Before The Skin I Live In, Sleepaway Camp, or Dressed To Kill, there was William Castle’s Homicidal. If you’ve never seen it, you should probably stop reading. There’s no way for me to talk about this movie without giving away the ending. There. You’ve been warned.
That said, let’s get the reveal right out of the way. Jean Arless (the one-time stage name of Joan Marshall) plays Emily, a live-in caretaker for a woman named Helga. Castle apparently preferred the name Jean because it was more gender neutral. Arless, you see, also plays Emily’s, uh, “husband,” Warren.
Arless is compelling in both roles. It’s claimed she went so farr as to dub Warren’s lines herself as she supposedly had the ability to alter her voice making it much deeper.
The eeriness of her appearance is amped up nicely by makeup that achieves an Uncanny Valley effect regardless of gender. It only gets weirder from there with a plot that is deliciously convoluted. On paper it may come off as a bit silly, but onscreen it works.
Warren, you see, was born female. He was delivered by a nurse, the aforementioned Helga (the local doctor being conveniently sick). Helga and Warren’s mother conspire to list Warren as male on the birth certificate and get the county clerk to go along with this.
Warren is raised as male. He has a half sister, Miriam Webster (unfortunate name). Their parents die in a car crash when the children are young, and Warren goes off to Denmark with Helga (like ya do). It’s never specified why. He returns at the age of twenty with Helga (who has had a stroke) and her live-in caretaker, Emily.
Before we meet Warren, in fact, Emily kills a justice of the peace then returns home to tell Helga who is mute and confined to a wheelchair. Come to think of it, a number of folks in Castle’s movies can’t talk. Huh.
Anyway, now that Warren is about to claim his inheritance, he has to kill everyone in the way. He does this through Emily. Emily kills the justice of the peace (who happened to be the county clerk who signed the birth certificate), Helga, and intends to kill Miriam.
Convoluted. Deliciously. And nearly as full of holes as Blackburn, Lancashire. For example:
- Why does Emily have to kill Miriam? Miriam only gets the inheritance, it turns out, if there is no male heir, but there is, kind of: Warren.
- How is the house exactly the same as it was during Warren and Miriam’s childhood? Warren was in Denmark. Miriam doesn’t live there. One assumes she was brought up by her biological mother (we don’t really get the backstory on that).
- Why doesn’t Helga ever write anyone a note saying something like, “Emily is going to kill me,” or even, “Help!”
- Speaking of Helga, what happened when she took Warren to Denmark, land of the first sex reassignment surgery? Well, as the detective says at the end, “What happened there we don’t know.” Or do we?
- Possibly the biggest plot hole of all, why doesn’t anyone recognize Emily? The big reveal is merely Emily taking off her wig. Nobody saw any resemblance this entire time? Really?
Numerous comparisons can be between Homicidal and Psycho. To be fair, Castle may well have lifted a few shots from Hitchcock:
It’s more difficult, though, to determine who’s copying whom in terms of film exploitation, showmanship, and straight up gimmickry. Hitchcock could grind out the hype in true P.T. Barnum style, but Castle was masterful at this. Pretty much every movie had a gimmick: audiences voting on endings, life insurance policies for getting scared to death, Percepto.
Homicidal was no exception. It opens with Castle doing needlepoint and talking to the audience about the story. Très Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Before the big reveal, Castle hits us with a Fright Break. A clock comes up on the screen, and anyone too frightened to see the end of the movie has 45 seconds to leave the theater.
There are also significant differences between the two in terms of Norman Bates and Warren. Norman dressed up like his mother and killed people. Warren lived most of his life as male even though he is biologically female.
The point for Emily/Warren is that this is not, in fact, a gender issue. Warren was brought up male in order to inherit his father’s estate which supposedly was only going to go to a son. As is so often the case, it’s all about the money. Well, money and misogyny.
One more distinction–Norman Bates hears his mother’s voice in his head. Emily/Warren put up a façade to claim an inheritance. The point, however, is that this was not a sexual identity story as much as a long-term grift. Warren maintained an illusion while Norman is trapped in a delusion.
Ultimately, everything revolves around Warren masquerading as Emily. I like to think of it as a sort of noir hybrid of Victor Victoria, Sleepaway Camp, and Psycho. Sociologically, you can make of that what you will.
(4 if you count Warren/Emily separately)