Thursday, February 19, 2009

Homicidal (1961)

Reviewed By: Billy

When Homicidal was released in 1961, hot on the heels of Psycho, Time Magazine actually gave the William Castle rip-off a better review. This fact is generally used today as a way to show just how under appreciated Alfred Hitchcock was in his day…as in, “Look how those idiot critics actually thought a low-budget shocker was better than a classic like Psycho!”

Well…this idiot is here to say that Time Magazine was right. Homicidal is not only a better movie than Psycho, it’s one of the best movies ever made. Period. I know that many of you will disagree, but I will gladly defend this completely insane classic until the day I die. Psycho may have shocked audiences in 1960, but it comes across like a Doris Day comedy when put up next to William Castle’s schlocky sex-thriller masterpiece. Taking the basic idea of Psycho and muddying it up with a nonsensical plot, startlingly uncharismatic supporting actors, and the cinematography/set decoration of the finest “Mister Ed” episode, Castle somehow manages to create not only an enjoyable movie, but an oddly compelling one; you know right from the start that something on the screen isn’t right, and you can’t stop watching until you see just how weird this thing’s gonna get.

Homicidal opens with its version of Psycho’s leading lady…in this one, she’s named Miriam instead of Marion. Subtle, William. Actually, as we find out, her name’s really Emily, but she’s going by the name Miriam for the moment. Anyway, I need to stop here and talk for a moment about Jean Arless, the actress playing Emily. Jean Arless (whose real name was Joan Marshall), to put it plainly, is awesome. A perfect mix of Janet Leigh and latter-day Sharon Stone, she looks on the surface like your average 1960s contract player. But damn if everything isn’t just a little off; her hair’s just a little too severe, her hand gestures a little too big, and her facial reactions just a little too obvious. Remember when Sharon did the absolutely wonderful stroke public service announcement, and made herself cry while pretending to actually be a stroke? Arless is kind of like that…so over the top that she might as well be sailing through another galaxy.

So Emily checks into a hotel and convinces the bellhop to marry her, and the two head off to a lecherous justice of the peace’s house in the middle of the night. I should mention that the bellhop, while sporting that hot beefcake look of the early 60s, delivers all of his lines as if he’s not quite sure what word is coming next. Anyway, seconds after the “I do,” Emily pulls out a knife and stabs the justice several times in the stomach. This scene is surprisingly graphic for a movie of this era; we actually see nasty looking blood covering the justice’s gut. Emily runs out and drives to a huge, remote house where she promptly washes off the bloody knife and taunts a mute old lady in a wheelchair about the murder.

So…is this the most awesome opening 20 minutes of a movie ever? Hell yes.

We soon learn that Emily is the live-in nurse for Helga, the old mute who rolls around in her wheelchair and raps on the armrests as a form of communication. Helga is actually such a creepy character that I’m surprised other filmmakers since haven’t completely ripped her off. Anyway, Helga and Emily have a very twisted love-hate thing going on, kind of like yours truly and JM the year that I was a freshman and he was a senior in high school: Emily flits around like a drag queen making everyone uncomfortable (me), while Helga looks pissed and keeps trying to slip out the door when no-one’s looking (JM). The real Miriam Webster soon shows up (wait a minute…her name is Miriam Webster? Like the dictionary?); she apparently grew up in the old house and Helga had been nursemaid to her and her brother Warren years earlier. Miriam is played by Patricia Breslin, and poor Patricia’s understated performance doesn’t stand a chance in the Jean Arless show. I do, however, enjoy Patricia’s pseudo-British accent; she’s got that clipped speech that so many actors had back in the day…as though pronouncing words like “flowers” as “flowahs” will instantly give you class.

The next scene is one of my favorites; Emily goes into town to get a “prescription” for Helga (read: poison). There, she comes upon Carl the pharmacist, who turns out to be perhaps the dorkiest leading man in movie history. Seriously, this guy is worse than the bellhop; he doesn’t appear to have any idea what kind of movie he’s in, and so he does his best Jimmy Stewart impression and appears to be on the verge of talking about bells ringing and angel wings at any moment. Emily, meanwhile (in another subtle acting choice by Jean Arless/Joan Marshall), starts stroking some poor kid at the soda fountain’s hair with a look of longing that only someone without a brain would miss as a clue that she's got some childhood issues. Anyway, Carl turns out to be not only a dork, but a terrible pharmacist, filling the prescription for strychnine that Emily flat out says she’s going to give to Helga. What in God’s name is poor Helga suffering from that she needs rat poison?

