Thursday, March 12, 2015

HOMICIDAL 1961

Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, everywhere! Do not read if you haven't seen the film!

The late William Castle, schlock horror showman extraordinaire (The Tingler, Strait-Jacket, The House on Haunted Hill) wasn’t a bad director so much as an artless one. His pedestrian, TV-bland style of moviemaking ‒ by all appearances a “style” comprised of making sure the camera was in focus and pointed at the person speaking ‒ flattened and benumbd the performances of his actors and tended to drain the life out of the otherwise intriguingly bizarre narratives that were his latter-career métier. In fact, the sole mitigating factor distinguishing William Castle’s films from the formulaic, B-movie mediocrity of say, Roger Corman, was the sense that lurking somewhere behind William Castle’s bland, middle-class nice-guy aesthetics was a perverse, almost John Waters-like predilection for the grotesque and downright weird.

Unpretentious in the extreme (none of Castle’s films give the impression of aspiring to anything darker than the good-natured “Boo!” shouted in the dark), and with nary a subconscious demon to exorcise, Castle was nonetheless an ambitious man. One inarguably more overburdened with self-confidence than artistic vision; for Castle, while crude in his over-simplistic approach to his material, lacked the innate vulgarity to be a really interesting filmmaker. A seemingly decent man who was more a howman than deep-thinker, Castle built his career on the imitation/emulation of his idols, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.
As fate would have it, William Castle, through sheer huckster’s bravado and none of the talent, managed to carve out a more prolific producing/directing career than former colleague, Orson Welles (Castle served as associate producer on The Lady from Shanghai). And in a twist worthy of O. Henry, after years of dogging Alfred Hitchcock’s footsteps like a admiring, less-gifted little brother, the public taste pendulum had swung to such a corkscrew angle that it was eventually Hitchcock who wound up copying William Castle’s low-budget/heavy-hype style with 1960s Psycho. And while it must be said that both directors are principally beholden to Henri-Georges Clouzot for his 1955 horror classic, Les Diaboliques (whose final frame beseeched audience members not to be diabolical and reveal the film’s surprise ending to friends), Psycho’s then groundbreaking “No one will be admitted after the film starts” screening gimmick was a page lifted straight out of the William Castle hoopla handbook.
Which brings us to Homicidal, a clear case of “Who’s copying whom?”
Joan Marshall as Emily
Glenn Corbett as Karl Anderson
Patricia Breslin as Miriam Webster
Jean Arliss as Warren Webster
Euginie Leontovich as Helga Swenson
Richard Rust as Jim Nesbitt
Alan Bruce as Dr. Jonas
William Castle had slogged away for years making crime programmers and detective 2nd features before achieving moderate success (if not respectability) in the Drive-In / Saturday Matinee horror circuit. Consequently, it really must have burned his biscuits when a slumming Alfred Hitchcock came along with Psycho, fairly beating him at his own game and emerging with his A-List reputation not only intact, but reinforced. The horror gauntlet had been thrown down. Castle was left with no choice but to prove that he was still a game player in a field he’d heretofore had all to himself.

Homicidal is basically Psycho-lite: all the sturm with none of the drang. It’s a largely inept, ergo wildly entertaining, homage/rip-off of only the most superficial of Psycho’s exploitation-worthy plot points and identifiable Hitchcock templates. All served up with William Castle’s trademark bargain-basement theatrics and nonexistent visual style.

A sure-footed director like Hitchcock can afford to string his audience along for nearly fifty-minutes before unleashing the big shocker moment. William Castle, not so much.
After an intriguing but amateurishly-executed prologue set in 1948 wherein a little boy enters a playroom and swipes a doll from a little girl who’s no Margaret O’Brien in the crying department, Homicidal jumps to the present-day and embarks on the film’s one truly effective suspense setpiece. A protracted sequence in which an icy “Hitchcock blonde” buys a wedding ring, rents a hotel room, and offers a bellboy $2,000 to marry her on September 6th, the wedding to be annulled immediately after. All this leading up to Homicidal’s big shocker moment: a brutal knife attack. All probably quite shocking for 1961, but the best that can be said for it now is that it matches in unintentional laughs what Psycho’s shower sequence provided in screams.
From setup to dénouement, the sequence clocks in at a brisk fifteen minutes, and, primed as we are with apprehension by the  non-stop allusions to Psycho and our own piqued curiosity over the cryptic behavior of the woman; Homicidal begins on a fairly suspenseful high note. A note conspicuously lacking once the story proper kicks in.

After an extended stay in Denmark (!), odd-looking Warren Webster, the androgynous, slim-hipped heir with the $10 million overbite, returns to his family home in Solvang, California to claim his due inheritance on the occasion of his fast-approaching 21st birthday. 
In tow are Helga, Warren’s childhood nurse and guardian following the death of his parents, now a mute invalid after suffering a stroke; and Emily, Helga’s striking but equally odd-looking nurse of mysterious origin and whiplash mood swings. Emily, whose manner is as stiff and brittle as her severe blond flip hairdo with fringe bangs, shares an ambiguous relationship with Warren (friend, companion, wife?) which rouses the genteel suspicions of his half-sister with the dictionary name, Miriam Webster. Emily meanwhile tries to rouse more than just suspicions (if you get my cruder meaning) in Karl, Miriam’s square, square-jawed sweetheart who at one time was Warren’s childhood bully-for-pay playmate (fearing his son not masculine enough, Warren’s screwball of a father paid Karl to engage Warren in fistfights).

Faster than you can say“We all go a little mad sometimes,” local outbreaks of assault, vandalism, and long-winded elder abuse alert authorities of a possible connection to the murder that opened the film. A connection tied to Warren, his inheritance, and all those around him who may or may not be exactly as they seem.
Emily, having a particularly trying day.
Written by William Castle’s frequent collaborator Robb White (Macabre, 13 Ghosts), Homicidal has the makings of a fairly decent thriller, its potential submarined by the inadequacy of its particulars. Happily for all us lovers of camp, William Castle’s carnival barker instincts as a director never allow the film’s wan performances, risible dialog, and dry criminal procedural to distract from what are obviously his foremost points of interest: Homicidal’s two gimmicky hooks. There’s the gimmick he could openly promote - the one-minute “Fright Break” which stopped the film and allowed audience members too frightened to see the finale an opportunity to flee the theater and get their money back (but only after suffering the indignity of sitting in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby). Then there’s the “surprise” gimmick which raises the stakes of Psycho’s cross-dressing twist, pulls a Christine Jorgensen reversal, and introduces movie audiences (a first?) to the “Ripped from today’s headlines!” sensationalism of gender reassignment surgery.
William Castle assigned TV actress Joan Marshall the gender-neutral name of
Jean Arless to better conceal Homicidal's twist ending
William Castle was responsible for some of the oddest films to come out of the 50s and 60s. When they were silly, essentially one-note genre programmers like The Tingler, Castle’s barely-above-average B-movie skills were a perfect match for the minimal demands of both the audience and the stories themselves. But as Robert Evans knew when he wrested Rosemary’s Baby from him and handed it over to Roman Polanski, Castle’s uninspired directing style is woefully ill-suited to anything requiring an understanding of things like editing, pacing, composition, the building of suspense, and the appropriate application of a music score. Homicidal is no Rosemary’s Baby, but its compellingly preposterous plot is not without its appeal. Disregarding the obvious handicap of Robb White’s terrible dialog:

Warren, what do you really know about her?”
“What do we really know about anybody?”

Homicidal cries out for a director with a bit more creative ingenuity and a willingness to go to some of the darker corners of its twisted plot than Castle was able to muster.
I can’t vouch for how all this played for 60s audiences (alarmingly, Time Magazine placed it on its list of Top 10 films of 1961), but behind some of the pleasure I take in laughing at Homicidal’s excesses and liabilities, there’s the nagging frustration born of a opportunity lost and potential squandered.
Emily's strong response to children and the topic of marriage is only vaguely addressed 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
If you’re gonna rip-off Psycho and need a gimmick to pull it off, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as effective as the Warren/Emily – Jean Arless/Joan Marshall gambit. Why? Because it’s a gimmick that works even when it doesn’t work.

The first time I saw Homicidal was when it aired on one of those weekend “Creature Feature” horror movie TV programs in my early teens. I was unfamiliar with the plot then, but right from the start one thing stood out: there was something really strange about the actors playing Emily and Warren. Emily seemed carved out of wood, so angular were her striking features, and what with her stilted manner of speech and rigid carriage, she came across like some alien being trying to approximate human behavior.  (Actress Joanna Frank achieved a similar quality when she played a queen bee in human form in “Zzzz”, my absolute episode of The Outer Limits).
Something about Miriam brings out the full-throttle biocth in Emily
Warren, with his odd, immobile features and that robotic, disembodied dubbed voice, was downright eerie. I knew there was something “off” about this pair and never once thought the roles were played by different actors. But having grown up on Some Like it Hot, Uncle Miltie, and a particularly disturbing episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour titled, The Unlocked Window; I immediately assumed female-impersonation was the gimmick and that Warren was an actor playing a dual role. I was genuinely surprised to learn a woman did the cross-dressing.

The exceptional thing about Joan Marshall – and you’ll never convince me of this being an intentional acting choice – is that whether dressed as a man or woman, she never quite comes off as a plausible human being of either sex. Hers is such a disorienting, androgynous presence; she (and the brilliant work of makeup artist Ben Lane) single-handedly imbue Homicidal with the surreal, creepy vibe William Castle nearly buries under his bromidic guidance.
(As further proof of the enduring effectiveness of this gambit, as recently as a year ago, my partner watched Homicidal for the first time and he too thought it was a male actor playing the roles of Warren and Emily.)

PERFORMANCES
Actress Joan Marshall is absolutely the best thing about Homicidal and the only reason I can still watch the film. Her campy performance may not be “good” by conventional standards (we’re talking a William Castle film here), but in every aspect, it is oh, so “right.”
In a cast of hair-raisingly ordinary actors giving by-the-numbers performances, Marshall comes off as an arch drag queen in her Emily persona (she’s like a proto-Coco Peru), and her Warren reminds me of a more charismatic Ron Reagan Jr. 
I'd read somewhere that Raquel Welch had wanted to play both roles in Myra Breckinridge, and actress Sally Kellerman sought the same in the stage version of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Interesting ideas, but like the never-convincing-as-a-man Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria, I always suspect that had these actresses got their wish, there would have been too much of a temptation to maintain the leading lady's glamour. No such vanity takes place in Homicidal. Marshall may make a weird-looking man, but she really does look like a guy (pretty much like any member of your average 80s punk band, in fact). And for my money, even Barbara Streisand’s Yentl has to take a back seat to Joan Marshall’s unforgettably hooty gender role-playing.
Handsome Glenn Corbett, in Homicidal's equivalent of the John Gavin role in Psycho, isn't given an opportunity to make much of an impression. Perhaps his photo from his early days as a physique model (circa 1955) will help to rectify that.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
What a difference a year makes. Psycho came out in 1960, and fast on its heels in 1961 came Homicidal. There's always been a thin line between homage, inspired-by, borrowed from, and just plain ripped-off; but Homicidal owes so much to Psycho, were the film made today, Castle would likely have to split the profits with Hitchcock. Here are a few of the most glaring similarities. Fittingly, the Psycho images are first.

                                                         Location Identification

The Fugitive Kind: Janet Leigh and Joan Marshall on the lam

Psycho's Laurene Tuttle & John McIntire in roles (and robes) similar to those later 
occupied by James Westerfield and Hope Summers 

Martin Balsam and Patricia Breslin apprehensively climb the stairs
                                   
John Gavin unmasks and subdues Anthony Perkins,
Alan Bruce performs the same duties for Joan Marshall


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I don't know whether it was William Castle's intention to mask his shortcomings as a director behind distracting gimmicks and promotional ploys. or merely use those devices as a means of distinguishing himself (an independent filmmaker) in a field dominated by the major studios. But the fact remains that he succeeded, limitations and all, where many more talented and better-financed directors failed: he made movies that were entertaining and that endure. My personal favorites, Strait-Jacket, The Tingler, I Saw What You Did, and Homicidal are more innocent than ominous. But they guarantee viewers a good time at the movies - an ironic good time, perhaps, but a good time nonetheless. 
Halloweenlove.com
BONUS MATERIAL:
Joan Marshall appeared on many TV shows (many available on YouTube) before making her "debut" as Jean Arless in Homicidal. She married director Hal Ashby (Being There, Harold & Maude) in 1970 and both she and William Castle appear in Ashby's 1975 film, Shampoo, rumored to be based, at least in part, on aspects of her life (for example, Tony Bill’s character is said to be based on her brother). Although their marriage was troubled, Marshall remained married Ashby until his death in 1988. She passed away in 1992.
Walking past a seated Warren Beatty, Joan Marshall as she appears in 1975s Shampoo

Joan Marshall stars in this 1964 unaired pilot for The Munsters. Network execs thought Marshall's Phoebe Minster (changed to Lily Munster when cast with Yvonne De Carlo) bore too close a resemblance to The Addams Family's Morticia.



This is The Fright Break! You hear that sound? It's the sound of a heartbeat. A frightened, terrified heart. Is it beating faster than your heart, or slower? This heart is going to beat for another twenty-five seconds to allow anyone to leave this theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture. Ten seconds more and we go into the house! It's now or never!
Five..four...You're a brave audience!

Copyright © Ken Anderson

41 comments:

  1. Hello! First-time commenter here!

    I've been reading and enjoying your blog for weeks now (I read a post or two each lunch break at work) and thought it was about time I said "thank you." Your style is enormously entertaining and, what I like best, not condescending, even toward films that appear to have little redeeming value. I completely agree that if one enjoys a film, then that film is worthwhile, regardless of what professional reviewers may say.

    Unfortunately, since the date I started reading, your new posts have not been about films I've actually seen! So I haven't been able to join the fun and spirited conversations around them.

    You have inspired me to add several movies to my NetFlix cue, including "The Wiz," "Reflections in a Golden Eye," "Hair" and--yes--"Xanadu" (which I have seen, but not since August 1980--I was 15 years old at the time).

    If in the future, you get to titles such as "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Midnight Lace," or "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon," I'll be all over them! --Dave K.

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    1. David, I try to avoid things like this on other people's blogs, but I hope Ken will understand. Until he gets around to his own (surely more insightful!) take on "Midnight Lace," I will offer you up my own. I figure you'll enjoy the variety of photos no matter what! -- http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-midnight-howler.html

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    2. Thanks, Poseidon3! That's a great write-up, and a fantastic selection of photos and posters!

