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Homicidal William Castle 1961

More Like “Homocidal”

A flat-out hilarious Psycho ripoff, shlockmeister William Castle’s Homicidal is one of his most potent blends of high camp, brutal violence, cheesy family comedy, and ridiculous gimmickry. If you haven’t seen the flick and don’t want to have the “twist” ending given away, just absorb the fact that it’s a hell of a lot of fun and move on (remember: I usually only like to ruin the endings of movies that I hate). But as the “shocking” twist at the end can be seen from 400 yards in near-blackness during a parade and an air-raid by fire-breathing dragons, I invite you to stay on a while and learn more.

The film boasts having a “Fright Break” – a point at which the audience is allowed to leave the theatre before the big scary finale (not) – but that’s not even the hokiest convention we’re dealing with here. No, far more preposterous is the opening credits, which feature Mister Castle himself sitting in a well-appointed living room, cross-stitching the word HOMICIDAL into a huge country quilt. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock Presents the Grand Ole Opry. After this odd opener, we see a little girl playing with an ugly porcelain doll in a child’s playroom (note the train and other boy-type toys present). A little boy sneaks into the room and steals the doll, and the little girl whines “Warren, Warren, it’s mine” in an unconvincing mewl as the boy snickers from the doorway. And… scene.

With the tone set somewhere between goofy and legitimately disturbed, we enter what seems to be a community theatre production of Psycho: a mysterious blonde (Joan Marshall, billed as Jean Arless) with a wad of cash checks into a dive hotel and strikes up a friendship with the bellboy. Sound familiar? But before you can say “a boy’s best friend is his mother”, the leggy dame – looking every bit like Brini Maxwell on a bad mescilin trip – has paid the youth (looking every bit like Stephen Dorff – for once NOT on a bad mesclin trip) to marry her at midnight at the Justice of the Peace, carried through with the ceremony, butchered the judge in front of 3 witnesses the instant the ring was on her finger, and high-tailed it home with one bloody glove.

Upon arriving home, Emily (the batshit-insane blonde) sets upon terrorizing Helga, the mute, wheelchair-bound elderly woman that lives in her house (yes, it really is this hot in here). It is revealed here that she is just as batty at home as she is when she’s out at no-tell hotels marrying strangers and murdering old men in their pajamas, as she apparently takes enormous pleasure in torturing old Helga’s chair-bound ass. We also get to meet Miriam (white-hot Patricia Breslin, who would also appear in Castle’s I Saw What You Did), who has a vested interest in the welfare of poor embattled Helga and doesn’t seem to realize that Emily is torturing the old bird night and day. There’s also a lot of talk of Warren, Miriam’s brother (the two chilluns from the intro scene, don’cha know), and it becomes apparent that something interesting is going to come of the relationship among him, Emily, and Helga. But more on that later. Emily leaves Miriam to take care of Helga and goes to the pharmacy, where Miriam’s boyfriend Karl works. She flirts with him shamelessly and lies about where Miriam is – not only is she Homicidal, she’s a fucking cock-blocker!

Emily breaks into Miriam’s flower shop and proceeds to perform the best one-woman show I’ve ever seen involving the systematic destruction of wedding cake toppers. Eyes bugging out of her head, Emily trashes the joint, then goes into the adjoining apartment, picks up a framed 8x10 of Warren (don't you have one of your brother laying around?), totally spazzes out, and slams the shit out of the picture, reducing the frame to fine glass powder. The effect is stunning. Karl comes in and Emily whacks him on the head (with what, I don’t remember – a zucchini?) and he blacks out, only to awaken looking up at…

Warren.

Now, this is when things get really fun. It is clearly obvious from the get-go that something is seriously amiss with dear Warren, mostly evidenced by his bad voice-over. But had he not been so horribly dubbed, I bet that many people even today would not deduce that Warren is indeed played by the very same Jean Arless that plays Emily. Aided by a hilarious set of front teeth, a Methodist wig and posture that suggests a recent corncobbing, Warren is flat-out creepy to look at, but when he opens his mouth it's fucking HILARIOUS. Remember the part in Pee Wee's Big Adventure were Pee Wee plays the badly-dubbed bellhop in the film of his life ("Paging Mister Herman...")? Same thing here, with the added delight of a stealth trannie. I seriously watched the last half of this movie catching flies in my gaping mouth.

Things wind down to a fairly predictable close, although the "Fright Break" that precedes Mariam entering Helga's house does make the otherwise rather lackluster finale a bit more fun. There's a great beheading, a rather funny unmasking, and a wonderfully precious final image that suggests that Castle was actually taking all this pseudo-Freudian bullshit seriously. As with Psycho, the flick ends with a shrink telling us what was the matter with poor Emily/Warren the whole time (some needlessly convoluted business about a father who wanted a son and a mother who pretended that her daughter was male to appease him and a nurse who went along with it and an inherited fortune and God knows what else), but as the murders here were premeditated and committed for a specific purpose (to protect an intertance) as opposed to a psychosis (as it was with Norman, who had an emotional response to his sexual attractions to women), it's really neither here nor there. Also, none of it explains why the hell Emily had to get married to a stranger at the beginning, or why she gave her (his) sister's name as her own to the Justice of the Peace, which did nothing other than lead the cops right to her. And despite the whole gender-bending thing, there's actually nothing at all queer here -- Emily really is a woman, so her marriage and flirtations with Karl are totally on the level -- and Warren only expresses any interest in Emily, which is himself, so nothing too complicated there, either.

Completely ridiculous, but totally hot and a hoot to watch -- mostly thanks to Joan Marshall's unhinged double performance as Emily/Warren. It's interesting that Joan would use a pseudonym for this role, when ultimately it's probably the film that she would be best remembered for. Outside of her acting career, Joan actually had a fascinating life -- after she married director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), he turned a book of her rememberances into the film Shampoo (in which she has a cameo despite her vocal opposition to some of the more personal stories making it into the script). Regardless, Homicidal is a fantastic showcase for her comedic acting (she plays it so straight it's hard to tell if she's in on the joke, but all signs point to yes) -- her multiple freakouts are worth the rental price alone. In all, Homicidal predates such "shocking" gender-twist flicks like Color of Night and The Crying Game by decades, and one-ups Psycho by pulling off the gag in full studio lighting (and that's about all it has over Psycho, let's be clear). Pure camp bliss.

Rating (out of 5):