That's the ticket
--Lounge singer Lisa
"We call it half Grand Hotel and half Grand Guignol."
--Richard L. Bare,Taylor, Oakland Tribune, April 22, 1973.
Imagine The Love Boat crossed with Psycho, filmed by a cut-rate writer/director whose script was inspired by a William Castle-ated gimmick. That's pretty much Wicked, Wicked, a 1973 feature film with the acting and production values of a contemporaneous made for TV movie and a level of violence period television would never have permitted, outside of the evening news. It probably shouldn't exist. It's certainly not a great example of film. And yet it's strangely watchable.
We're at a fancy old hotel in California, following the activities of the staff and guests. Alas, one of these is a serial killer, with an eye on blonde women. Hunky hotel security chief and disgraced former cop Rick Stewart (David Bailey) investigates the case of several women who have disappeared without paying their bills. We know something more sinister is afoot; what we don't know for the first half of the film is the identity of the killer.
Wicked, Wicked proves a curiously mixed affair. The tone careens crazily, with much of it leaning towards camp. What cannot be ascertained is how much of the camp is deliberate. Certainly, the filmmakers want us to take the drama seriously. At the same time, we get furniture-chewing performances and a scene where the killer throws body parts at his pursuers. All of this gets accompanied by a crazed organist who, at odd hours, sits herself down at the hotel's vintage organ and plays the melodramatic score to 1925's The Phantom of the Opera.
As much as writer and director Bare likes Phantom, he loves Alfred Hitchcock. Several scenes imitate Psycho-- poorly, however-- and a certain suspect virtually channels Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. He even reads books on embalming.
We also have elements that age rather poorly, and probably created some discomfort even in '73. Our hero was dismissed from the force after he accidentally shot an innocent bystander while on stakeout. The police covered up his incompetence. We're supposed to overlook his actions because he feels really bad about them, and because the victim was allegedly involved in other, unspecified criminal matters.
Guess the racial background of his victim. Go ahead.
The plot, while moderately interesting, isn't why anyone would watch the film in the twenty-first century. The identity of the killer, for example, will surprise no one, save for those convinced that anyone so obviously guilty must be a red herring.
No, what sets Wicked, Wicked apart is its gimmick. Bare shot the film in Thrilling Duo-Vision: split-screen.
Split-screen serves several purposes. Sometimes we follow killer and prospective victim going about their respective business. At other times, we see simultaneous events in different locations, ones that in some cases narrow the list of suspects. We also see the same scene from two angles. Not infrequently, we see the organist playing while events occur appropriate to the score. We get flashbacks on one half while people tell their private tales on the other. These include a rare (for the era) example of sexual abuse of a boy by an adult woman, clearly presented as a repugnant and violating act.
One memorable, extended sequence has aging former actress Lenore Karadyne (Madeleine Sherwood) tell the supposed story of her life, while we see the reality. She didn't dance with the Paris Ballet; she was a stripper. She did act with major stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, but badly and in bit parts. And as for her marriage and the events that led to her living full-time in the hotel-- you'll have to see the movie for that.
Wicked, Wicked appears to have vanished quickly from filmgoers' minds. Its split-screen approach required it be shown in the full, original aspect ratio, which did not suit television until recently (letterboxing would have worked, but it was rare on period television). As a result, it fell by the video wayside. Its rediscovery in the twenty-first century has thus far failed to generate much interest. In the end, the Wicked, Wicked movie remains a curious, campy relic of another era-- filled with cut-rate acting, cheesy dialogue, dead bodies, and 70s porn-staches-- but entertaining enough to the right audience.
Written and Directed by Richard L. Bare
David Bailey as Rick Stewart
Tiffany Bolling as Lisa James, Your Lounge Singer
Randolph Roberts as Jason Gant
Scott Brady as Police Sgt. Ramsey
Edd "Kookie" Byrnes as Henry "Hank" Lassiter
Diane McBain as Dolores Hamilton
Roger Bowen as Simmons, Your Hotel Manager
Madeleine Sherwood as Lenore Karadyne
Stefanianna Christopherson as Genny
Arthur O'Connell as Mr. Fenley, Your Hotel Engineer
Jack Knight as Bill Broderick
Patsy Garrett as Mrs. Griswald, Your Housekeeper
Robert Nichols as Fred, Your Day Clerk
Kirk Bates as Owen Williams, Your Bandleader
Maryesther Denver and Ethel Smith as Adele Moffett, Your Organist
Ian Abercrombie as Eddie, Your Room Service Waiter
Leaves of Grass as Your Lounge Band