Homicidal is a 1961 American horror thriller film produced and directed by the self-proclaimed “King of Showmanship”, William Castle. Written by Robb White, the film stars Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich, Alan Bunce, Richard Rust, and Joan Marshall (billed as Jean Arless).
Homicidal was released with a “fright break” that allowed patrons to receive a refund if they were too scared to stay for the climax of the film.
A murderous scheme to collect a rich inheritance. The object of murder is Miriam Webster, who is to share in the inheritance with her half-brother Warren, who lives with his childhood guardian Helga in the mansion where Warren and Mariam grew up. Confined to a wheelchair after recently suffering a stroke, Helga is cared for by her nurse Emily, a strange young woman who has formed a close bond with Warren…
As with most of his films William Castle spoke directly to the audience in a prologue similar to those Alfred Hitchcock used for his then popular TV show. William Castle told the audience: “The more adventurous among you may remember our previous excursions into the macabre – our visits to haunted hills – to tinglers and to ghosts. This time we have even a stranger tale to unfold… The story of a loveable group of people who just happen to be homicidal.”
A 45-second timer overlaid the film’s climax as the heroine approached a house harboring a sadistic killer. A voice-over advised the audience of the time remaining in which they could leave the theatre and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film. To ensure the more wily patrons did not simply stay for a second showing and leave during the finale Castle had different colour tickets printed for each show. About 1% of patrons still demanded refunds, and in response:
“William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with ‘Coward’s Corner,’ a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theatre employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward’s Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stencilled message:
‘Cowards Keep Walking.’ You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?… I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “‘Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner’!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity — at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, ‘I am a bona fide coward.’ Very, very few were masochistic enough to endure this. The one percent refund dribbled away to a zero percent, and I’m sure that in many cities a plant had to be paid to go through this torture. No wonder theatre owners balked at booking a William Castle film. It was all just too complicated.”
‘As a theater-going event, Homicidal doubtless delivered the goods. As a film, it doesn’t hold up too well. Since the Castle gimmick comes so late in the film, and because the film’s tone has heretofore been so much more serious than The Tingler or 13 Ghosts, the Fright Break is giggle-inducing but distracting as hell. The film survives less as a psychosexual thriller and more as a camp artifact, though surely it had some impact: those horror films in ensuing decades with an over-the-top, rug-pulling twist probably owe more to Homicidal than Psycho.’ Midnight Only
‘Castle’s reputation as a trashy, entertaining showman obscures, to a large extent, his essentially conservative solidity as a filmmaker, in spite of his overt acts of carny barker hype and delight in trying to tease and nauseate his audience, and both the longevity of his efforts and their frustrating lack of truly cinematic punch can both be laid down to this solidity. His stalwart technique always kept his chosen narratives from approaching the outer limits of hysteria they promised. Castle does spice his style up here with flash cuts to close-ups of Emily’s eyes during her wild moments, but is otherwise largely content to stick with his usual variation on master shots from one side of his sets, to which the action is largely bound, as per old studio practise, and dully rhythmic exposition.’ Roderick Heath, This Island Rod
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