Having been pretty much enthralled by the other William Castle movie on this disc, Strait-Jacket, I was eager to get going on this one. This film came before, and is pretty much understood to be Castle's response to Psycho, which had come out the year before. Castle himself shows up at the beginning, cigar in hand, to introduce the movie with wry commentary, quite like Hitchcock did with his television show. We then see a young girl playing with a doll, then a boy comes in and takes it, causing the girl to cry and--CREDITS!
Now it's present day [early 60s] and we're in California. This very severe blonde, Emily, checks into a hotel for the night. All the men are staring at her, something she appears to be used to. There are two attendants, and she pointedly chooses the younger one over his old man counterpart. He says "I sort of do everything around here," wink wink. She is seductive upon getting upstairs, and soon shows him $2,000, which he can have if he agrees to marry her. "That wouldn't be so hard to take," he says, and is bummed when she says the marriage will be annulled immediately. If you ever wonder if things were really that bad for women back yesteryear, look here, where this guy is super keen to MARRY this woman he met 5 minutes before, and despite that there are obviously some very questionable aspects to her, just because she's pretty and has a hot bod. Anyway, he agrees.
They wake up this justice of the peace in the middle of the night--Emily just wants to make sure she's married on a certain day--and as soon as the marriage is over, she stabs the justice repeatedly, right in front of everyone! See, maybe it's not so good to marry random hot babes off the street. She takes off.
She drives off, switches cars, then arrives at this house, where she is nurse to Helga, a woman in a wheelchair who cannot speak. She leans down and whispers into Helga's ear to taunt her: "Abrams died tonight... SCREAMING!" She'll get a lot of mileage out of the fact that Helga is helpless to respond over the course of the movie. Soon they are joined by Miriam Webster, who is the half-sister of Warren, Helga's son. One of the things I like about this movie is that up until now we have heard Emily give her name as Miriam Webster, so it's only now that you start to realize that she was giving a false name and setting the sweet, innocent Miriam up for a murder rap! Helga is obviously trying to signal Miriam for help, but Emily keeps hilariously misinterpreting her frantic banging with things like "Oh, she's just going to miss me, that's what she's saying."
So then Emily goes into the pharmacy to get the ol’ strychnine prescription for Helga. Yeah, the old bat just needs a little strychnine! That’s all. She gets it from Karl, who is dating Miriam. I must say, by this point the major relationships in this movie were entirely obscure to me. You kind of keep getting the feeling that Miriam must be dating Warren, because they’re so close, but no, he’s seeing Emily… it’s all just a little out of whack. It’s not helped by Dr. Exposition, who comes in a second later and dumps the whole family history of the clan going back to Denmark [not kidding], and after a while you just tune out. I remained confused on the relationships all the way to the end. But whatever, Glenn Corbett as Karl is so cute! He’s in the Rod Taylor mold, and comes off like pretty much the very definition of “cute but dumb,” the kind of guy you’re compelled to hit just because he looks so cute with that wounded look, and besides, then you can kiss it better. I thought he looked familiar, and it turns out he played Zefran Cochrane, inventor of Warp Drive, in an episode of original Star Trek, and apparently he was also known from his time on the show Route 66, and also did a bunch of Westerns.
Anyway, after having her strychnine prescription filled—okay, I just had to look this up: Apparently in times of old, Strychnine was used in small amounts as a laxative, so it wasn’t always just straight rat poison—Emily decides to break into Miriam’s floral shop, in the same strip mall, where she trashes the place, especially anything having to do with weddings. She also smashes Warren’s picture, signed with love to his sister. Later Karl goes in there, and she smashes him over the head! Later still, Warren wakes him up, and—look at the picture above, isn’t he adorable? Don’t you just want to HIT him again? Anyway, Warren says he’s going to go out and look for Emily, and poor stupid Karl acts like having a slight mess in Miriam’s shop is basically a fatwa on Warren’s life, saying “Be careful! Remember—she smashed your photograph!” Like, oh no. I think when you get bloody effigies impaled on your door with a butcher knife and your picture taped over the face, THEN you should worry, but a little smashed photo at the florist’s? Well, I guess it was simpler times.