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    3. Hello David!
      And what a very nice introduction. It's actually I who should be thanking you for carving out lunch-hour time to read my blogs. As one who still marvels that there are so many fans of the obscure and questionable, I'm deeply flattered!
      I was most impressed that you seized upon the comprehensive theme of this blog, which is to refute the popular notion that a film must be "good" in order to be enjoyed. There are definitely objective variables at play in what makes a film relevant, intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive; but I've always held that movies are an art form that speaks to each of us in such personal, subjective ways, we do it and ourselves a huge disservice to fail to recognize how our hearts can be enlivened by movies that fall short of being candidates for Cahiers du Cinema.
      The diversity of the films you have lined up as a result of reading about them here hint of your being a kindred spirit, but the list of terrific films you cite at the end of you comment (Junie Moon! Millie! Midnight Lace!) confirm that you are bound to be a very welcome contributor. Welcome aboard !

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    4. Hi Poseidon
      Thanks for including the link to your terrific post on "Midnight Lace"...David, if you don't mind losing more lunch hour time, I'd heartily recommend Poseidon's Underworld's comprehensive and thoughtful articles on film. It's one of my favorites!

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  2. Like you I saw this for the first time on TV when I was a teen. Can't remember if I had seen PSYCHO first, but I doubt it. Even without any knowledge of PSYCHO I think any viewer would find it hard not to be distracted by the character of Warren whenever he's on screen. His obviously dubbed and incongruous voice, those ridiculous false teeth and his strange waxy features -- a big red flag that some masquerade work is going on. I think anyone who watches it knows something is odd about that actor. But I loved every last minute of this movie. It's utterly lurid in a loopy way and completely over the top. I think a great double feature would be HOMICIDAL and the trashy remake of Davis' A STOLEN LIFE -- DEAD RINGER.

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    1. Hi John
      When writing this I found I had a hard time remembering if I'd seen "Psycho" on TV first or not, as well. Truth to tell, "Psycho" was a kindertrauma moment for me. I was so shaken by the shower scene I immediately changed channels, and only saw the film in its entirety many many years later (after my nightmares subsided).
      "Homicidal" holds no such memories for me, I don't know why but even as a youngster it never sacred me so much as I enjoyed it in a "Twilight Zone", suspense kind of way.
      For me, Castle seems incapable of pulling off scary. He seems however, very at home with strange (If you ever get a chance, check out the absolutely bizarre "Shanks"...the movie could have been a macabre classic, but Castle turns it into a bad Jerry Lewis film).

      I enjoy "Homicidal" a great deal, and find that most people coming to it without much prior knowledge tend to feel, as you say, that there is something a little off about Warrren, but with the voice, teeth, stiff posture, and odd features, they can't quite put their finger on it. I was shocked to read on IMDB that some people actually think Joan Marshall is speaking as Warren! Its a TERRIBLE, obviously dubbed voice! it sounds like one of those awful flat voices used in old cartoons from Japan like "Astro Boy" or "Kimba."
      By the way, I recently saw "Dead Ringer" on TCM after having not seen it in years...Hoo Booy!...trashy isn't the word!

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    2. "Its a TERRIBLE, obviously dubbed voice! it sounds those awful flat voices used in old cartoons from Japan like "Astro Boy" or "Kimba."

      Exactly! A perfect analogy. Where *did* they find those people with those voices? I burst out laughing at that this morning. Thanks for the laugh on this Friday the 13th. I'm sure it'll only get better. Actually I laugh and smile a lot each time I tune into this Dreamland of a blog! And hey -- what's up with Glenn Corbett's nipples in that beefcake shot? Holy eraser tips! :^D

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    3. Glad you got a laugh out of that. One of the things that's great about this blog is that it attracts readers who actually know what I'm talking about when I reference something arcane as "Kimba."

      I've always been disappointed that none of my research on "Homicidal" has yielded the name of the actor who dubbed Emily's voice, I'd like to know if he ever did anything else.
      And yes, Corbett's somewhat airbrush-enhanced nips give George Clooney's Batman suit some competition!

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  3. If you can say one thing about William Castle's movies, it's that they're single minded: he knows what he wants to do and he does it. Not as elegantly as Hitchcock, to be sure, but he gets the desired response. But I love them all.

    I love in the promo for Homicidal where a guy shakes Castle's hand and telling him that Hitchcock will have to do a lot to "catch up," while Castle just beams.

    It's telling that in (virtually) all of Castle's movies--Macabre, Homicidal, 13 Ghosts, The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, Strait Jacket, the Night Walker--the primary motivation is always money.

    Now I'm looking forward to your write-up on Straight Jacket.

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    1. Such good observations! Castle's work is indeed single-minded, and in noting that fact, I think you hit on what eluded me a bit in delineating just why his films seem to operate on one level and one level only.
      So many good directors seem to have eight eyes (like a spider)...they can tell a story, note subtext and subthemes, while giving depth and backstory to characters.
      Castle always had a plot- or gimmick -in mind, and looked neither right nor left in reaching the conclusion. Even the excellent point you make about money being at the root of so many of his plots points to his psychological simplicity. Hitchcock always had so many fetishes and dark preoccupations leak out onto the frames of his movies. Castle...not the most introspective of men... never appeared to have any inner depths to plumb. It's like he could think of nothing more morally compromising than the desire for money.


      I recall that promo you speak of and indeed, one of the reasons I cut Castle so much slack is that he is such an eager to please showman, you can't really dislike him. He had what was to me an unjustified faith in his abilities, but he never came across as thinking himself
      particularly "gifted,"
      Thanks very much for your comment, and if you're really interested in my thoughts about "Strait-Jacket" here's the link to the post I wrote about it last year:
      http://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2014/04/strait-jacket-1964.html

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    2. I don't know that Castle had no depths to plumb--he was definitely a smart guy. It might be more that, as an independent producer, he didn't want to do anything that would risk a movie's ability to turn a profit.

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  4. Hi Ken - I have never seen this one, but in spite of the spoilers, I'm sold. Can't wait to see it. Looks like Jean Arless really pulls off a homicidal Victor/Victoria! I wouldn't miss that for the world.

    I love the "cameo appearances" of some of my favorite films in this post...Shampoo (wow, she was Hal Ashby's wife?)...Rosemary's Baby (thank God Castle did not direct, but he is PERFECT as the annoyed man haunting Rosemary's phone booth!) ...and of course Psycho.

    Are you familiar with the UK film "Peeping Tom"? It was billed as Great Britain's answer to Psycho...and is even a bit racy for the early 60s, and in color...it's one of the best in the 1960s serial killer genre.

    I agree with your reader MDG - can't wait till you tackle Straight-Jacket...though my favorite Castle is still I Saw What You Did, also with the fabulous Joan Crawford.

    Thanks again, Ken, for being so prolific this year. I look forward with anticipation to every installment!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris, and Thanks!
      I like your taking note of the "cameo appearances" thing that happens when it becomes clear that one's taste in movies is bound to produce a weird, six-degrees-of-separation effect over time. The people, topics, and themes just tend to lend themselves to overlapping sometimes in the weirdest ways(like Hope Summers, the screaming lady above, and familiar as Clara Edwards on "The Andy Griffith Show", appearing as one of the witches in "Rosemary's Baby" - which, as you point out, included the Castle cameo).

      I adore the film "Peeping Tom" and hope to get around to writing about it someday. I saw it for the first time about 15 years ago on TCM. Always so curious seeing a film with such a notorious reputation. It still packs a considerable punch, but is so tame. I never understand why we never learn our lesson about censorship...no only does time date every subject matter, but if its human...who are we protecting?
      Oh, and thanks for mentioning "I Saw What You Did"...I love that film in spite of there being so little Crawford. But her "Get outta heah!" scene is worth the price of admission..
      So appreciate your supportive enthusiasm Chris, you're the best!

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  5. Yay! I LOVE "Homicidal" and have ever since AMC showed it way back in the late-'80s or something. Good, bad or otherwise, it's just so compelling. I've always had an inexplicable attraction to Glenn Corbett (though his modeling photo helps explain some of it!) and I'm nuts about Richard Rust's '60s movies. His face has a Kevin Bacon-ish quality, but IMHO better looking. Eugenie Whatserface in a silent role is downright haunting. You can feel the agony in her as she tries to communicate. Thank you, especially, for the wonderful side by side (frame by frame?) comparisons with "Psycho." Castle clearly looked that film over GOOD before doing this one (and must have gotten his hands on a print of it in those pre-VCR days!)

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Yes, I think "homicidal" is one of those films that "works" for audiences whether they legitimately get into it, or whether they're just riffing on it. In it's way, that's a talent in itself, and few directors beyond William Castle knew how to make bad so good.
      I have always had a kind of crush on Richard Rust, too, the only other thing I've seen him in was "Walk on the Wild Side" and maybe an episode of some old TV western, but he had quite a lot of sex appeal.
      I never really "appreciated" Glenn Corbett until researching this post and coming upon thoe physique photos and reading stories about his alleged bisexuality. Suddenly this dull leading man became very interesting!
      More photos here:
      http://guywoodhouse.tumblr.com/post/113428032677/homicidals-glenn-corbett-during-his-physique

      And you're right about the weird accuracy Castle was able to achieve in copying so much of "Psycho" in the pre-VCR days I wondered too, did he have a copy of his own to reference?

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  6. Well, Ken, Homicidal just went to the top of my NetFlix queue... it's a double feature DVD with...Straitjacket!

    Wouldn't have been awesome if Joan Crawford had been offered the Homicidal double role...as a man, she probably would have looked like Jack Palance!

    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      Ha! Talk about your missed opportunities! Joan as a man (a redundancy in latter years) would have been a marvelous gimmick. And you hit pay dirt with the Jack Palance reference. Chilling!
      Hope you enjoy the film(s) such a great double DVD set, isn't it?

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  7. One of the things I love about your essays is how you catch details that pass me by -- such as Warren's sister being named after a dictionary (was that a joke or unintentional in the script? I almost hope it's unintentional; putting it in as a real joke doesn't seem like Castle's in-your-face clunky style). I agree with all your points on Castle's flat, uninventive direction; and often I find the results dismaying (12 Ghosts is pretty bad; and The Night Walker and Macabre are dreadful). But he came up with memorable camp classics, such as The Tingler and this film. I've seen Homicidal in theaters with audiences and viewers really do enjoy it and catch on to its humor. And you're so right about Joan Marshall/Jean Arless, how unsettling she is in both female and male modes (she looks like a store mannequin as Emily; and as Warren she looks like a homely Katharine Hepburn in drag). There's always something unconsciously subversive in Castle's 'best' films, as if he let slip in something odd and outrageous that he's not quite aware of (he always seemed more focused on the silly gimmick). Homicidal is really his magnum opus in that direction; except for some moments in Straitjacket, he never really did anything quite as loopy again. A great post, as usual!

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    1. Hello GOM
      I'm with you in hoping that the whole Miriam Webster thing was unintentional. I know it's supposed to suggest Marion Crane, but since I don't attribute much in the way of wit to either Castle or Robb White, it's hard to think of them inserting a little joke (not without wanting to shine a big spotlight on it, anyway).
      i would love to see "Homicidal" in a theater. I'm assuming they recreated the "Coward's Corner"/ Nowadays I can only imagine the entire audience emptying the house during the Fright Break just to have the honor of taking sellfies in the Coward's Corner.
      When I was writing this I was trying to find the right word to describe Marshall's look as Emily and you hit it: mannequin. She looks exactly like a mannequin come to life!
      And I agree about there being something subversive about how out and out weird Castle's choices of subject matter could be. I think he was a John Waters underground filmmaker trapped in the body and mindset of a 50s vacuum cleaner salesman.
      Thanks for visiting the site and especially for the kind words!

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    2. The theater showings I've been to for Homicidal have done the 'Coward's Corner' gimmick, with a theater employee to slink off in shame at that moment - audiences always enjoy it and get into the spirit. Some theaters even outline a 'path' to the corner, with arrows pointing to where it is and a sign marking it off.

      It's odd that you should mention John Waters, since earlier I had been thinking that Emily reminded me of Mink Stole; there's something so over the top in her angled cheek bones and plastic hair, and also in the starchy suit and coat she wears in her opening scene, which are detailed to the point of fetishism (just the gloves alone sound volumes!). I wonder if traces of Emily's influence can be found in Waters's films.

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    3. Waters has said/written several times that William Castle was a major influence on him.

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    4. That's interesting what you mention about the Mink Stole persona, which seems a female drag aesthetic culled from that 50s/60s middle-class "sophisticate" look I associate with a Suzy Parker or Bess Myerson.
      I think one of the reasons Castle's films work so well, and in turn, John Waters', is because they come out of an era of repression. It's no mistake that the severe look of the era:: gloves, girdle, bullet bras, stiff hairstyles - have been appropriated by fetishists.
      Both Castle and Waters were at their best when the oddness of their films pushed subversively against the restrictive times they came out of. Based on the quality of Castle's work after Rosemary's Baby, and Waters' in the 90s, both filmmakers seemed to lose their bite once society caught up with their weirdness.

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  8. Boy did this post take me back Ken!
    When I was a kid I never missed a William Castle film. And I still remember seeing 'The Tingler' and 'Zotz!' at packed matinees.
    'Homicidal' was pretty much over my head as a 10-year-old (!) but that early stabbing was a shocker in its day.
    Castle was such a huckster, appearing on screen before each of his movies, which made him the first 'auteur' in my kiddie matinee group.
    I had no idea at the time how primitive his movies were and, now, sadly, I find them unwatchable.
    Years later I gasped when I realized who Julie Christie was talking to before she went under the table in "Shampoo."
    Thanks for the nostalgia trip!

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    1. Hi Joe
      How terrific that you got to see "Homicidal" in a non-ironic context! that's the thing that's so hard for me to imagine when it comes to Castle....remembering how his films may have been received before the "camp classic" revisionism kicked in.
      You're lucky to have seen this one especially, since it was such an effort on his part to compete in the big leagues (I'd long forgotten about "Zotz!"...Tom Poston, was it? That man was on every game show when I was growing up).
      The kiddie matinee "auteur" comment reminds me that when I was a little kid, the only directors I knew were Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney (I mistakenly took Disney for a director because, like Hitchcock, he had his own TV show). They were like the only directors Hollywood needed in my child's mind: one for scary movies, one for cartoons.
      In a strange way, I'm glad to hear you find Castle's film's unwatchable now. It would be a shame if the sheer camp appeal of his films succeeded in blinding everyone to what I think is the perfect description you gave for his films: "primitive" - a word which also accounts for their charm.
      Lastly, as per your "Shampoo" reference, I had a similar gasp moment when in the middle of the horrific prestige picture "The Day of the Locust," up pops the horror schlockmeister as the Waterloo director! From "Rosemary's Baby" on, Castle's cameos in other people's movies were classier than his own films.
      Thanks for stopping by, Joe!

