Monday, January 4, 2016

Is "Homicidal" William Castle's Best Film?

Castle introduces the movie.
Best known for fanciful gimmicks like "Emergo" (a skeleton on a wire that flew over audiences), producer-director William Castle also made some very good suspense films. Two of his finest, Homicidal and Strait-Jacket were produced in the 1960s and are relatively gimmick-free. While the latter features a first-rate Joan Crawford performance, I recently watched Homicidal and believe it may be the better of the two. It's often described as a Psycho "knock off," but that's doing this underrated fright flick a disservice.

Glenn Corbett as Karl.
After an amusing introduction featuring Castle (in which he references several earlier films), the story starts with a prologue set in 1948. A young girl is playing tea with her doll when a boy walks into her room and grabs the doll. The action shifts to present day and we learn that the children, now adults, are step-siblings Miriam and Warren Webster. Miriam (Patricia Breslin) owns a flower shop and is romantically involved with family friend and druggist Karl (Glenn Corbett). Warren lives in his childhood home with his former nanny Helga, who is mute and wheelchair-bound, and Emily, the young woman that cares for Helga.

Jim, the bellhop, and Emily.
We first meet the blonde-haired Emily when she registers under Miriam's name at a Ventura hotel. She pays the handsome bellboy Jim $2000 to marry her that night. He agrees (well, it's a quick way to make some money and he's attracted to Emily, too). However, when they call on a justice of the peace to conduct the nuptials, Emily pulls a knife out of her purse and viciously stabs the judge multiple times. She leaves her new husband and the judge's widow gaping in shock as she steals Jim's car, ditches it, and returns to Warren's house.

It's a masterful opening sequence that's as good as anything done by Alfred Hitchcock. It not only pulls the audience in right from the beginning, but it makes us a witness to the gruesome crime. We know Emily is a murderer, but we don't know why and we don't know who else has knowledge of her homicidal tendencies.

Warren confronts his sister.
If Homicidal focused solely on Emily's bloody plan, it would have been a highly effective chiller. However, Castle and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robb White, have come up with a doozy of a twist that may inspire you to watch the film a second time. (I actually guessed the twist...and still enjoyed Homicidal immensely).

Joan Marshall on Star Trek.
Much of the cast went on to successful TV careers, with Patricia Breslin becoming a regular in Peyton Place and Glenn Corbett replacing George Maharis on Route 66. They give respectable performances, but are overshadowed by Jean Arless as the killer. It was the kind of role that should have jump-started her film career. Sadly, it did not, although she also established a successful career on television, appearing under her real name of Joan Marshall. One of her best-known guest appearances was on the "Court Martial" episode of the original Star Trek.

The Fright Break clock.
Castle does inject a gimmick into Homicidal, although it's one of his less elaborate ones. As Miriam is about to enter a darkened house at the climax, the action stops and a clock is superimposed on the screen. Viewers are given a 45-second "Fright Break" and afforded the opportunity to leave the theatre and get a full refund. During the theatrical run, Castle provided yellow cardboard booths labeled "The Coward's Corner." Anyone demanding a refund had to stand in the Coward's Corner and sign a statement that they were "a bona fide coward."

Homicidal doesn't need any gimmicks, though. It's a first-rate shocker and, if you enjoy this genre and films like Psycho, then I strongly encourage you to seek it out.


  1. I'm intrigued.

    Coincidentally, we watched "The Crimson Kimono" on the weekend and you certainly wouldn't take it for Corbett's first film. He had a nice assurance.

  2. I first heard of and watched Homicidal a little over a year ago after I heard it recommended in an episode of Mission Log, a Star Trek podcast, when they discussed the episode in which Joan Marshall appeared

    I'd say that the movie was worth seeing for that opening sequence alone. It's so unexpected and leaves the viewer with so many intriguing questions about what's happening and why. Unfortunately, the answers aren't quite as interesting. It's a hard movie to talk about without blowing the surprise. I'm afraid I saw the twist ending coming from a long way off; I think any reasonably savvy viewer probably would. Just knowing that it's often compared to a certain other film with a classic twist kind of helps to spoil it. To be fair, it's a tough twist to pull off successfully.

    While the rest of the movie may fail to fully match the promise of that opening, Arless/Marshall is memorably fantastic in her role. Now that you mention it, it is unfortunate that she didn't become a bigger star.

    I hated the epilogue for being too upbeat after everything that precedes it and especially because nobody shows the slightest regret or sympathy towards Jean Arless' character, even though I think the circumstances that turned her into a sadistic killer ultimately make her a fairly tragic figure. But I guess it's not unusual for older movies like this to have some tacked-on happy ending in order to give the audience the sense that all is right with the world once more. Still, I definitely don't regret having seen the movie.

    1. IT's true that Joan Marshall is the best reason for watching HOMICIDAL. While I agree that the twist may be obvious to many, I still enjoyed watching it unfold. The "happy ending" is weird, so I just watched THE BLUE DAHLIA and thought the same thing.

  3. I really enjoyed "Homicidal" and will admit that I watched it thinking I probably wouldn't. It does have a shocking opening and continued to hold my interest, despite realizing what the twist had to be. Excellent review, Rick! I hope it will encourage others to seek this little gem out.