Thursday, December 10, 2009

Film Review: HOMICIDAL (1961, William Castle)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 87 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Robb White (THE TINGLER, 13 GHOSTS). Starring Joan Marshall (SHAMPOO, THE HORSE IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT), Patricia Breslin (TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Nick of Time"- she's Shatner's gal), Glen Corbett (PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER, MIDWAY).
Best one-liner: "If you do not leave this house in the next minute, I will kill you!"

I'll continue the Hitchcock pastiche/rip-off week with a William Castle flick I saw for the very first time last week (and which has already become a favorite):

“A WORD OF WARNING! Please don't reveal the ending of this picture or your friends will kill you - IF THEY DON'T, I WILL!”
- William Castle

You have to love William Castle. Master showman and consummate glad-hander, the man would stagger his releases so that he could personally present them to Podunk theaters across the land. Hey, it's all about asses in seats, and Castle embraced that. The newly released DVD of HOMICIDAL offers a glimpse of this as he speaks to theatergoers after a screening in Youngstown, Ohio.

Viewer after viewer compares the film to PSYCHO, saying it’s far better- Castle smiles and humbly thanks each patron as they gush (one might even think perhaps that Castle’s entourage told them all to make this comparison).

You kind of get the idea that Castle thought he was running neck-and-neck with Hitch as they raced to win the title of ‘Master of the Thriller,’ and that there was a good chance that Hitchcock had no idea who this Castle guy was. Today, your average cineaste dismisses HOMICIDAL as a film designed entirely to cash in on the successes of Norman Bates and his zany mother, but, in its own hamfisted way, I believe that Castle’s film is even bolder than PSYCHO. (It’s certainly gorier, as well, not that it really matters.) I can’t go into the 'why' of it, as it would unleash spoilers that would cause Mr. Castle’s ghost to kick the livin’ shit out of me (as per the above quote), but here’s 5 spoiler-free reasons why HOMICIDAL is effin’ terrific.

#1. William Castle’s introduction. This is the kind of thing that made a lifetime fan out of little John Waters. Castle introduces his film with glee and absurdity (“We've been to Haunted Hills, and through Tinglers, and even Ghosts... but now we're going to meet a group of people who just happen to be... Homicidal.”) and he sews a piece of needlepoint as he does it. He pricks his finger, sucks it, and- BOOM- reveals the main title, neatly sewn into a grandmotherly “HOMICIDAL.”

#2. I know it was common for films of the day, but I love how “homicide” and “homicidal” are consistently pronounced “home-icide” and “home-icidal.” And each of those words is uttered about twelve thousand times in this movie.

#3. HOMICIDAL is the kind of movie where a character will mutter to themselves, “Well…what have I got to lose?” right before something terrible happens to them.

#4. Joan Marshall. (Credited as Jean Arless.)

As the off-kilter caregiver Emily, Joan makes some seriously great acting choices. Plus, she wears evening gloves in the daytime, and has the artful poise of, say, a well-coiffed bird of prey. Again, I can't reveal anything about the plot under penalty of death from William Castle, but after the film is over, you'll be wanting to induct her into your personal 'Hall-of-Fame.'


It comes at the point in the film, where, if it were PSYCHO, it'd be right before Vera Miles goes into the cellar to see Mother Bates. A 45 second timer allowed you time to exit the theater if you were "too frightened to see the end of the picture."

You were then allowed to go to the theater lobby (where a 'Coward's Corner' had been erected) and turn in your certificate (which commemorated your cowardice) to get your ticket money back.

Note that you must follow the 'yellow streak.'

Pretty fantastic. Furthermore, for the sake of a cheap gag, Castle is willing to sacrifice the pacing of the finale and shatter any filmic illusion/suspension of disbelief that had been built up by the narrative. Not only did he do it anyway, he was clearly elated with his decision. And that, in a nutshell, is why I love William Castle.

I fully advise anyone watching HOMICIDAL at home to set up, in advance, a little Coward's Corner in the kitchen or the bathroom or something so that roommates/family members may feel the appropriate weight of the decision-making during the FRIGHT BREAK.

-Sean Gill

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