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DVD SAVANT

Savant Short Review:

Homicidal


Homicidal
Columbia TriStar
1961 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 87 min.
Starring Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich, Richard Rust, "Jean Arless"
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Art Direction Cary Odell
Film Editor Edwin H. Bryant
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Robb White
Produced by William Castle
Directed by William Castle

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

There's a William Castle cult out there that hopefully is healthy enough to accept the truth: Homicidal is a perfectly wretched movie, bad enough to make Castle's other hits seem like flukes, and the good qualities in his uneven output, accidents. Yes, it has the famous 'fright break' 2 and a couple of shock scenes that are rather strong for 1961. A pitiful attempt to copy Psycho, it has a mystery factor that couldn't have fooled anyone over the age of ten.

Synopsis:

Emily (Jean Arless) checks into a hotel, and hires a bellboy (Richard Rust) for $2,000 to marry her. After the justice of the peace finishes the ceremony Emily does something very unexpected ... and then returns home, where she torments her ex-nurse, an invalid (Eugenie Leontovich), and her brother Warren's girlfriend, Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin). Emily has eyes for the local pharmacist, Karl (Glenn Corbett), but he's only interested in Miriam, so there's more trouble on the way. The cast has a terrible time catching up with Emily's crimes and learning her terrible secret.

The instructions from producer Castle to writer-partner Robb White must have been to re-make Psycho, the same, only different. Cheaply made and poorly paced, Homicidal alternates bad filler and worse exposition with relentlessly tasteless scenes, and has about it an aura of cheap sensationalism. It's like a toy so badly made, it breaks as soon as a child plays with it.

(spoiler)

The whole show is built around a mystery twist that's ruined the moment Warren steps into frame. He's the alter-ego of the transparently psychotic Emily, and is played by the same actress in drag. I've read a lot of serious criticism of this film, and am frankly shocked to discover that people were fooled by the terrible non-disguise. Not only is 'Warren's' dubbed voice mixed to sound disconnected to his body, but he he has a terrible makeup job, with darkened skin that makes him look less like a man and more like Joan Crawford in 'tropical' brownface in Torch Song. They could have put the androgynous 'Pat' from Saturday Night Live up there and had a more convincing male. Warren's manner and actions aren't just a little 'off', they're grotesquely stilted, like a movie zombie. 3

Not that 'Emily' fares any better, thanks to a script and direction that seem determined to make their every move completely unbelievable. Emily's behavior is so offensive, that everyone else - the 'normal' couple, the doctor - look like idiots when they accept her sardonic abuse without violent reaction. Glenn Corbett, usually serviceable in other cheap Columbia pix (including a Sam Fuller film or two) has no choice but to play his John Gavin - like pharmacist as if he were as dull as, as, John Gavin.

I haven't seen Castle's early When Strangers Marry with Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter, which is said to be a gem. 13 Ghosts is a little paint-by-numbers, but even when they're visually undistinguished, his previous string of chillers were at least carefully directed. Homicidal's direction is flat, random, and, well, crude. The wrapup explanation is so badly fumbled that we wonder if White and Castle want us to think that Emily got a reverse Christine Jorgenson operation while in Denmark ... an idea that just further muddies the water. A coda juxtposing a doll and a whip is almost insulting ... cruel parents turn children into cross-dressing psychotic murderers? I thought this was a 'cheat the inheritance' story.

Story-wise, it begins very promisingly, with a first shock murder that does indeed surprise. But as soon as Castle and White try to tell their story, it becomes a big wad of indigestible goo. Helga, the wheelchair-bound invalid, is obviously distressed and screaming at Emily - but Miriam, Karl and the doctor accept Emily's idiotic explanations. Helga is alert and can wheel herself about and pound on her armrest - why can't she write a message on a wall or something? Heck, they're in Solvang (a nice Swedish-oriented tourist community North of LA): somebody there should be able to read Danish.

Miriam's florist shop is very selectively vandalized, but boyfriend Karl doesn't see any point in telling her the truth about it. Karl is slugged from behind, is found by Warren, but doesn't suspect him. The cops are unusually lax in tightening the noose 'round Emily.

From Psycho, there are copied angles on bathrooms and staircases; a cop who resembles Martin Balsam's private detective, a madwoman clutching a dagger, and a withered old hag who has to be carried up and down staircases. There's also a ridiculously glib explanation for everything at the conclusion. None of it is interesting for a moment, except to wonder how people in 1960 could have been pleased by it - it must have been Castle's genial showmanship. Compared to this, Brian DePalma's cribbing from the Hitchcock notepad in Sisters seems inspired.

Made in Hollywood by professionals, Homicidal's bad taste and dull unpleasantness make it appear more unwholesome than many more blatantly transgressive films by independent exploitationers, or even z-grade amateurs. To Savant (who knows these are all subjective opinions) Castle's film is more offensive than the horrendously callous Last House on the Left1  True, it's a repulsive little slice of despair, but most of it has a ring of honesty. The better Eurohorror slasher films of Argento and the grossout Fulci films can also be defended on the grounds of style and theme. By contrast, Castle's picture is just incompetent.

Worse, it's not fun - a quality all Castle's previous shows had in spades. Even without Vincent Price, 13 Ghosts had an amiable kooky quality. Homicidal has no humor at all.

Always the showman, it's obvious that William Castle admired Hitch's public persona and showmanship and wanted to trump the smasheroo success of Psycho. Savant thinks it's clear that Hitch repaid the compliment by being jealous of Castle's show gimmicks and self-promotions. Psycho was made in reaction to all the incredibly cheap movies that were performing almost as well as big ticket Hollywood shows, Castle's in particular. But Hitch also made his movie a good one ... and by showing his respect for the genre, transcended it. In Homicidal, Castle shows his contempt for everything but Fright Breaks and Coward's Corners.


Columbia's DVD of Homicidal is scary for only one reason: they've inexplicably released it in flat full-frame only, when standard policy over there has been to offer both versions, or 16:9 widescreen, for a 1:85 picture like this one. Hard times at Columbia TriStar might be behind decisions like this one ... which I hope do not become more frequent. All of the other William Castle shockers are in brilliant, clear 16:9.

The flat picture is not pan'n scanned, and crops off nicely on a widescreen television. The sound is clear but unexciting. The extras are very nice. Automat's docu uses mostly fans (David Del Valle, Don Glut) as expert spokesmen, and almost gets away with it. It has some nice publicity footage of the genial Castle charming theater patrons on one of his Matinee-like promotional tours. The docu accepts the Warren/Emily impersonation as successful, which it only could have been with very unsophisticated audiences. It reveals 'Jean Arless' to actually be one Joan Marshall, finally settling that controversy. There are a couple of trailers thrown in with the package, which includes very attractive menu design and cover art.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
title rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Fair
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docu by Jeffrey Schwarz
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 28, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Savant's just seen a tape of MGM's 'restored' version. It's not as good as The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it does have its own little claim to relevance.
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2. A clock comes up just before the heroine enters a dangerous house: Castle's voice offers us the opportunity to leave now, if we're too scared to watch the end of the film. If we choose to do so, we're supposed to wait in the lobby, in a big cardboard Coward's Corner that we all saw walking in. Good lowbrow gag ... if it were used in a movie where we were at all engaged in the action, it would be a nuisance.
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3. The makeup problems don't end with Warren. The detective, when he steps into closeup, looks as though he's wearing a ton of pancake makeup and eyeliner.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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