Remember that moment in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, where Nigel Bruce is revealed to be falling to his death, and you don’t know whether he’s laughing or screaming? That’s pretty much the mantra of 1973’s WICKED, WICKED, a genuinely unusual horror/mystery/black comedy/musical…with a twist, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.
The plot is classic: beauteous women guests tend to disappear after checking into a gothic hotel on the California coast (a terrific location use of San Diego’s spectacular 19th-century Victorian Hotel del Coronado). It’s not the plot, but how it’s told that makes this a wacky must-have for any mondo crazy collector.
And here’s why.
WICKED, WICKED is the brainchild of writer/director Richard L. Bare. Bare, to us comedy fans, is the genius behind one television’s greatest achievements ever, Green Acres (bringing Theater of the Absurd to primetime network broadcast TV). Bare also wrote and directed the wonderful Joe McDoakes shorts at Warners in the 1940s and ‘50s. He then drifted into features, doing some interesting noirs (Flaxy Martin, This Side of the Law, Girl on the Run) before finally reaching his peak in television land, directing many Warner shows, including Maverick, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, Lawman and 77 Sunset Strip (outside of his home base, Bare’s pre-Green Acres classic is the iconic Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man). Of course, acing TV at Warners in those days meant working under the auspices of Jack Warner’s son-in-law (and former WB contract actor) Wm. T. Orr. Orr and Bare hit it off, and by the time this project mushroomed in Bare’s cranium, both were well clear of their old stomping ground. With Orr as producer and Bare as director, the pair approached MGM with this novel thriller.
Okay, so what makes WICKED, WICKED a novel thriller, besides the title? Well, that’s actually a tip-off, as the entire picture (save a couple of establishing shots) play out in another of Bare’s creations, Duo-Vision, split-screen anamorphic scope process displaying two plot points simultaneously. The ads proudly proclaimed, “See the Hunter, See the Hunted…BOTH AT THE SAME TIME.” While true, this does both Bare Duo-Vision an injustice. Duo-Vision is far more interesting, as it additionally presents real-time with flashbacks and character encounters with fantasies. Pretty inventive (I suggest all budding picture folk seek out Bare’s excellent and informative 1971 book, modestly entitled The Film Director). He originally saw the process being like Cinerama minus one: two interlocked projectors screening side-by-side images (okay, so maybe Cinecrama). He and Orr said their pitch was one of the best ever, getting a Metro greenlight in less than two days. What happened then was that the studio, under the Howard Hughes/RKO/history-repeats-itself destructive force of Kirk Kerkorian, was hemorrhaging money like…well, like victims in WICKED, WICKED. The millionaire entrepreneur was more preoccupied in the building of the MGM Grand Hotel than the film product of the studio that once made Grand Hotel. Word soon came down that WICKED, WICKED would not be limited to a double-projected release, but would be optically spliced onto a single 35MM anamorphic print. Of course, this compromised the picture quality, but no one, save Bare, seemed to care.
The leads of WICKED, WICKED are Bare corkers. Star David Bailey was plucked from TV commercials when Bare saw him in a Mitchum deodorant ad (to this day, I still ponder why men would want to smell like Robert Mitchum, particularly after Cape Fear, but that’s just me). The female lead was the era’s poster psychotronic (before there even was such a term) queen Tiffany Bolling. Bailey, swaggering in revolting 1970s clothing (perhaps the scariest part of the movie), nailing more women than there are planks in Habitat for Humanity, is appealing only to those who worship Wayne Newton. Bolling, all deceptively angelic looking, is revealed to be the new singer for the hotel’s nitery, blasting out a repertoire of nitty-gritty ditties that gives Madeline Kahn’s Lilli von Schtupp a run for her money. Her hilarious slovenly rhyming of the title song’s lyrics (“Wicked, wicked, that’s the tick-ked”) is, as they said in the 1990s, “epic.” Bolling’s backup is the Leaves of Grass, in itself a lounge-lizard combo parody – the kind of band one might imagine managed by Guy Cabellero in a Second City sketch.
The sick comedy mixed with the horror stuff is obviously intentional, and it’s extremely dark (there’s even a topical reference suggesting the grisly events are connected to the state’s infamous Zodiac Killer). Bailey, calling a cantankerous codger (Hal K. Dawson) who rented a victim a room, is like an Oliver Wendell Douglas phone routine with Hank Kimball. In fact, the entire supporting cast is showcase of movie and TV favorites. While no-nonsense, blustery police detective Scott Brady is my favorite, there’s also maintenance man Arthur O’Connell, hotel manager Roger Bowen, pathetic Miss Havisham-esque guest Madeleine Sherwood, and, in what probably comprised favors called in by their former employer Orr, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes (never Kookier) as a manic, body-building health-obsessed waiter (whose demise rivals any Green Acres sight gag) and Diane McBain, quickly slaughtered in the opening to set the stage. There’s also a hysterical falsetto bellhop who seems to have been the inspiration for Barry Levinson’s character in High Anxiety.
Jason, the killer (Randolph Roberts), a Mark Hamill-looking muthafucka in a fright mask, early-on revealed as super-geeky handyman, is a textbook of traumas derived from Exploitation Psych 101. He butchers and then re-assembles platinum-haired lasses; this is due to his rather unfortunate childhood, reared by a physically and sexually abusive drunken, dishwater-blonde floozie from the Barbara Pepper School for Predatory Mommies. Befriended by Bolling, she notices Jason’s smarts and asks why he’s working as an assistant to O’Connell. “Right now, I’m studying chemistry,” he replies, as Duo-Vision shows him reading The Chemistry of Embalming). This is before Bolling dons a blonde wig to spice up her act, causing the jack-in-the-box spring in Jason’s head to go BOING!
Another hoot is the hidden alcove where Roberts stashes his Museum of Yella-Haired Corpses. It makes Karloff’s Black Cat cellar look like a Cabbage Patch Kids emporium. During a climatic chase, Bailey and Brady recognize the missing living/dead exhibits with the latter confused by an errant guillotined stiff. “Her, I don’t know,” drolly blurts Brady. My favorite deranged laff is the reason a crack former detective like Bailey ended up as a house dick in a moldering hotel. “You know, Stewart,” reminds Brady to his old coworker, “this isn’t the first time you made a mistake.” Duo-Vision across to Bailey pumping a full clip into an innocent black dude, Naked Gun style.
Suffice to say, WICKED, WICKED wasn’t a hit; in fact, it disappeared quicked, quicked. I only recall hearing about the movie, and always wanted to see it. Now, thanks to the gang at Warner Archive, I can. And so can you. Curiously enough, Bolling always dissed this picture, even removing it from her c.v. (apparently Kingdom of the Spiders, Centerfold Girls, Love Scenes and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl were okay). She later said she only did it because of the opportunity to sing (and, to be honest, in spite of “wicked/tick-ked” she’s fairly adept at it).
The Warner Archive DVD-R of WICKED, WICKED is a double delight of fun. The anamorphic 2.4:1 dimensions (shot by d.p. Frederick Gately) give you an accurate rendition of how the pic looked during its brief playdates. Of course, the squishing of two movies onto one 35MM strip causes some grain and blur (check out the trailer, which tells the audience that Duo-Vision cannot fully be shown in the Coming Attraction, so you’ll have only a single frame view; the quality is way better than in the actual flick). Since it’s unlikely, to say the least, that this movie will ever be properly shown in Bare’s concept of the process, this is as good as it gets. The audio is another matter. Bare’s intended stereo sound system, having appropriate audio resonating only from the principal Duo-Vision visual (except when the focus is needed on BOTH sides), has been fully realized, and is quite effective. The main score to the pic, shown being pumped out on a Wurlitzer by a grotesque lady organist (Maryesther Denver), is the original music composed for the 1925 Phantom of the Opera. How cool is that?!
Imagine a giallo directed by William Castle, and you have a decent capsulized idea of WICKED, WICKED. If you like your movies with extra cheese, I guarantee you’ll have a swell time. LSS, WICKED, WICKED is a Bare essential!
WICKED, WICKED. Color. Widescreen [2.4:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. 2.0 stereo-surround. Warner Home Video and Warner Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000431679. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com