Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's "Anamorphic Duo-Vision"! ... as seen in the giant animated logo that zooms at us in the trailer for Wicked, Wicked. The fancy split-screen gimmick idea didn't catch on, possibly because MGM's production head let it wither on the vine. As gimmick films go this one at least has a fairly creative idea. Writer - producer - director Richard L. Bare had an interesting career, writing and directing dozens of "So You Want to..." short subjects with George O'Hanlon before starting a long T.V. career with Warners producer William T. Orr. Wicked, Wicked presumably originated with the fad for multi-screen films. Split screens (two images at the same time) have been used since the beginning of film, but the 1964 World's Fair made news with a multi-screen show on a giant screen. Audiences had to turn their heads to see where the next little square image was popping up. When the full screen was filled with dozens of images, the visual impact could be overwhelming.
The multi-screen visual idea remained popular for a few years. John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix uses split- and multi-screen effects to jazz up the proceedings and to prevent its car races from becoming monotonous. The multi-screen sequences in Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair attracted a lot of attention. A bank robbery is made more exciting when we see various events occurring simultaneously, and a polo match turns into a montage of flashing images that multiply and change shape. For a few years multi-screen was everywhere: Ralph Nelson's Charly is an example of a copycat film with similar 'jazzy' montages.
Wicked, Wicked has more in common with Richard Fleischer's thriller The Boston Strangler, in which the murders of several woman are seen in split screen fashion. The film derives a considerable dread factor with its 'simultaneous' actions dividing our attention: we the audience must decide which screen-in-a-screen to watch, making the viewing experience somewhat interactive. An image of a woman hearing a noise shares the screen with a close-up of the killer forcing a door lock. Fleischer's editors often show the same action from more than one angle, basically allowing us to see an angle and its reverse at the same time. The director that has continued to use split screens for decades is Brian De Palma; he was already figuring out clever tricks for the gimmick in his experimental features of the late 1960s. 1
Director Bare places his mad killer idea within the daily routine of a large hotel, in this case the photogenic Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, made famous as a primary location for Billy Wilder's comedy Some Like it Hot. Blonde guests are disappearing unexpectedly. Hotel manager Simmons (Roger Bowen of M*A*S*H) thinks they're skipping out; when house detective Rick Stewart (David Bailey) stops spending his lunch breaks in bed with a cooperative desk clerk, he begins to worry that something else is happening. Trouble is confirmed when hotel singer Lisa James (Tiffany Bolling) survives an attack in her own room, by a knife-wielding man wearing a rubber mask. Stewart and hotel engineer Fenley (Arthur O'Connell) use old blueprints to figure out where the killer might be hiding. The old hotel is a warren of unused rooms and hidden compartments -- and the killer seems to know them all.
The killer's identity is known from the outset. He's the hotel handyman Jason Gant (Randolph Roberts), a loner with the standard 'gotta kill women' fixation common to these movies. He predates Friday the 13th's Jason Vorhees by five years. The show begins with Gant sneaking into a woman's room with a big carving knife. He sizes up his victims by aiming a pair of binoculars through a hole in the ceiling above the hotel's front desk. He also visits the rooms of other guests, like the needy, somewhat deranged Lenore Karadyne (Broadway star Madeleine Sherwood), who hasn't been paying her bill.
"Duo-Vision" turns out to be a standard split screen effect, with two images side-by-side, each slightly window-boxed. The gimmick makes what would be a dull suspense picture mildly interesting. Director Bare works hard to keep the split-screen idea alive through the entire picture. Although we see no real innovations with the technique, Bare uses it in several different ways:
Parallel action: instead of cutting from the obsessed killer to his victim, both actions are kept on screen at the same time. This is the basic trick, and it works when there seems to be a this-is-happening-at-the-same-time connection. Our eyes dart back and forth, so as not to miss the relevant action. We're all now accustomed to seeing multiple security camera footage on the TV news, covering a hold-up. Precedents? For this kind of thriller idea, always look to Fritz Lang. His 1960 The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse sees us following action (in a hotel, no less) on surveillance cameras, secretly following people room-to-room.
Both sides of a conversation: Instead of cutting the scene, both single angles are side by side. Eye-lines of course do not match up. When detective Stewart and the frightened Lisa talk in a cafe booth, we realize that only one camera was used because the action doesn't match: little edits were made to make the dialogue line up. The film has no scenes arranged like Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, where we see simultaneous synchronized close-ups of a person from different angles. De Palma in particular likes to play clever synchronicity games with different angles.
Associative comparisons: Bellboy Hank Lassiter (Edd Byrnes) is continually being 'paired' with images of the hotel's female guests, telling us what he's thinking about. This one isn't used much.
Flashbacks and commentary: The editing doesn't interrupt with flashbacks to give us Jason Gant's sordid background, but instead shows him 'remembering' in one panel while part of what would normally play as a flashback plays out on the other side. Gant seems to have been screwed up as a child by being molested by a relative (his mother?), similar to Joe Buck's twisted youth in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy. Alternately, flashbacks of Lenore Karadyne contradict her lies about her background. She says her marriage was pleasant, and on the opposite panel we see an argument with her late husband turn into a murder. Lenore boasts that she was an important actress, and the truth-telling panel reveals that she was a lurid strip-tease artist. Jason Gant's flashbacks are meant to be his subjective memory-visions, but the images contradicting Lenore's version of events come from some omniscient 'super editor', clueing us in on the sordid truth behind her words.