We now start getting MORE family exposition, like that all these people were all kids together, then Warren and Helga went to Denmark, and a bunch of other stuff, too. It’s still unclear to me. The point is that Warren is going to inherit $10 million the next day. Already we can tell that there’s something not-quite-right about Warren, although it’s difficult to tell what it is. Is he gay? Is he just super-duper arrogant? Or is he simply the very worst actor in the entire world? These questions and more will be answered in the fullness of time.
SPOILERS > > >
So then Miriam wakes one night and Emily is there in the room with her! But in the morning Emily denies it, telling Miriam she’s quite crazy, and when Miriam wants to go up and see Warren, tells Miriam that she and Warren are married! Then Miriam runs off to her store, and I’m like—so who cleaned up the mess Emily made?—but it turns out Karl did! What a sweetie. He’s going to go down to where the wedding/murder took place at the beginning with a picture of Emily, and see what the story is. Miriam decides not to go with Karl, because how can her life be in peril if she’s out of town? Meanwhile Emily decides to have her special murder knife sharpened, then goes inside and is about to finally put Helga out of her misery when—who’s at the door?
It was the doctor. Blah, blah, Warren brings Miriam to the house, telling her to wait outside, but Miriam decides to go in and—FRIGHT BREAK! This is where a 45-second time appears on screen, and Castle’s voice comes on and says you can go out to the lobby if you’re too terrified to see how it turns out, and you’ll get your money. BTW, if you left, you had to stand in the specially-marked “Coward’s Corner,” and would have to stay there while the entire audience filed out past you—THEN you get your money back. Anyway, once the break is over, we follow Miriam into the house. She sees Helga descending the stairs in her motorized chair, when it hits a snag and her head falls off, bouncing down the stairs! Then Emily comes out of nowhere with her special murder knife raised, and Miriam screams for Warren, but—
--DO YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW THE SHOCKING SECRET?—
--Because it’s actually a pretty good one and I had NO IDEA until it was revealed. Miriam asks for Warren and Emily says “He’s right here,” pulls off her wig, and it turns out SHE AND WARREN HAVE BEEN THE SAME PERSON ALL ALONG! And it all snaps into place, especially with why Warren has been so weird this whole time. Then the doctor arrives—just in time! Warren and the doctor are struggling when Miriam picks up the gun and shoots, luckily, hitting only Warren, although the doctor was right there. Hey Miriam, don’t help me, okay? Especially by shooting at me. Thanks. Then we have a massive, MASSIVE outpouring of information that “explains” the whole thing, but was so complicated I couldn’t even pay attention. Then that’s it!
Before we leave the spoilers we should discuss the whole cross-dressing thing. It works excellently here because Jean Arless (the actress’ name is Joan Marshall, she took a different name for this role because she knew it would affect her career) really looks like a man when dressed as Warren, and they later dubbed his voice with a man’s, leading to that feeling described earlier where you just know SOMETHING is strange about Warren, but can’t really put your finger on what. I must say I am completely baffled as to the whole backstory and WHY this might have happened and how it all worked out [say, without Miriam, Warren’s half-sister who he’s so close to, finding out], but I trust it all makes a kind of sense somewhere. Anyway, is there something kinky and homo we should worry about? No, I think ultimately it’s just a gimmick to shock people, and also part of the way this film is trying to rip off Psycho. Oh, and apparently the detail about the family having lived so long in Denmark is because Denmark was the only country at the time that would perform full-out sex-change surgery.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was very fun. I’m beginning to realize that William Castle has a very good-natured showman style of showing you EXACTLY what you want to see, and delivering all the fun you want without the tedious stuff you don’t want, and there’s a lot to be said for that. This one has mischievous fun from beginning to end, what with Emily offing that guy first thing, and especially her evil sense of humor with Helga.
Ultimately, however, I prefer Strait-Jacket, which is on the same disc. That one is even CRAZIER in terms of the wackiness—multiple decapitations, Joan Crawford’s crazy over the top drama, etc—but also had a really advanced visual sense and was, in spite of the insanity, still a quite good, compelling [although highly pulpy] story with interesting characters. So the whole disc is a hit, and won’t let you down, but I vaguely prefer Strait-Jacket over this, although both of them are a pretty much guaranteed good time.
You bet, get the disc that has Strait-Jacket, too, and watch them both. That’s a fun evening in.