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
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.
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 Left.
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,
Supplements: Docu by Jeffrey Schwarz
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 28, 2002
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.
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.
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson