Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Viewing: William Castle’s 1961 Thriller, “Homicidal”

William Castle
 The more adventurous among you may remember our previous excursions into the macabre - our visits to haunted hills - to tinglers and to ghosts. This time we have even a stranger tale to unfold... The story of a lovable group of people who just happen to be homicidal.

If Alfred Hitchock was an artistic genius, William Castle was the genius of showmanship. Castle started his film career as an assistant to Orson Welles—not a bad beginning. He always wanted to be a director. He got his chance. And, now, he’s known as the King of B Pictures. We can credit Castle with films such as The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Thirteen Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, Straitjacket and I Saw What you Did. The former two starred Joan Crawford in her descent from Movie Queen and her ascent to Scream Queen. Castle was also the producer of Rosemary’s Baby.

William Castle always had a gimmick to promote his films. From skeletons on wires to seats rigged with mild electrical shocks, Castle was in the business of both baking and selling his films. However, his circus-like showmanship—while a draw to the young audiences he was targeting—tended to detract from any artistic merit his films may have possessed. As an auteur, Castle is better respected today than he was forty years ago. Many of his films have been remade in this century and have found a very loyal fanbase. Castle wanted to be “big,” he wanted to create box office magic. He did, too. Now, it’s just a matter of rediscovering his magic.

Hot on the heels of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Castle directed what some might consider a rip-off and others might consider an homage. Homicidal was William Castle’s answer to Psycho. While there are some shallow similarities, Homicidal holds up quite well as a genuinely thrilling picture all its own.

The story concerns a peculiar family. Miriam Webster’s (no relation to the dictionary) brother, Warren, has returned from abroad. He’s brought with him a young woman named Emily. Emily takes care of the sibling’s former nanny, now elderly and disabled. Some strange things begin to happen with Emily around—not the least of which is the seemingly unmotivated, gruesome murder of a Justice of the Peace.

Emily was played by the lovely Joan Marshall (Herman Munster’s original wife in the pilot of The Munsters”. Marshall is credited as “Jean Arless” in the film. The reasons for the use of the androgynous pseudonym become apparent as the film progresses. I won’t give anything away because William Castle made us all promise not to reveal the ending of the film. However, if you’d like to learn more, I suggest you want this short documentary about the picture. Of course, if you’d prefer to see the film spoiler-free, it’s available on DVD.

Homicidal is a bizarre and frightening picture. When you watch it, put Psycho out of your mind and enjoy it as its own story. You won’t regret it. You even get a “fright break” so you can leave the room before the end of the film if you just find it too, too scary. If you’d seen the picture in 1961 in a theater, you could have left and received a full-refund. However, everyone who left during the “fright break” was forced to stay in a yellow booth called “The Coward’s Corner.” Ah, William Castle—he giveth and he taketh away.

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