This week’s TCM Underground double feature’s theme is on a pair of rip-offs that followed in the very, very successful wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Anatomy of a Psycho (1961)
Not content with borrowing just one part of its title from another movie (Psycho, obviously), it also borrows the first part from Anatomy of a Murder, which sort of works, in a way, since a chunk of the film’s finale does take place in a courtroom. Directed by Boris Petroff, Alfred Hitchcock he ain’t–Otto Preminger he ain’t either, for that matter.
Probably best known for The Unearthly, which was shown (and mocked) in an episode of MST3K, Boris Petroff is clearly not a great director. And from everything I’ve read about Anatomy of a Psycho, it’s been heavily maligned by the vast majority of critics, and viewers, throughout the years, but–and maybe this is because I’ve been a longtime lover of trash cinema–I liked it. On a personal level, I liked it. Don’t get me wrong! It’s not a “great” movie, or hell, even a “good” movie in a technical sense, but it’s never, ever boring and the plot keeps moving ahead, logic be damned.
The movie begins as Chet, the “psycho” of the title, wanders through the streets on the night that his older brother, Duke, is to be executed for murder. Duke swears he didn’t do it, but according to everyone else who knew him–including their sister Pat–and an eyewitness, Duke is definitely a murderer. Chet just can’t believe it, though. Duke saved him and his sister from an orphanage after their parents died! Sure, he was a “nogoodnik”, a “thug”, but he had compassion.
During a bout of anger, Chet tussles with some other teenagers, banging against an obviously-fake wall that bounces and sways, and has his face cut up during the fight. This is only the beginning of his descent into madness and violence. He and his friends beat the son of a the District Attorney responsible for his brother’s execution. He burns down the house of a dude who’s been fooling around with his ex-girlfriend. When the opportunity presents itself and his friend falls on a knife, he finishes the job, killing his friend, and frames the son of the eyewitness, who just so happens to be engaged to marry his sister.
Anatomy of a Psycho was obviously hoping to cash in on the success of Psycho, but it’s not really a horror movie, it’s an overblown, overdramatic “teenage panic” type of film that’s made to make older people shake their heads at the youth of today. “Look at them, burning down houses! Killing each other!” Like I said, it’s not a particularly good movie, but it’s brisk, it’s entertaining as hell, and all things considered, well-acted and told. It’s only something like an hour and fifteen minutes, too, so it never has a chance to succumb to plot-related doldrums. Instead, something is always happening.
Stray Observation: I had nowhere else to fit this into my review, but my favorite part was an unintentional bit of humor where a cop wanders into a shack Chet and his friends are hanging out in, wearing one of the masks that were donned during the beating of the D.A.’s son and, at first you think he’s trying to psyche them out, but he’s just like, “Hey, look at this cool mask I found!”
Watching a movie like Homicidal makes me feel like I missed out by not watching all of William Castle’s movies when I was younger. I’d seen a couple, but his underseen movies like this are where it’s at, where he’s giddy with creativity and let’s his stories go mad. The film begins with William Castle himself introducing the film to you, the viewer, as he embroiders the title. He pricks his finger, sticks it in his mouth and says, “Ooh, blood,” with relish, and then turns the title to the camera.
Emily, a young blond woman, checks into a hotel under the fake name Miriam Webster (and no one in the film, at any point, mentions this is the name of a dictionary) and asks one of the bell staff to marry her for the price of $2,000. The marriage, she says, will be annulled immediately after the ceremony. He understands it’s weird, but it’s $2,000 in 1961 and he gets to move on with his life after, so he accepts.
The pair wake up the Justice of the Peace and his wife late at night, who are one of those amusing, cranky couples that regret being together, but no one else will have their miserable company, so they stick together. After they are wed and say their “I dos”, the Justice of the Peace jokes, “Now I get to kiss the bride,” and goes in for a smooch, and Emily stabs him to goddamned death right in front of everyone.
From there, Emily returns “home” where she is caring for an old woman named Helga, a mute woman confined to a wheelchair, who communicated by knocking a piece of metal against her wheelchair, sort of like a prototype to Tio Salmanca from Breaking Bad. Emily gloats about having murdered the Justice of the Peace to her, and Helga stares on in horror.
Helga is the mother of the real Miriam Webster, the fake name Emily used to check into the hotel and get married, and the mother of Warren, Miriam’s half-brother. For reason’s we’ll soon find out, Emily has it out for both Miriam and Helga. Helga, because she was a mean old woman who used to beat Warren, and Miriam because she’s in the way of a large inheritance.
There is a twist in the film that I struggled with writing about, and I decided to do it, but I will give fair warning. The reason is because the film is 57 years old and deals with some areas of politics that have changed drastically in recent history and I think it’s relevant to write about.
Below, there be SPOILERS.
So, it turns out Emily and Warren are the same person. I wonder if this was ever a shocking reveal, because when Warren shows up, he looks like Albert Nobbs. And since this is a rip-off of the movie psycho, I assume the filmmakers felt like they had to do a similar kind of gender-switch reveal, kind of subverting what had been done there by having both Warren and Emily played by a woman (Joan Marshall, under the pseudonym Jean Arless). Times have changed since 1961 and society’s perception has become much more progressive toward transsexual identity, but like this and in the movie Sleepaway Camp I don’t think the reveal is, “Oooh! They’re trans!” I think in both films, the reveal is that they were forced to be something that they weren’t and living against what they knew to be true about themselves drove them mad. Here, in Homicidal, it’s hinted that Warren had gone to Denmark for sexual reassignment surgery, but against their will, for the purpose of inheritance from Warren’s woman-hating father.
End of SPOILERS.
And because this is a William Castle picture, there’s a gimmick: In this one, a tense moment, with genuine thrills, is interrupted with a one-minute “Fright Break” so that William Castle can give viewers a chance to chicken out of the theater and sit in something called “The Coward’s Corner” and watch people shuffle by at the film’s finish. Whoever did this would get their money back. Apparently, no one took the director up on this.
Next Week: Funeral Parade of Roses and Crazed Fruit.