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  9. Sorry that this is being left as ANONYMOUS merely because I can't figure out how to create an account. Another outstanding review. I love your movie picks and enjoy your critiques. Speaking of bad drag that is obvious but still unsettling... have you thought about writing up THE COLOR OF NIGHT, the absolutely insane Bruce WIllis thriller directed by Richard Rush? I've always wondered why it took Rush 14 years to make another film after he earned an Oscar nomination as Best Director in 1980 for THE STUNT MAN. Keep up the great blog! --Kevin

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    1. Hi Kevin
      I'm familiar with that "anonymous" glitch from when i visit other blogs. Trust me, it's not a problem...I appreciate your making the effort in spite of it.
      Thanks for liking my rather eclectic pick in movies. They're not all "classics" in the traditional sense, but each is a movie I've come to enjoy for one reason or another.
      As far as unsettling drag goes, I haven't thought of (or seen) "The Color of Night" in YEARS! What a perfect double bill for "Homicidal"!
      I saw it when it came out and I only remember that it was "this close" to being a laugh riot. Somehow Lesley Ann Warren's overheated performance still stands out in my mind...
      You've sparked my re-interest in seeing it again. If it's as hooty as I remember, I'm sure I won't be able to resist covering it.
      Sounds your tastes fit right in with this blog! Thanks for commenting Kevin, and for reminding me of a true William Castle-worthy thriller!

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  10. Thanks for this! Castle had the knack for finding pulpy, juicy concepts but he was such a basic director. He really should have been just a producer. At least he paved the way for Dante's unforgettable 'Matinee'.

    My main problem with the movie is that I feel they went about the 'twist' the wrong way around: the first time I saw Emily on screen with that terrible, terrible fright wig I figured something was up with her 'personality' anyway.

    They shouldn't have tried to have Joan Marshall get a close-crop for the Warren role since I don't think there ever was any chance she'd 'pass' especially with that tin-can dubbing. I'd much rather they put the wig on Warren and kept her longer natural hair for Emily. For me at least, the realization would have been a tiny bit delayed...

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    1. Hi Mangrove
      I agree with you 100%. Castle really had an eye for the tantalizingly bizarre, but he was not exactly gifted behind the camera.
      And that's an interesting point you make about what didn't work for you. I wonder how a little detail like that might have played out suspense-wise. In either event Castle hit pay-dirt with an actress possessing such a unique appearance that at least an appropriate amount of doubt is cast as to whether were watching a man in female drag or a woman in male drag.
      Thanks for commenting (and I have yet to see "Matinee"! I've got some catching up to do)!

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  11. Well Ken, I watched Homicidal...and nearly died laughing! The scene where Emily shatters Warren's picture was like a cross between Mommie Dearest and a Carol Burnett movie spoof!

    Jean Arless/Joan Marshall is fascinating to watch. The bad dubbing job undercuts her efforts as Warren. It reminded me of Pee Wee Herman's cameo in his own movie within a movie as the bellhop: "Paging Mr. Herman, Mr. Herman, you have a telephone call!"

    Here is a great behind the scenes of "Homicidal":
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jux7ysYav54

    And for you and your readers, Bellhop PeeWee, looking and sounding for all the world like "Warren"!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jux7ysYav54

    You are on a roll, Ken!
    Write a film book and I would certainly buy it ; )

    Rico

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    1. Yay!! So glad you enjoyed your first exposure to the twisted pleasures of "Homicidal" The line between what this film is seriously going for and a Carol Burnett spoof is really nonexistent.
      Glad too that you got to see those extra features (I suppose you had to have been there, but it's so shard to imagine a time when "Homicidal" didn't evoke laughter and that some people found it scary). The present day talking heads engaged to talk about the film are taking generosity to a fault in being so serious about this film's quality. They are so sincere they come off as comical.
      I agree that Joan Marshall is fascinating to watch. Not really good, but she has a presence.
      And I just love the Pee Wee Herman reference which is perfection! Bravo to you for citing it! It's the ideal comedy point of reference for how strange the dubbing of Warren is in this film. That clip still cracks me up...plus, now that Morgan Fairchild is on TV hawking burial plans, it makes me feel OLD!
      Thanks for sharing those links with us and a big thanks for your kind words, Rick. You're very kind.

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  12. PS, Whoops, here's the PeeWee clip. Very "Warren" like!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaBgd_nOXKM

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  13. Hi Ken,

    I'm a bit late on this one but procuring a copy of the movie turned out to be somewhat more difficult than expected. I hadn't seen this before so when I saw the warning at the top of the article I went no further until I had given it a look.

    Well it was unquestionably a Castle production with all the clunkiness you mentioned but fun in it's cheap tawdriness. Love how you mentioned the fact that Joan Marshall doesn't look recognizably human as either Emily nor Warren, it's the creepiest part of the whole movie.

    Something this points up is how lucky Castle was to snag Crawford a couple of times and Stanwyck once, actresses who because of their talent and craftmanship were able to instill in their characters shading on their own because as a director he obviously couldn't guide his performers to do that. The best that can be said of all the actors and actress here is that they are serviceable.

    I agree that by far the most effective sequence is that mini movie leading up to the justice of the peace's home after the horrifying prologue, that freaky little boy with haunt my dreams for years!!

    The other positive was Glenn Corbett, he wasn't any better then anyone else in the film but boy was he dreamy. I'm not too well versed in the careers of Bob Mizer's AMG models but I think it's a safe bet that he ended up with the most successful career in the entertainment field of any of them and while he never made old bones he remained very attractive for most of his life.