Filler, and clever filler: Sometimes Bare will cut to random shots of the outside of the Hotel. We think, yes, the action on the left panel is happening in that building, but there's no real parallel connection. We suspect that he just had to find something to cut to. But another 'filler' construction makes a major contribution to the movie. One of the opening scenes shows an amusing organist lady (Maryesther Denver) opening the music sheets for the silent movie The Phantom of the Opera. Although composer Philip Springer contributes some electronic themes, whenever Jason Gant is on the move, the catchy 'suspense-o' sound of the pipe organ playing the Phantom score provides a fun, campy musical accompaniment. Bare will cut back to Ms. Denver's hands or face on one of the panels, reminding us of the artificial connection. It adds an amusing level to the movie, letting us know that the filmmakers don't expect us to take it seriously. In one sequence the organist's wide-open eyes seem to be watching the violence taking place on the panel next door. Frankly, the resulting self-awareness rescues the movie from mediocrity.
The movie could use more such jokes, as there isn't a great deal to admire beyond the gimmick. Neither the filming nor the acting is particularly inspired and the leading actors are dull. Tiffany Bolling has two big singing numbers, and they're both terrible. One of them is a title tune. Local Police Sgt. Ramsey (Scott Brady) assumes that playboy Hank Lassiter may be the maniac, but nobody thinks to suspect the mousey handyman Jason. As played by Randolph Roberts, psycho-Jason is less than exciting, although what he does with the women he kills is certainly creepy enough. When asked if anybody's been acting strangely, Lisa doesn't recall Jason's shy, introverted attempt to chat her up at rehearsal. The great Madeleine Sherwood has a terrible part to play but does it well; in some shots she looks like Angela Lansbury's demented, exaggerated twin sister.
Director Bare seems to have had his hands full coordinating his split-screen ideas, trying to think in terms of binary screens. He reportedly planned a return bout with Duo-Vision but Wicked, Wicked didn't do well in theaters. MGM of a couple of years before might have released it properly but 1973 was rock bottom for the company. Production chief James Aubrey was chopping up films right and left, even several by respected directors. True, Wicked, Wicked could really use a good leading performance or two, but with decent hype and distribution it might have been a reasonable hit.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Wicked, Wicked is a fairly unique item. We're told that it went unseen until TCM showed it a few years ago... there's no good way to show it on TV without letterboxing. Although the IMDB says the aspect ratio is 2.65:1, MGM and other sources confirm that the film is straight 2:35 anamorphic, with the two images slightly window-boxed left and right (except for occasional full-width shots). The audio is stereo. 2
The transfer is only so-so. The entire film is an optical, and the image is consistently light and slightly soft. I thought the individual scenes had been filmed in 16mm until I saw the trailer, where color, contrast and sharpness are all better.
Duo-Vision was a clever idea to distinguish a low-budget picture in the marketplace. But even with its poor distribution, Wicked, Wicked might have caught on if the filmmakers had taken the split-screen concept further. The other examples I mention contain sequences that brought viewers to full attention, and even stretched film linguistics a bit. This film's best gag is its playful filler material, with the dotty organist 'editorializing' on the slasher film as it unspools.
That said, director Richard L. Bare has earned his place in history -- he directed the famous To Serve Man episode of The Twilight Zone.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wicked, Wicked DVD-R rates:
Movie: Good +/-
Video: Good -
Supplements: Original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 15, 2014
1. A show that pushes the split screen idea a little bit more is Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain. As some bio-hazard doctors investigate a town where everyone has died, split-screens pair shots of dead bodies with the reactions of concerned doctors. We see the corpses of men, women and children lying on the floor or in their beds. Then, we see that one of the bodies is the doctor's wife back in Washington D.C.. The doctor's mind is racing ahead, imagining what will happen if the outer-space germ gets loose -- and he thinks of his wife. Shorthand messages delivered? A thought can be an image. The doctor loves his wife.
2. As the window-boxed images inside the Duo-Vision setup are slightly shorter than the height of the screen, maybe measuring them is what yields the claimed 2:65 aspect ratio. Curiously, each of the two Duo-Vision panels is flat-full frame. We see unused real estate that could have made them wider. The trailer included on the disc is in wide screen, and the same shots from the film look quite good, as if they were filmed with cropping in mind.
3. Trivia question: the killer wears a rubber Halloween mask, inside-out, making himself look like the victim of a tragic bubble gum accident. We don't see the other side of the mask. I must have had a dozen of those things as a child; half of them were the 'skull' mask. I thought Jason's mask might be the once- popular 'hobo' mask used by Sterling Hayden in The Killing, but I don't see the big 'bump' where the hobo's cigar ought to be. This obviously is an important issue that America should stop and ponder. Anybody have any ideas what specific mask Jason is wearing?
Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson
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