Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Two on a Guillotine (1965)

After the mysterious disappearance of his wife Melinda (Connie Stevens), stage illusionist John Duquesne (Cesar Romero) leaves the stage behind forever, and ships his baby daughter Cassie (soon enough also to be played by Connie Stevens) off to an aunt, where she never hears from him again.

So when Duquesne dies twenty years later, Cassie isn’t quite the wreck she’d have been with a less crappy father. There’s some strange business about at his funeral though - he has promised to try and come back from the dead, so his coffin has a pretty little window in it, and he has ordered chains to be wrapped around it during the funeral for things not to become too easy for him once it’s resurrection time. In light of this it’s probably for the better Cassie is only mildly sad.

The reading of the illusionist’s will continues the peculiarity, for he bequeaths his not unremarkable fortune to Cassie only under the condition she’ll spend seven nights from midnight to dawn in his Old Dark House. Not only will the house turn out to be tricked out with a handful of practical jokes in rather dubious taste, but from time to time, there seems to be more going on there than just the post-mortem eccentricities of an old stage ham; something threatening, even. Fortunately for Cassie, strapping young reporter Val Henderson (Dean Jones) has slithered into her trust with a tiny bag of lies (Cassie’s not so bright he’d need a big one), and is – of course – very quickly falling for her, so that manly protection (depending on one’s definition of “manly” or “protection”) is available to her when push comes to shove, this not being the kind of film whose female main character is actually much good for anything.

If you don’t look at William Conrad’s (yes, that William Conrad) Two on a Guillotine too closely, you might very well assume to have encountered a lesser film of that much better William, William Castle. On the surface, the film’s really only missing some gimmick (a miniature guillotine for every audience member, perhaps, with no guarantees of safe fingers?), because otherwise, it carries a lot of the trademarks of Castle’s films.

The whole set-up with the hokey, macabre jokes in the Dark Old House is exactly the kind of matinee fodder Castle in his prime would have gone for, though in his better films, the man would also have added more room for older character actors to provide sharper, snarkier and funnier dialogue and more competent acting than the rambling nothing Stevens and Jones exchange for most of their on-screen time while being either unpleasantly chipper or wooden, respectively, the sight gags would have been much better, and the film hopefully would not have contained a randomly appearing rabbit with an inexplicable, utterly insipid, little theme music of its own. Now, I’m not against rabbits in horror movies, even the mild matinee ones like this one, but putting as much emphasis on the rabbit when a film could show us something silly and frightening seems like a waste. Particularly in a film that – another area where Conrad just can’t beat Castle – does feature a middle that might just as well have consisted out of the cast holding up placards reading “We’re shuffling our feet now for thirty minutes, thank you very much!” so little of interest, and worse, so little that’s fun to watch happens in it.

Well, there’s that scene where Francis and Jones stare at each other with the vacant eyes of ventriloquist dolls for a truly uncomfortable amount of time before they finally kiss, which is, depending on how you look at it, either rather creepy (that emptiness!) or very funny (that emptiness again!), but otherwise, the middle suffers from the film’s curious idea its audience will be interested in the romance of these two idiots. This audience certainly wasn’t.

However, Two on a Guillotine isn’t quite the waste of time this may sound like, for while it doesn’t reach the heights of Castle’s best films, Conrad’s effort does manage to touch the semi-heights of his middling ones, which means it has a lot more entertainment value than quite a few of these matinee horror films have. At least, there’s some fine photography by veteran Sam Leavitt (who worked as DP on classics like Fuller’s Shock Corridor or Cape Fear, among others), the Old Dark House is rather fun looking, and Conrad does put more than a few fun scenes between the draggy ones too, enough so that the resulting film still can be harmless, good-natured, macabre fun. Plus, the finale is genuinely bizarre enough not to be missed, with its mind-boggling explanation for what’s going on (not to spoil things but: just one letter?), a totally not realized by the film itself hint at incest, and some hot, silly guillotine action.

It’s certainly not brilliant, but Two on a Guillotine does provide at least 60 entertaining minutes out of 107.

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