    While it wasn't a cinematic masterpiece, or even close, it was worth checking out so as always Ken thanks for pointing it out.

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    1. Hi Joel
      When I wrote this post, I was under the impression "Homicidal" was one of those movies shown on TV for so many years, most everyone had seen it. I was surprised to hear of so many people never having seen it.
      I'm glad you avoided having your experience spoiled and could "enjoy" the movie with fresh eyes. And yes, Castle being able to attract real stars like Stanwyck and Crawford must have been a huge feather in his cap. On a TCM interview, Diane Baker (from "Strait-Jacket") all but admitted to Joan Crawford directing that film.
      That little boy who played Warren as a child (love your comment) reminded me of the little boy who played Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
      .And yes, Glenn Corbett is very easy on the eyes (I had to Google "made old bones"...I had never heard that expression before!)
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on seeing this move for the first time, I enjoyed reading it!

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    2. I love Diane Baker too and always wondered what the hell she was doing in Strait-Jacket at that point in her career placed as it was between The Prize with Paul Newman and Hitchcock's Marnie. She and Crawford were friends and apparently Joan asked her to do it, she too is better than the usual Castle player.

      Have you ever seen the other film that Joan & Diane co-starred in, Della? It is perhaps Joan's last hurrah at movie star glamour. Unlike the low grade horror films she finished her career in where everything including her wardrobe was on the cheap every effort is made to make her look as glamorous as possible. In every instance the walls and surrounding decor compliment Crawford's hair, make up and clothing making sure she dominates the scene. As befits a grande dame of a certain age there are scenes where the soft focus on her is so strong she actually appears hazy! With gravity defying hair and a total command of the screen she is never less than compelling treating the script's absurdities as if they were masterworks. The movie itself isn't much but worth catching for Joanie.

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    3. Yes, I saw "Della" for the first time last year on TCM. It was one of those things I'd never even heard of until it aired. What a curio!
      It was nice to see Crawford in the kind of classy production she clearly saw as her due, but when removed from the bargain-basement desperation of "Trog" or "I Saw What You Did", she seemed to revert back to that mannereed, Grande Dame acting that, while fun because it's IS Crawford, makes fro dull drama.
      Happily, as you point out, her outre, 60s brand of glamour (that hair!) was a show in and of itself.
      Diane Baker is a likable, natural screen presence, but I wonder what Crawford saw in her save an actress who seems to allow herself to fade into the background when THE LADY is onstage.

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    4. Crawford was in her regal mode in Della but that is sort of what the role called for and God knows she blew everybody off the screen especially that dull lump of nothing Paul Burke, an attractive but completely vacant actor. Apparently this was a pilot for a proposed series that didn't sell so they released it in Europe theatrically. Can you imagine a queenly Joan every week on your TV screen!! Heaven!

      I think it was on TCM where I saw or heard Diane Baker say she and Crawford bonded on the set of The Best of Everything. Joan had just lost Alfred Steele and returned to film and was lonely and somewhat insecure and Diane was sensitive to that. She's not an amazing talent but I'm always happy to see her turn up in a film. She's always a warm and competent presence and as she's aged retained a class that is quite refreshing. She's also a woman of many parts it seems, not only being an acting teacher but also an active producer and happily willing to share her memories of Old Hollywood freely.

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  14. Greatly enjoyed your post on Homicidal -- you give excellent descriptions of Jean Arless' "weirdness" and I love the comment that Warren seemed to be a "more charismatic Ron Reagan Jr," LOL! Years ago before the VHS/DVD/cable/Internet revolution there was a rumor circling that Leslie Parrish played the Joan Marshall role, even though Parrish had already been cast under her own name in previous movies [although I believe she used a different name, not "Jane Arless," in the earlier "Missile to the Moon." Marshall seems normal enough in her other performances, but she has a certain manic intensity in "Homicidal"that drives her performance and the film, although you are right that it is no "Psycho." -- William Schoell/Great Old Movies

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    1. Thank you, William!
      I hadn't hear that rumor about Leslie Parrish, but it shows that Castle did one thing right with "Homicidal" in casting an actress so unusual in appearance that even today people leap to the wrong conclusions about who she is, whether its her real voice, etc. It's too bad no one ever got Joan Marshall to talk about her experience making this film (or even her reaction to it, was she pleased with it? Embarrassed?)
      I'm very pleased that you enjoyed this post. I just took a look at your site and have to spend time visiting there. It looks like you write about a great many of my favorites! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  15. Homicidal is on TCM today and I decided to watch it to help me remember why I had to call my mother to pick me up from a Girl Scout sleepover where this was the late movie! Your column is hysterical, and the Castle/Hitchcock feud was unknown to me. Also love the early example of gratuitous product placement with the FTD symbol in Miriam's shop.
    Thanks Ken, following you.

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    1. Hello, Jill
      I hope revisiting "Homicidal" was less traumatic this time around...pretty heady stuff for a little kid! I am glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you very much for your kind words. I look forward to hearing from you again!

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