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Forget Hypno-Magic ...
Independent film of the 1950s is a fascinating subject. By now everyone knows how producer William Castle broke out of the B-movie doldrums by using wild promotions and gimmicks to create buzz about his little horror movies. Castle's elaborate audience participation gimmicks didn't really catch on, but other producers were soon touting all manner of non-existent special processes on their movie posters: AromaRama, Wondra-Scope, Stranglo-Scope. One very successful gimmick-laden Castle imitator was 1960's The Hypnotic Eye, a cheapie that benefited from a superb advertising campaign, and gimmicks that needed no special outlay of exhibitor cash. Well, except for the balloons. I'll get to them later.
The barely competent horror thriller The Hypnotic Eye was filmed in 1959, the watershed year for wildcat independents. New Screen Actors Guild rules came into play on January 1, 1960, putting many impromptu producers out of business: movies with MPAA seals required formal acting contracts, accounting and residual payments. What this really meant was that producers could no longer induce actors to perform for nothing or next to nothing. Roger Corman fled Los Angeles and filmed his little pirated movies in Puerto Rico, Ireland and Greece. The ruling more or less forced him into more expensive productions. The Hypnotic Eye has only a few sets and very few actors; a few audience shots give it the illusion of production value. Producers Charles B. Bloch and William Read Woodfield built their movie from the gimmicks up, starting with a rather bizarre re-definition of hypnotism.
The story revolves around sadistic mutilations of beautiful women, a suddenly popular theme at the time in America and overseas: the English Circus of Horrors and the French Eyes without a Face. Women "all over town" are committing gruesome acts of self-mutilation using fire and acid. Police detective Steve Kennedy and psychologist Philip Hecht (Joe Patridge & Guy Prescott) can't seem to make any sense of it. Steve responds to the crisis by taking his girlfriend Marcia (Marcia Henderson) and her friend Dodie (Merry Anders) to the hypnosis show of the mysterious Desmond (Jacques Bergerac). Dodie volunteers to be Desmond's stage subject, and later that night washes her face in acid. In the hospital the next day, Dodie can't account for her actions and claims that she felt no pain. Steve refuses to see any connection between the mutilations and Desmond, so Marcia volunteers to play "bait" and go on stage with Desmond during his act. She then goes out to dinner with the hypnotist while Steve observes from afar... and sees a relaxed Marcia enjoying Desmond's romantic advances. But after Desmond goes home and Steve calls off his surveillance, Desmond's stage assistant Justine (Allison Hayes) arrives to help Marcia carry out her hypnotic mission: to scald herself in steaming-hot water!
This synopsis cannot convey The Hypnotic Eye's utter lack of logic or believability: the plot is little more than a framework to introduce shock scenes of beautiful women undressing and then destroying themselves. The opening simply fades up on a woman in a slip happily washing her hair. Instead of rinsing it in the sink, she holds her face over a burner in the kitchenette. The soapy hair bursts into flame (?) and she screams. Using disturbing (if not entirely convincing) makeup, we see a number of scarred faces, and one woman with no eyes.
Forget any notion of a coherent story. The detectives incorrectly define and characterize hypnotism, repeatedly contradicting themselves. The technique is fake nonsense, but it's also useful when used by a doctor; it doesn't work, but people should be warned never to submit to hypnosis by anyone but a medical professional. (But being hypnotized by a movie in a theater is apparently O.K.) The pathetic female victims calmly harm themselves, almost as if .... hypnotized ... but Steve and Phil refuse to connect Desmond to the deaths. They remain skeptical even after they learn that the women all attended Desmond's theatrical act. Are they lying when they deny this ... or could they have been ... hypnotized? The thought never enters Steve's little noggin. It's not the actor's fault, but a script that makes him look like a total moron. Steve sits in his car, watching Desmond and Marcia making out, their "silhouettes on the shade". We can imagine the actor attempting to pantomime his anger and confusion, and the director pulling him back: No fancy stuff! Just stare blankly, please. The police in The Hypnotic Eye couldn't figure out what caused the mess on the bottom of the birdcage.
The hypnotism gag gets a good workout. First, the ads create the impression that the movie audience will be hypnotized just like Desmond's "live" audience in the theater scenes. Posters prominently display a logo for "Hypno-Magic". Jacques Bergerac, a pretty tepid actor from MGM musicals (Gigi, Les Girls) has a sharp voice but a thick French accent that might be a handicap for this particular profession: "Could you repeat that please?" A big chunk of the movie involves watching Desmond's stage act, which also includes an unconvincing levitation gag. Hypnosis counteracts the force of gravity, haven't you heard?
The actual 'hypnotic eye' is a prop that Desmond holds in his hand for his subject to concentrate on. In wide shots it might be a ping pong ball, perhaps with a tiny light in it. Director George Blair cuts to giant close-ups of what looks like a spinning illuminated whorl. When Desmond turns his powers in our direction, stroboscopic lights flash for seconds at a time. Audiences weren't hypnotized but it's altogether possible that certain epileptics would need to close their eyes to keep from being affected by the stroboscopic stimulation.
