© 1961 William Castle Productions

Homicidal (1961)

By 1961, William Castle had gotten used to living in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock. When the Englishman launched his highly-successful TV program, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in 1955, his cult of personality was complete, as the director’s already well-known profile became known to millions of Americans, and his droll host segments in each episode made his unmistakable voice a part of his public persona. Castle began modeling himself on Hitchcock, appearing in introductions to his own films. Castle, despite his small budgets and lack of the big studio marketing support that was behind Hitchcock, was able to fairly well on his own, thanks to his clever ballyhoo, including plastic “Ghost Viewers” distributed to the audiences, and plastic skeletons flying out from the screen.  The fact that Castle had mortgaged his own home to finance William Castle Productions might be part of the reason that he was so inventive.  Interestingly enough, Hitchcock himself resorted Castle-type gimmicks to promote Psycho in 1960, putting out newspaper ads warning audiences that no one would be admitted before the start of each showing, and hiring ambulances to circle around cinemas with signs reading “reserved for audiences members of Psycho.”

The phenomenal success of Psycho naturally left Castle with the overwhelming desire to top his famous rival. Film historian Don Glut recalls being a 13-year-old member of the William Castle fan club in 1960, when he got a letter for Castle inviting him to the Chicago premier of his 13 Ghost. Castle asked his young fans if they had liked Psycho, which is still in theaters, and if they wanted to see more films like that. Sure enough, Castle’s next film, released the summer of following year, was Homicidal, even the title of which seems to be a reference to Hitchcock’s recent hit.

Was Homicidal an homage to Pyscho, or simply a rip off?  That really depends on how much creativity the viewer is willing to recognize in Castle’s filmmaking, and not just his showmanship in creatively marketing his films. There are many elements from Psycho that are recycled here—a brutal murder leads to an investigation that probes into dark family secrets, including cross-dressing, in a sleepy town in southern California. Aside from the thematic similarities, there scenes that are directly lifted from Pyscho, including an opening scene shot of a city with a title card giving the place and date, a blonde woman driving at night while nervously looking in her rear-view mirror at the police officer following her, later undressing in the bathroom of a cheap hotel, a gruff sheriff/justice of the peace being awakened in the middle of the night, and several others.  The film even ends with a coda in which, as in Psycho, in which gives a psychoanalytic explanation of what has just happened.

But despite the infamous shower scene in Psycho, Homicidal is in many ways the more shocking of the two films. The murder that sets off the investigation that moves the story ahead is unexpected, and for the time, extremely graphic. The plot, which involves the killer trying to get rid of the three people who could reveal the secret that would halt a $10 million inheritance, is not all that compelling, but the gender psychology, and all of the thinly-veiled references to the then taboo subject of sex change surgery, make this a more transgressive work than Psycho. But in the end, even the most ardent Castle fans have to admit that this is a B-picture, albeit a innovative one, and Psycho is a work of cinematic art.

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