I saw William Castle’s HOMICIDAL (1961) at the Loews Jersey Theater in Jersey City on Friday night. To say it was the perfect way to kick off the “Pre-Halloween weekend” would be an understatement unworthy of the master of gimmicky cinematic hyperbole.
I knew it was going to be a great night the minute I walked into the ornate lobby of the historic theater. A smiling usher greeted me, tore my ticket, and handed me a brightly colored coupon.
“Here’s your money back guarantee,” she said.
“How does it work?” I asked, playing along. (Back in my improv days we called that “Yes, and…”)
“Well, if you’re too scared, you can leave before the end of the movie,” she said. “That’s why it says, ‘for cowards only.’”
“Do I get a refund?”
“Yes,” she replied. “But you have to sit in the ‘Coward’s Corner’ until everybody leaves.”
William Castle would have loved Loews Jersey as much as I do. Built in 1929 at a cost of more than $2 million, this former crown jewel of the Loews theater chain was saved from the wrecking ball in 1986 by an army of dedicated volunteers and re-opened as an independently operated venue devoted to the classics. For more than two decades, the Loews has been presenting iconic films in studio archive prints, often featuring special guests and live music from a restored vintage pipe organ. Seeing a movie there is like taking a trip back in time – all for the price of a ticket on the PATH train.
Are you jealous yet? You should be, because HOMICIDAL was screened in a pristine 35 mm print and presented exactly as William Castle intended: with a “Fright Break” and that money back guarantee for audience members who “follow the yellow streak to the Coward’s Corner.” And not only that, the show was preceded by an organ concert of spooky music, including Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
Like most William Castle films, the best thing about HOMICIDAL is the gimmick. Castle was a perfectly competent filmmaker, but his true genius lie in the bells and whistles he used to get asses in the seats: a $1,000 Fright Insurance Policy for MACABRE (1958); “real” skeletons flying through theaters in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959); “electrified” seats in THE TINGLER (1959); a “Ghost Viewer” used to see supernatural beings on-screen in 13 GHOSTS (1960); a “Punishment Poll” determining the retribution to be heaped upon MR. SARDONICUS (1961); plastic bloody axes distributed to audience members at screenings of STRAIT-JACKET (1964); seat-belted “Shock Sections” in theaters showing I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965); and a million dollar life insurance policy for the cockroach star of BUG (1975).
In addition to attracting attendance, these gimmicks demonstrated that Castle understood what movie-going is all about: the communal experience. What’s more unifying than laughing together at an inflatable skeleton dangling above your head on a string? And last Halloween at Loews Jersey we did just that. The director’s grandson Kyle Castle Newall introduced a screening of HOUSE ON HAUNTED Hill in EMERGO! complete with flying skeletons – to the delight of all in attendance.
As a movie, HOMICIDAL can’t hold a candle to Vincent Price and his wife-killing shenanigans in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but it’s still good fun. Released in June of 1961 to capitalize on the success of Alfred Hitchock’s PSYCHO (1960), HOMICIDAL tells the story of (SPOILER ALERT) a deranged, cross-dressing, female ax murderer (Jean Arless) slowly killing off the people who forced her to live her life as a man. With its female-to-male gender bending, HOMICIDAL is like a bargain basement inverse of PSYCHO, only without the style or genuine thrills. While I don’t think it’s among Castle’s best work, Time Magazine loved it and placed it on their ten best list for 1962.
The best thing about HOMICIDAL is actress Joan Marshall who, using the pseudonym Jean Arless, plays both “Warren” and “Emily” credibly. With her hair cut short and dyed brown, and prosthetics on her hands and teeth, Marshall is entirely believable as a (effeminate) man, though the obvious voice dubbing for her male character is an early clue that something is amiss. After starting strong with a nice bloody murder, the film settles into a turgid pace for an hour or so, only to pick up again for the climax. It’s here that Castle gooses things up with his “Fright Break” gimmick, in which a countdown clock appears on the screen as the director (in voiceover) encourages “anyone who is too frightened to see the end of the picture” to leave. In abject shame, one would assume.
As the clock ticked away, Loews Jersey illuminated both center aisles with searing, amber lights – the “yellow streak” that any coward would be forced to follow in order to receive his or her (or both?) refund. The pressure mounting, one lone audience member jumped out of his seat, threw his popcorn in the air and yelled, “I gotta get out of here!” as he dashed toward the exit. The crowd howled at this clearly staged display, and cheered enthusiastically.
After the movie, we all got a chance to taunt the chicken, who blamed his early exit on a “weak bladder.” A likely story!
Scott Franklin (left), who told me he’s been a Loews Jersey volunteer for eight years, donned the dunce cap and endured the brickbats of his fellow audience members in the Loews’ modified “Coward Corral.” He was joined by a fellow scaredy cat who would only identify himself as a “friend,” because (in his words) “Scott deserves all the credit.” While the coward did not receive a refund, he also didn’t pay to get in, which makes the whole thing a break even proposition.
After the show I visited the Loews’ haunted house on the balcony level, where all manner of costumed people jumped out from behind columns and curtains to scare the wits out of us. It’s a fun little show, staffed entirely by volunteers. In fact, everyone who works at the Loews is donating their time: ticket takers; popcorn sellers; ushers; projectionists; tech crew; clean-up staff; and the people who set up and manage special events. I’ve never experienced a movie theater that better embodies the concept of cinema as a shared experience, in every sense of the word, than the Loews Jersey. And that’s really what William Castle spent his entire career trying to perfect.
If Castle does really walk among us as a ghost as his family claims, I’m sure he was at Loews Jersey on Friday night, laughing along with the rest of us.
For more information on Loews Jersey click here.