor”. (Curiously, however, Brixan is not a Scotland Yard man, rather being associated with the Foreign Office.)
Posing as a journalist sent to cover the making of the film, Brixen is quick to uncover a number of potential suspects, including the aforementioned Bhag – albeit as the tool of his white master Sir Gregory Penn, a womanising adventurer type – and Kinski's screenwriter, Voss, on whose typewriter the messages seem to have been written...
Of course this surfeit of suspects only serves to further complicate things, as do the array of quirky supporting characters, such as the harmless old eccentric Longman and – in one especially 'what the' moment – a swordsman who seems to have stepped out of a wuxia, coupled with the inevitable romantic subplot that develops between Brixen and Ruth, herself also another of Wallace's orphans / nieces / wards in peril.
Director Karl Anton was an industry veteran whose career dated back to the Czech cinema in the 1920s. Though clearly a competent filmmaker, his direction here old-fashioned and routine, though he does use the zoom lens to nicely augment / express the undoubtedly shock of finding a severed head in a box on a couple of occasions.
Admittedly, however, a fair evaluation of Anton's contributions is not helped by the overly dark, somewhat panned and scanned copy under review, originally released on video by Sinister Cinema in the 1990s.
[More information on the versions of the film and its relationship to the Wallace text: