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Director: William Castle
Starring: Jean Arless, Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich, Alan Bunce, James Westerfield
“This is the Fright Break! You hear that sound? The sound of a heartbeat! Is it beating faster than your heart? Or slower? This heart is going to beat for another 25 seconds to allow anyone to leave the theatre who is too frightened to see the end of the picture, and get your full admission refunded. Ten seconds more and we go into the house. It’s now or never! Five! Four! You’re a brave audience! Two! One!”
Up until now, William Castle’s brand of schlock horror had been very much of the supernatural variety, all haunted houses and creepy crawlies bolstered by his trademark gimmicks both in theatres and on screens. It was traditional fare, of the kind audiences had been seeing for years and what they lacked in originality, they made up for in sheer entertainment.
With the advent of 1960s Psycho though, Alfred Hitchcock popularised a whole new style of horror, one set in a realistic and modern world, where the horror came from a murderous psychopath who could be your next door neighbour. Castle, never being a man to miss out on an opportunity to put bums on seats, paid close attention and set to work creating a film that would be clearly “inspired” by Hitchcock’s classic, but still very much feel like a William Castle production.
Homicidal! would be a very different film than what he had done before, with over the top spooky scares replaced by violence, insanity and a very down to earth plotline. Well, at least on the surface.
The film’s final shocking twist wasn’t enough for Castle though and a gimmick had to be shoehorned in there, so the Fright Break was born. Combining the on-screen warning of 13 -Ghosts’ Illusion-O and the in-theatre hucksterisms of House on Haunted Hill’s Emergo, this device saw a countdown clock appear accompanied by a portentous Castle voice over encouraging more nervous viewers that now was the time to leave and get their money back if they couldn’t handle any more frights.
Brilliantly, the offer of a full refund was real, but they would have to stand in an area branded “Coward’s Corner” to earn it. Unsurprisingly, very few braved the public humiliation and opted instead to see out one of the great showman’s most interesting and accomplished horror films…
Taking time out from her job as a nursemaid to a frail and wheelchair-hound invalid, Emily (Arless) appears at a hotel and bribes the bellhop to marry her. Once in front of the justice of the peace though, the woman brutally murders him in front of his wife and her new husband before making her escape.
Back home, she treats Helga (Leontovich), her charge with cruelty and disdain, while making no effort to hide her contempt for Miriam (Breslin), her employer’s half-sister. That employer, Warren (Marshall) has recently returned from living in Denmark bringing Helga (his former housekeeper) and Emily with him.
While Miriam and Warren are close, they are also both survivors of an abusive father, who regularly beat the latter as a child, but had left him as the sole beneficiary of his vast fortune over his sister, purely as he was a male.
He’s not inherited anything yet though and has no idea that he is sharing a house with a murderous psychopath. Or does he?
It might be derivative in a lot of ways, but Homicidal is also a successful film in its own right.
Take that opening, for example. No, not the horrible, doll-stealing kid intro (that turns out to be more relevant than it may initially seem), but that remarkable scene where we are first introduced to the deranged Emily. She’s clearly not right from the off, and Arless gives her a twitchy, intense quality that is as charismatic as it is unsettling.
There’s a real mystery to what’s actually going on, leaving the viewer as confused as the bellhop who is making $2000 dollars just to marry a beautiful woman for a few minutes. The marriage is bizarre enough, but the gleeful (and surprisingly graphic) way she stabs the official as soon as the ring is on her finger is genuinely shocking.
Her treatment of the disabled Helga is upsetting too, though it is more petty cruelty than outright violence, but it’s made all the worse by the older woman’s inability to articulate to anyone what is going on.
Her eventual murder is nightmare fodder too, with a knife-wielding Emily accompanying her as she helplessly is propelled by the stair lift to her doom. Like the hotel scene earlier, there’s more than a little of Psycho in this stair-based murder, but Castle alters it enough that it feels more of a nod than an outright lift.
Jean Arless is simply brilliant in the role, but the same can’t be said about ”Joan Marshall” as Warren. He’s meant to be uptight, a damaged individual who’s life has been far from easy, but he’s pitched as far too rigid here. His face barely moves when he speaks and the strange dubbing for his voice is poorly synced and lacking any character whatsoever.
Which all makes much more sense with the film’s shocking denouement. Again, we can see where Castle took his inspiration from, but it’s genuinely a surprise and makes you look at everything that has came previously in a new light.
It’s rare that a twist ending ever really takes you off guard, so the fact that a cheap knock-off like this manages it so effectively makes it all the more impressive. It’s a wonderful ending and ensures Homicidal is that rare animal, a film that transcends its obvious inspirations and delivers something that is worthy of praise in its own right. Is it a classic? Well, no. But it’s a dark and twisted tale that’s got much more going for it than it may first appear.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy