When PSYCHO became a runaway success, keeping an eye on the grosses was Alfred Hitchcock’s erstwhile rival, William Castle. Knowing what Hitch had wrought, Castle was determined to beat him at his own game. Castle, who had dropped out of school to stage-manage a roadshow production of Bela Lugosi in DRACULA, was not one to be outdone with his own shtick. After seeing the pale-faced, shaken crowds emerge from Hitch’s house of horrors, Castle needed a gimmick to end all gimmicks.
Already hard at work on a thriller involving a transgendered killer, Castle had successfully transformed actress Joan Marshall into a man. Her hair shorn, her features darkened with a creepy overbite thanks to a mouth appliance, Castle’s illusion was near-perfect… and, unlike PSYCHO’s crime of passion pay-off, Castle constructed an elaborate inheritance/revenge plot with writer Robb White, who penned his previous hit HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
Castle, who had previously insured moviegoers against dying of fright with a million-dollar Lloyds of London policy for his film MACABRE, had gone all out for HOMICIDAL’s central gimmick: a “Fright Break.”
The premise was that the action in the picture stopped suddenly, as a big clock appeared onscreen counting down 45 seconds. If you were too scared to see the rest of the picture, you could flee and get a full refund.
After realizing cagey moviegoers were sitting through the film twice to collect this refund, Castle cleared the theaters after a show. He then set up a “Coward’s Corner,” where they publicly shamed any yellow-bellies who tried to cash in. It worked… few risked the humiliation.
Unlike other PSYCHO copycats, like PARANOIAC, PYROMANIAC, THE STRANGLER and their ilk, Castle’s HOMICIDAL explores deeper psychological undercurrents and the sexual mores of a more conservative era, and remains eminently watchable — straight up, with a slice of cheesy camp.
The fear flick opens with Castle needle-pointing the title card. The action shifts to a flashback of a creepy weird kid swiping his sister’s doll, clad in wedding white as she wails, “Warren! Give it back!” Wipe to Present Day, as a burn-in title (a la PSYCHO) informs us.
Striding down the street is a striking androgynous bottle-blonde (Jean Arless). She pauses outside a store, pausing to look at the wedding motifs. A nod to Ed Wood’s GLEN OR GLENDA (aka I CHANGED MY SEX), perhaps? Is Castle telegraphing the gender-bending finale? Highly unlikely. In 1961, few viewers would have seen Wood’s paean to cross-dressing angora fetishism.
The blonde, calling herself Miriam Webster, checks into a motel and enlists a bellboy to marry her with a two thousand dollar payoff. She tells the hunk-for-hire that the marriage would be immediately annulled afterward.
They drive to a justice of peace in the dead of night to perform the ceremony; twitching and nervous, Miriam says “I do,” and as Justice Abrams leans in to kiss the bride, Miriam whips out a butcher knife and proceeds to mercilessly stab him in the gut multiple times. Unlike Hitchcock, Castle goes right for the jugular! We’re not waiting 40 minutes to get things going here! And no female victim, either; this time around we’ve got a slay-crazy gal who’s out-and-out HOMICIDAL! The blonde quickly flees the crime scene, leaving the befuddled bellhop to stare in horror.
Arriving at a lush home, the blonde maniac — now apparently named Emily — is playing nursemaid from hell to wheelchair-bound stroke victim Helga (Eugenie Leontovich). Tormenting the mute woman, she harshly whispers, “Justice Abrams died tonight… screaming!”
Ostensibly, Emily is in the employ of one Warren Webster, who stands to inherit 10 million dollars on his 21st birthday. Dropping by for some plot exposition is Warren’s half-sister, the real Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin). Emily skips out to fill Helga’s “prescription” — deadly strychnine — and flirt with Miriam’s pharmacist boyfriend Karl (Glen Corbett).
Down the block is Miriam’s floral shop and apartment. Sneaking in, Emily flips at the sight of wedding memorabilia, trashes the place, twists a groom figurine’s head off, and at the sight of Warren’s photo goes berserk, shattering the glass frame.
Meanwhile, the bellboy has provided cops with a description of the killer, and a police sketch appears in a newspaper emblazoned with the headline HOMICIDAL!
A local doctor, whose nurse was once Helga, stops by and explains the nature of a homicidal killer: “One minute they’re your friend… the next they’re not!” Thanks, Doc… at least we don’t have to wait for a shrink at the end to explain it all. (Wait, sorry… we do.)
When Miriam doesn’t show for a date, Karl goes to her shop to investigate, sees it trashed and is promptly knocked out. When he awakens, he finds himself face to face with Warren — a dark-haired, somewhat androgynous man with an overbite. Annoyed with Emily’s disappearance, Warren goes home and invites his half-sister Miriam to spend the night… which allows for more plot exposition.
It seems their father, who desperately wanted a male heir, tormented Warren mercilessly, in order to make him as strong and as ruthless as him. He’d pay other boys to start fights with him, and Warren would endure whippings administered by Helga, all in effort to toughen him up. “It was part of the system,” he bitterly remarks. We soon learn that it was Warren who pinched Miriam’s tow-headed doll in the past: “How you howled when I swiped it from you,” Warren adds glibly, offering its return.
The next morning, Warren is nowhere to be found as Emily dishes up breakfast, telling Miriam that she and Warren were secretly married in Denmark. Wha-whaa-what?
But when Warren’s away, Emily will play… and by that we mean stick a butcher knife in Helga’s chest. Interrupted by the old Doc, who’s stopped by for a very inconvenient visit, Emily bides her time. Meanwhile, the police, along with the bellboy witness, try to ID Miriam. Same name, but no match.
As the evidence piles up, Miriam pow-wows with Warren, who’s shocked that Emily may be the killer. They drive back to the house and he marches in with a loaded gun to have it out with Emily once and for all!
Ordered to wait inside the car, Miriam can’t help herself. She must know the truth! She walks deliberately toward the spooky manse… sweating profusely? Having palpitations? Overcome by terror? Castle suddenly aborts the suspense for his gimmick: the fabled Fright Break.
“You’re a brave audience,” Castle intones as Miriam enters the house alone, a la Vera Miles in PSYCHO.
She sees Warren’s clothes folded neatly on a chair. Startled by a noise, Miriam turns to see Helga in her wheelchair, descending the staircase on a rail. It shudders violently as Helga’s severed head topples off, rolling onto the floor. Miriam screams in terror. Suddenly, Emily appears, gleaming butcher knife at the ready!
“Warren!” Miriam helplessly screams.
“I’m right here, Miriam,” Emily says in an all-too-familiar male voice.
Emily removes her wig. “Know me?” Emily jams an appliance into her mouth, completing the transformation into Warren. “Now?”
As he raises her arm to deliver the death stroke, the police and Karl arrive in the nick of time, shooting “Warmily” to death. But was he a she, or she a he, or what?
Luckily, we have the doctor to explain it all. Are you ready? Do we need another Fright Break? No? Okay… here goes:
Miriam’s dad divorced her mother when she was born, because he wanted a boy to insure his legacy. Remarrying, his new wife gave birth. Flying solo, Nurse Helga delivered the child — a girl. The mother and Helga bribed the county clerk, Abrams, to falsify the birth certificate to read a boy — Warren. The deception was carried out for years.
After both parents died in car crash, they needed to maintain the illusion as the male heir, Warren, was set to inherit millions upon his birthday. Helga took Warren to Denmark… “and who knows what happened there,” the doctor muses.
In the land of the Midnight Sun, Helga suffered a stroke and Emily was thus born out of a homicidal rage of a repressed sexual identity. In order to collect the million dollar legacy, the psychopathic Emily needed to remove the only two people who knew the truth about his/her gender — Helga, and now Justice of the Peace Abrams. If Warmily’s secret was discovered and she/he disowned, the inheritance then went to half-sister Miriam, so she was next on the kill list.
Keeping the wrap-up ambiguous, we’re not quite sure exactly what Warmily’s sexual identity was — fully functioning transgender or not? The oft-mentioned Denmark was famed for its revolutionary sex-change operations during the 1950s, the most famous of these being former GI Christine Jorgensen, in a headline-making sex swap. So, Castle is alluding to the possibility that Warren may have gone in for more than just a strap-on.
To confound audiences further, Castle has both Warren and Emily emerge for a curtain-call, accomplished via a split-screen composite. The screen credit reads “Both played by Jean Arless.”
For decades, Arless’ true identity remained a hotly contested debate until Castle finally revealed it himself in his memoir, STEP RIGHT UP! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Arless was the nom de terror of actress Joan Marshall, who became a familiar face across the TV landscape of the ’60s, including the STAR TREK episode “Court Martial.”
In its review of HOMICIDAL in 1962, TIME Magazine wrote, “It surpasses PSYCHO in structure, suspense and sheer nervous drive,” and named it one of its Top Ten films of the year… deservedly so. Joan Marshall’s performance is one for the ages, an over-the-top cacophony of raw primal emotion that shifts gears from pathos to rage in the blink of an eye.
After PSYCHO’s unparalleled success, Hitchcock’s next challenge was to top himself. While THE BIRDS was scary stuff, it didn’t even come close.
Castle’s next entry in his oeuvre was MR SARDONICUS. The gimmick this go-round was the film had two different endings; a “Punishment Poll” allowed the audience to determine the fate of the titular terror. Naturally, Castle’s bloodthirsty fans voted for “Death” every time. By the decade’s end, Castle relinquished both gimmicks and directing, producing the classic ROSEMARY’S BABY… starring a very androgynous Mia Farrow.
Coincidence.. or not? You be the judge!