Proto-Slashers: Looking at the flicks that paved the way for Halloween and the heyday of slasher movies.
I love William Castle movies… The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, Mr. Sardonicus, Macabre, I Saw What You Did, 13 Ghosts, The Night Walker, Straight-Jacket. I mean, what’s not to love? Castle made movies that attempted to give the horror audiences of the 50’s and 60’s what they wanted – fast paced fear flicks that genuinely tried to generate some thrills. Sure he had to resort to gimmicks sometimes, but that’s part of the fun. Whether is was wiring seats to gives movie goers a mild shock, or releasing a fake skeleton on a wire overhead, Castle went all out to deliver the goods.
After Hitchcock had a major hit with Psycho in 1960, Castle responded the following year by producing and directing Homicidal. To help lure audiences, Castle created the Fright Break and Coward’s Corner. Just before the film’s twist ending was revealed, a clock appeared on the screen accompanied by a voice over informing viewers that they had 45 seconds to leave the auditorium if they were too frightened to see what was coming next. Those who left would receive a full refund, but there was a catch. Walkouts would have to sit in Coward’s Corner, a booth in the theatre’s lobby. They would have to remain there until the movie was over and everyone else who was brave enough to see how Homicidal ended had walked past, undoubtedly jeering. But nah, I can’t imagine anyone opting for that humiliation.
Homicidal tells the story of a mysterious woman (Jean Arless) who checks into a hotel and offers the bellboy a large sum of money to marry her. He agrees, and after a murder occurs, we find out that the Mysterious Ms. lives in the small California community of Solvang where she cares for her husband’s wheelchair-bound former governess (Eugenie Leontovich). Why she does this, I dunno. Enter Arless’ husband, his sister (Patricia Breslin) and her boyfriend (Glenn Corbett), and the stage is set for a murder party straight out of the Psycho handbook. Just why all these murders take place is reveled in a convoluted twist ending that most audiences will have guessed long before the film’s end.
On my first viewing of Homicidal at a film festival a few years ago, I fell victim to a laughing fit as the film’s surprise became immediately apparent upon its introduction. It was a “Is everybody seeing this?” kind of moment. As it turns out, most people in attendance were indeed seeing the same thing I was, judging by the amount of knowing laughter spreading throughout the theatre. I can’t speak for everyone else at that screening, but I can tell you that I wasn’t laughing “at” Homicidal, but I was laughing at it’s audacity. I’ve always appreciated Castle’s willingness to put any and every over the top element he could think of up there on the screen in the name of entertainment. That’s something that some of the more outrageous slasher films would eagerly adhere to twenty years later, and it’s a reflection of Castle’s genuine showmanship. Castle’s horror movies always had a keen sense of entertainment delivered through their “stop at nothing” attitude that never truly looked down at their audiences. Instead, Castle’s flicks respected their audiences’ desire to have a good time and a few scares at the movies. Recently, I watched Homicidal again with a couple of pretty savvy movie viewers, and I was stunned when they didn’t catch on to the film’s twist until the end of the movie. It was good to know, however, that the movie could still work on the unsuspecting.
Homicidal is a fun viewing experience and a tiny step forward on the road from Psycho to Halloween. Its campy aspects are part of its charm. Even guessing the film’s twist shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the out of control plot and the film’s set pieces. A couple of the murders in particular come as a surprise even today. Following Psycho’s lead, one slash-a-thon especially comes out of the blue and features more black & white blood than expected, and another, using a trick Castle would repeat in Straight-Jacket, entails a body part being removed in silhouette.
Incredibly, Homicidal managed to end up on Time Magazine’s Best Films of the Year List, an honour the magazine had denied Hitchcock’s film a year earlier. So why not do like Time, and pay an over-the-top tribute to this proto-slasher yourself? Get your hands on the DVD, have some friends over, and recreate Coward’s Corner in your living room. Isn’t it time you had a Fright Break?