Sony has reissued its 2002 special edition of producer William Castle's horror exploitation film Homicidal a burn-to-order DVD, although there is no mention of the extra bonus feature on the packaging or publicity for the film. (Sony seems determined not to capitalize on special features that are especially marketable to collectors.) Castle, of course, was the proud master of exploitation films and relished his reputation as the King of Schlock. He excelled in making low-budget, "quickie" films that often capitalized on major hit movies of the day. Castle seemed to fancy himself as a low-rent version of Alfred Hitchcock, who was also not shy about promoting his own image in connection with marketing his films and TV series. Castle's films were not meant to be taken seriously by critics but he did have high standards for the genre in which he worked and it's rare to find any of his movies that don't at least merit classification as guilty pleasures. Others, such as Homicidal, actually turned out to be effective chillers in their own right. The movie was Castle's answer to the phenomenal success of Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho. Indeed, there are camera angles, musical cues and plot scenarios that practically border on plagiarism of the original film. The story opens on a fascinating note as we watch a statuesque young blonde (Jean Arless) check into a hotel in Ventura, California. She's a strange one from frame one- barely engaging in conversation with anyone else. She suddenly makes the hunky bellboy a bizarre proposition: she will pay him $2,000 cash if he agrees to marry her and then almost immediately have the union annulled. She does not give a reason for this weird offer, but in an age where a hotel room rented for $5 a night, the $2,000 offer is more than he can refuse. En route to the justice of the peace, the young woman, whose name is Emily, says little and doesn't even engage in niceties. She seems intent on having a specific justice of the peace (crotchety old James Westerfield in a marvelous role) perform the ceremony. As with all Castle productions, to describe much more would spoil some key scenes. Suffice it to say that the short-lived marriage results in murder that is so shocking and gory that it is amazing it was not watered down by skittish studio executives.
What can be said is that Emily is a Swedish immigrant who was brought to America by an equally strange young man named Warren, who resides in an opulent home. Helga's main duty is to care for an elderly woman named Helga (Eugenie Leontovich), another Swede who had been Warren's nursemaid as a child. Helga has suffered a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to talk or communicate in any meaningful way. Around Warren, Emily plays the doting caregiver, but privately, she delights in tormenting the long-suffering woman, even to the point of making death threats. One of the few outsiders to be allowed into this environment is Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin), Warren's half-sister. The two have a very close relationship but things are fairly frosty between Miriam and Emily, who seems jealous of the close bond between brother and sister. Emily is also jealous of Miriam's relationship with a local pharmacist, Karl Anderson (Glenn Corbett) and begins to find ways to thwart their social outings. After a time, Miriam and Karl begin to suspect that Emily might well be a notorious murderer the police are searching for. This sets in motion many of the standard actions screen heroines must always engage in. These include not staying in a safe environment and being lured to precisely the location where she knows she will be placed in life-threatening danger. When Emily is about to enter the house of horrors, Castle employs one of his trademark gimmicks by freezing the action and putting a clock on screen that gives squeamish audience members 45 seconds to flee to the lobby where they can redeem a coupon to get their money back. To prevent having to actually provide many refunds, Castle has a caveat to the agreement: all such patrons must stand in full view in a "Coward's Corner" he had provided for theater lobbies! Once Miriam does enter the house, the film is genuinely creepy and leads to an ending so shocking I never saw it coming and I doubt most viewers will, either.
You approach Homicidal with the justifiable expectation that it will be filled with laughs, a la Castle's great camp success House on Haunted Hill. However, it proves to be a highly effective thriller with an a rather astonishing performance by Jean Arless as the insane Emily. One minute she's all charm, the next she's running around bug-eyed trying to murder people with knives and poison. There are times she brings to mind Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, but in the aggregate it's a mesmerizing screen debut. Bizarrely, "Jean Arless" was a fake name used by actress Joan Marshall because she feared being typecast in horror films. Sadly, she never went far in her career under either name and died relatively young in 1992 at 61 years of age. She gets solid support from Glenn Corbett (who also died young in 1993 at age 59) and Patricia Breslin, who manages to avoid making the requisite role of damsel in distress unintentionally funny.
The Sony DVD has a top quality transfer and the bonus items are quite interesting. There is a short featurette that presents various horror film authorities extolling the virtues of Castle's work. There is also some wonderfully campy newsreel footage of the world premiere in Youngstown, Ohio that features the omnipresent Castle badgering patrons to tell everyone how great the film is. (One woman says with a straight face that it's better than Psycho.) The cigar-chomping Castle, who comes across as a delightful man, also features in the introductory segment to Homicidal, in an obvious attempt to emulate Hitchcock's penchant for self-promotion. The special edition also features a short TV spot in which the narrator clearly imitates the voice of old Hitch.
Homicidal is a highly entertaining film that demonstrates you don't need big stars or a big budget to make an effective thriller. Highly recommended.
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