Next…just in case we didn’t realize that Emily is mentally disturbed, we get a scene where she breaks into Miriam’s flower shop and busts apart the place, spending an especially tortured moment with the little bride-groom cake topper before snapping the heads off. And then Carl comes in, only to get bonked on the head by Emily and left unconscious on the floor.

Damn, these people are f’ed up. But wait…it’s about to get worse. Meet Warren.

Warren is the best character in this movie. He is Miriam’s brother, who is apparently about to come into a large sum of money on his 21st birthday. By the way, if Warren is 21, then I’m 12. Warren is a character that will have an enormous impact on many, many films to come…dare I say even more so than Norman Bates? I don’t want to give away too much here, but Warren is perhaps the most awkward screen presence ever immortalized on celluloid. His is gangly and unnaturally tan, with some seriously messed up teeth and hair that’s apparently been shellacked on. If you saw Warren on the street, there’s a good chance you’d think up a really mean joke about him and then scold yourself for having done it. Anyway, nobody else in the movie seems to notice that there’s anything odd about Warren…which pretty much illustrates the point that this group of characters is clownier than a circus.

Anyway, everyone starts suspecting that Emily is the one who killed the justice of the peace in town (and I wonder why? There’s only a police sketch in the newspaper that LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HER). Emily just keeps getting freakier; at one point Miriam wakes up to find the incredibly scary nurse standing over her bed holding a doll, and later she calls up a traveling knife sharpener to come touch up her surgical scalpel. Red flags, people…red flags. Emily promptly takes the knife and, in an awesomely choreographed scene, beheads Helga as she comes up the stairs in her mechanical wheelchair lift.

Beat that, Hitchy!

So, finally, things hurtle toward a climax. Miriam and Warren realize that Emily is “a cold blooded murderess” and rush to the house to save Helga. Warren goes in and disappears…and suddenly, a la Vera Miles stalking toward the Bates house, it’s time for Miriam to enter the house of horrors. What’s going to happen? What will she find?

Sorry. We’re all going to have to wait for the answers while William Castle throws one of his most ridiculous gimmicks ever at us: the Fright Break. Yes, people…the movie pauses for a full 45 seconds while a clock appears on screen and Castle’s voice informs us that all cowards in the audience should leave now, as what is about to happen is not for the weak hearted. Of course, rather than create suspense, this little device completely grinds everything to a halt. But then, what else would we expect from the man who brought us vibrating theatre seats and skeletons flying on wires? Castle doesn’t really care about creating suspense; he’s here to make sure we have fun.

So, the Fright Break ends and we find out the shocking secret we’ve all been waiting for (this movie does ape Psycho, after all, so there’s got to be a twist). I’m not going to give anything away, although it’s not too hard to figure out what’s been going on. If you’ve ever seen Color of Night, Sleepaway Camp, or Terror Train, you shouldn’t at all be surprised. But the beauty here is that while Psycho, with its whole “is Mrs. Bates really dead?” plotline, was setting us up for a shocking climax, Homicidal kind of brings it on us out of nowhere. After all, up until the end, there’s been no mystery; we all know that Emily is a batshit crazy killer who walks around with surgical knives and poison pills in her purse. The only real suspense was waiting for the mind-numbingly dull people around her to figure it out.

By the way, the movie ends with the exact same “clerical explanation by the doctor” scene as Psycho does. Only here, rather than being morbid, we get Miriam and Carl making a joke about how she’s rich now and walking out together to the bouncy music of a “Lassie” episode. Ummm...Miriam just found her that her entire life has been a lie. Not to mention she almost got killed. Shouldn’t she be just a little shaken up?

Anyway…if I’ve left you with any doubt that Homicidal is one of the best films of all time, well, I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job. Hitchcock enthusiasts will talk until they’re blue in the face about how important and influential Psycho is. And I agree. But that doesn’t make it terribly enjoyable. Instead, Homicidal revels in its inherent cheapness and the sleaziness of being made by one of the most shameless showmen in history, and easily comes out on top. Years later, as JM and I sat in a crowded theatre and watched Sharon Stone craft one of the most unbelievable performances in history in Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction, I couldn’t help but think about Jean Arless. There are shots in which the two women look like twins; it’s really kind of remarkable. And so that’s all the proof I need that Homicidal is a great film; because any movie that helped bring about the ridiculous return of Catherine Trammell (not to mention inspired the Bruce Willis nuclear disaster Color of Night) is a winner in my book.



  1. Ohhhhhhh. I will be checking this one out for sure.

  2. must. It is easily in my Top 5 movies ever made. It would be perfect for you site, too -- total drive-in fun/trash.