|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 March 2002|
William Castle used the previous year's big hit "Psycho" as a launching pad for his next Columbia chiller, "Homicidal." His frequent writer Robb White came up with a daring, even brash idea that, for most audiences, works just as intended. It will not be revealed here. The result is one of Castle's best films, taut, involving and suspenseful; it's not until you think about it later that you realize the story is pretty thin, and that the cast seems strangely underpopulated. The first time through, for most it does its job with dispatch and even some sense of style. It was good enough that the reviewer for "Time" magazine grandly (and wrongly) declared it better than "Psycho."
A sardonic, beautiful blonde arrives in Ventura, California, one night; her name, she says, is Emily (Jean Arless). She approaches a bellboy at her hotel, asking -- to his great shock -- that he marry her right away. The marriage will immediately be annulled, but she'll pay him a thousand dollars. They go to a local justice of the peace -- whom Emily stabs to death, then flees Ventura for the Danish-themed community of Solvang. (There's location shooting in both locales, unusual for Castle.) At the old house where she lives, she verbally tortures elderly, wheelchair-bound and mute Helga (Eugenie Leontovich).
Later, we meet Miriam (Patricia Breslin) and her fiance Karl (Glenn Corbett), as well as Warren, Miriam's half-brother. Police investigate the murder of the justice of the peace, but can't make contact with Emily.
"Homicidal" has a very different feel from any of Castle's similar films; it's crisp and compact, and Robb White's dialog isn't as arch as usual -- it serves the purpose and keeps the story moving. Castle's gimmick this time was the "Coward's Corner;" near the end, a clock appears on screen, giving audience members a short time to get to the "Coward's Corner" and ask for their money back. Initially, wiseass kids would sit through the film twice, then ask for their money back at the end of the second screening, so theaters time-dated tickets. Castle himself appears briefly before the opening credits.
The acting is standard for a medium-to-low-budget film of the period; Jean Arless is particularly good in a hard-to-play role. But though there's nothing wrong with Eugenie Leontovich's performance, she's required to play the terrified Helga in a peculiar manner: she communicates by rapping on the arm of her wheelchair, but randomly -- she doesn't even use the standard once-for-yes, twice-for-no code, making the character seem somewhat deranged.
There are only two murders in "Homicidal," and no character who's really homicidal at all; this is one of Robb White's tricks. The title was chosen, of course, for its resemblance to "Psycho," and there are few shots in the film that are deliberately reminiscent of Hitchcock's classic -- a bathtub/shower with the curtain drawn, for example. Those are, one assumes, primarily to reassure the audience that even if Castle is picking Hitch's pockets, he is not hiding the fact, but impishly acknowledging it.
In 1944, Castle directed the B-movie "When Strangers Marry" that turned out so well it got some top-of-the-bill bookings, and was on a few ten-best lists. Didn't do him any good with his studio; he was right back to directing B-movie series such as The Whistler and the Crime Doctor, and other, non-series cheapies like "New Orleans Uncensored," "Johnny Stool Pigeon" and "Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven." He even directed a 3D movie, "Fort Ti," so the idea of gimmicks must have been planted fairly early. He delighted in his self-created image of the bargain-basement Hitchcock, going on publicity tours for some of the horror films and meeting with fans across the nation. Eventually, the horror trend died out; he tried to keep his hand in here and there, but his last two films as a director, "Project X" (1968) and "Shanks" (1974) were barely distributed. His biggest triumph in Hollywood, as it turned out, wasn't as a director, but as the producer of "Rosemary's Baby" (in which he has a brief, amusing cameo). After publishing his questionable autobiography, "Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America" (it seems to have been ghost-written), Castle died in 1977, leaving an odd hole in movies that no one has tried to fill, although Joe Dante's "Matinee" is partly a tribute to Castle, with John Goodman as a Castle-like entrepreneur.
"Homicidal" was motivated by a desire to pry "Psycho"-like grosses out of American audiences; no one was out to make art. But it still remains one of the best films in the legacy of William Castle, schlockmeister extraordinaire.