Desmond directs some of his hypnosis patter directly at the camera, thus instilling the idea in susceptible patrons that, gee, maybe I'm under his spell and I don't know it! The longest hypnotism scene seeks to involve the audience with balloons printed with an ad for Desmond's Hypnotic Eye. One balloon figures later in the investigations. Theater owners could apparently buy the balloons to hand out to patrons, thus prepping them to be hypnotized. And after the show, the balloons would circulate, providing more publicity for the movie. 1
A mainstream reviewer in 1960 would probably label The Hypnotic Eye as cheap exploitative trash. As horror, it's a sadistic and misogynist conservative fantasy. The victims are all beautiful young women who don't stay home nights to knit socks. Marcia and Dodie are definitely game gals ready for adventure. Women have been paying for original sins since time began, and the movie exploits that tension. We like Dodie and Marcia, yet we've all lined up and paid our money to see them murdered or burned up or worse. That's what defines exploitation. We don't say that Old Yeller exploits dog lovers, but movies that promise to fulfill viewer desires for borderline taboo experiences get slammed with the pejorative term.
As is typical in these movies, the females are the only interesting characters. Marcia is a reckless but exciting heroine who dares to walk into danger; stick-in-the-mud Steve doesn't deserve her. Hypnotized by Desmond, Marcia drops her personality and becomes a submissive love object, a Playboy fantasy. Is she hypnotized, or simply swept off her feet by the romantic Desmond? Or is she just faking it in a convincing way? How could anybody tell the difference? Perhaps unconsciously, The Hypnotic Eye generates its own strange vibe, which I hereby copyright as Sleaze-Rapture©.
When it came to marketing their opus, the filmmakers and Allied Artists covered all bases. The film's poster prominently bills Jacques Bergerac, the recipient of an MGM publicity push a couple of years back. Also given special billing is Fred (Ferdinand) Demara, the "world's greatest imposter". This classic example of stunt casting feeds off the highly publicized Demara. Tony Curtis's Demara biopic The Great Imposter was in theaters almost concurrently with The Hypnotic Eye. When one realizes that Demara (in his only movie) plays Dodie's very overweight doctor, the idea of Tony Curtis playing him is pretty funny. Also plunked into the movie for six minutes of padding is an esspresso-shack poetry reading about the movies from Lawrence Lipton, the "King of the Beatniks". Compared to the spaced-out oratory in Jack Arnold's High School Confidential, this is pretty tame. 2 It's unlikely that many of the teens in the audience knew who Jimmy Lydon was. He plays an emergency medic (not very well) but was a notable star in a long line of 1940s "Henry Aldrich" movies. Of the actresses, the lively Merry Anders continued to make her mark in genre films but faded into TV work. Allison Hayes has a good excuse for not moving her face much in the movie. Cult fans love her for her starring role as the immortal Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Hypnotic Eye is a flawless enhanced transfer of this B&W widescreen film; the wide screen really helps make it look its best. All of those flashing strobe lights in the hypnosis scenes are very effective, and cameraman Arch Dalzell takes the time to finesse the close-ups of the actresses.
No trailer is included, which is a shame. The Hypnotic Eye has long been a hard-to-see favorite and I'm glad that fans finally have access to such a good copy. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hypnotic Eye rates:
1. John McElwee has posted a great article on the theatrical promotion of The Hypnotic Eye over at his superb Greenbriar Picture Shows page. I, uh, swiped the newspaper ad seen above from John's page. Sort of.
Dear Glenn: You almost certainly know this, but I feel duty bound to remind you that the beat poet in The Hypnotic Eye -- whose wacky poem about the movies I once excerpted from a bad VHS dub and showed in a class studying poetry of the '50s! -- is Lawrence Lipton. Lipton was a writer and novelist of some distinction in the '30s and '40s; also a poet, his late 'fifties work The Holy Barbarians chronicled the beats. [Lipton also did some work as a film publicist.] He certainly plays the role to the hilt in The Hypnotic Eye. At any rate, the main reason I'm telling you this is that Lawrence Lipton is the father of James Lipton, the host of TV's Inside the Actors Studio. When I learned this some years ago, I was speechless.
The other sidelight to the picture, of course, is learning that Tony Curtis looked absolutely NOTHING like Fred Demara. When you think about it, that's one of the ways in which "the great impostor" pulled it off -- what an altogether ordinary looking guy.
When New York's Thalia showed this back in the '80s, they actually enterprisingly supplied balloons imprinted with the "Hypnotic Eye" logo. When the big audience participation gimmick began late in the picture, the theatre even brought up the house lights part way as AA's instructions (recently highlighted on John McElwee's website) urged. Great fun. That said, this still strikes me as one of the most bizarrely misogynist movies ever produced... Best, Always. -- B.
3. I was eight years old when The Hypnotic Eye came out. I got to see most of the Sci-Fi movies at our neighborhood theater but somehow knew that horror subjects were out of bounds. I read the poster for The Tingler and decided it was too much for me. I only saw the trailer for The Hypnotic Eye, and I'll never forget that madman holding up a human eyeball and shouting, "Look if you dare, upon the Hypnotic Eye!" Scared the hell out of me. So you can imagine how I laughed when "Doctor Diablo" showed up in a fake trailer in Joe Dante's Matinee.
Somehow, I did see Horrors of the Black Museum and was blown away by the first scene with the murderous binoculars. Kids were screaming out loud, and I'll bet my eyes were as wide as saucers. After that traumatic opening, the rest of the movie was a blur. I suppose that experience accounts for Savant missing things like Black Sunday ... although I saw Hammer's The Mummy and loved every minute of it. I think the color and music were so enchanting that I wasn't bothered by the tongue cutting scene. Go figure.
4. A Writer Looks Back In Hypnotic Hindsight, author Tom Weaver's fascinating interview with William Read Woodfield, is readable at The Astounding B-Monster. Fifty years later, Woodfield's promotional instincts are functioning perfectly. Caryl Chessman was innocent? This is the kind of guy who makes movies like The Hypnotic Eye.
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T'was Ever Thus.