Homicidal (1961) ***Ĺ
Consider yourself warned: I am about to commit blasphemy. It is El Santoís considered opinion that Alfred Hitchcockís Psycho ainít all that, and that he will gladly take William Castleís cheap knock-off, Homicidal, over the better-known film any day of the week. There, Iíve said it. This is the part where you say to me, ďAre you out of your fucking mind?! Homicidal is better than Psycho?!?!Ē but thatís not quite what I said. Psycho is undeniably the superior film when judged by the criteria that most people employ when they talk about what makes a movie good. The acting is better (but not by much-- for once, Castle got some real talent to sign on), itís difficult to say with a straight face that the man best known for putting joy buzzers in the seats of theaters playing his movies is a match for Hitchcock as a director, and Psycho gets extra points for being first-- itís much easier to make a good copy than it is to get it right the first time around. But when I watch Psycho, it just doesnít do much for me. I think the movie is poorly and unevenly paced, with a rushed and bungled climax and a resolution that reeks of a cop-out, but most disruptively, the all-important surprise ending no longer works because of the extent to which it has become a part of American mythology. Is it possible that, at the turn of the 21st century, there exists somewhere-- perhaps in Utah-- a single person who does not know the exact nature of the skeleton hanging in Norman Batesís closet? You could certainly level some serious criticisms against Homicidal-- that it is too long, too elaborately plotted, and that it suffers from a pronounced shortage of action-- but I think it hangs together better than its model, and because nobody seems to have seen the movie, the passage of 40 years has not had the same disastrous effect on its concluding whammy, which is in any event so complicated that it remains difficult to see it coming. All the clues are there on display the whole time, but they are not the sort of clues that anyone is likely to actually look for.
Like Psycho, this movie begins with a prologue of sorts (though it is much shorter than Psychoís). An attractive young blonde, who calls herself Miriam Webster (Jean Arless), checks into a hotel in Ventura, California. In the privacy of her room, she offers to pay the bellhop $2000 (an astoundingly large sum in 1961) if he will marry her at midnight. It will not be a real marriage, as she intends to have it instantly annulled, so all the young man has to lose is the cost of the gasoline it will take to drive out to see the justice of the peace. Miriam has a particular one in mind, a certain Albert Adrins (James Westerfield). The bellhop agrees, though he thinks it sounds awfully weird, and the two arrive at Adrinsís house shortly after midnight. The justice of the peace is less than pleased to see them (people went to bed early in 1961), but Miriam and her $52 are able to persuade him to perform the ceremony. Afterwards, he asks to give Miriam a kiss-- letís call it a tip, if you want-- and she pulls out a stiletto and stabs him eight times in the gut. Miriam then flees the house, steals the bellhopís car, and drives back to collect her own vehicle.
In the very next scene, we learn that Miriam Webster isnít Miriam Webster at all-- her name is actually Emily. She seems to be some sort of live-in housekeeper for a wheelchair-bound, old, mute woman-- apparently a stroke victim-- by the name of Helga (Eugenie Leontovich). The actual Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin, from I Saw What You Did) is Helgaís step-daughter, her late husbandís child by a previous marriage. (I should point out that it takes a very long time for any of the relationships between characters in this movie to be explained. This early on, there is little or no indication what any of these people have to do with each other. By spelling it all out for you up front, Iím taking the easy way out-- it would be almost impossible to write this synopsis otherwise.) Apparently, Helga and her son Warren have returned fairly recently from an extended stay in Denmark, and it was on this trip abroad that they picked up Emily to look after the old lady. The real Miriam is a florist, and we are introduced to her when she stops by to bring her stepmother a bouquet. And as if we couldnít have guessed on the basis of the last scene, Emilyís conversation with Miriam suggests that there is more bad blood between the two women than there is in a West African hospitalís refrigerators. Between verbal jabs, Emily says that she has to go into town to pick up a prescription for Helga, and she asks if Miriam would mind staying with her for a little while. Miriam reluctantly agrees; she had wanted to close the flower shop early so that she could see Karl (Glen Corbett) that evening, but Helga is her stepmother, after all.
Interestingly enough, Karl is the pharmacist to whom Emily goes with the prescription. (Itís for fucking strychnine! Did doctors actually prescribe strychnine back then?!) The exact relationship between Karl and the rest of the characters is never fully cleared up. For most of the movie, I thought he was Warrenís younger brother, making him Miriamís half-brother. But as the film wears on, Miriam starts acting like Karlís girlfriend, and because these two are the good guys, I have a hard time imagining that Castle would throw a kink that big into their personalities, so maybe heís just a long-time friend of the family. Either way, he seems almost as surprised by the prescription as I was, but he actually has strychnine on hand, so it must not be quite as weird as it seems today. What is as weird as it seems is the fact that Emily tells Karl that Miriam is not coming to see him that evening (Miriam said no such thing), but that she wants to meet him at the flower shop around midnight. And immediately thereafter, Emily goes down the street to Miriamís shop and begins breaking everything. When Karl comes to keep his supposed date at midnight, Emily sneaks up behind him and whacks him over the head with something hard and breakable, then runs away.
And this is about the point at which I give up trying to summarize the plot in any detail. From here on out itís just too damn complicated. As youíve probably figured out, Emily spends the whole movie weaving a fiendishly elaborate web of betrayal. She clearly has it in for Helga, for Miriam, for Karl, and even for Warren, to whom she was secretly married in Denmark. There are allusions to a brutally abusive childhood suffered by Miriam and Warren at the hands of their father and Helga (itís hard to say just what went on, but a nasty-looking riding crop was most definitely involved), and it comes out that Warren stands to inherit some $10 million when he turns 21 in two days. There is a surprisingly graphic (by 1961 standards, anyway) decapitation, and a terrific William Castle gimmick just before the climax. The gimmick is called the Fright Break, and it consists of a clock that appears on the screen for 45 seconds, while Castle explains in voice-over that its purpose is to allow any chickenshits in the audience a chance to flee the theater before the shocking conclusion. The fact that this thing is inserted without warning into what is otherwise a very serious movie just makes it better. All Iíll say about the conclusion that youíre being offered a chance to run away from is that Warrenís inheritance is definitely the issue, and that something you probably thought was a recurring editing mistake on the soundtrack was done that way for a reason. Check it out-- youíll see what I mean.