Director: Richard L. Bare
Warner Archive Collection

For fans of relatively obscure cult and psychotronic films, 1973’s WICKED, WICKED stands out because of its introduction of the “Duo-Vision” process, which basically means the film is in split screen. The first and only feature to be shot and shown entirely in such a way, the use of the gimmick didn’t help it at the box office, and since it couldn’t be shown on television until recent years (when letterboxing on stations such as TCM was allowed) the film has pretty much been forgotten. Never before given a home video release, Warner finally unleashes it (not surprisingly) on their Warner Archive Collection of “made-on-demand” DVDs.

Controversy hits the old seaside resort known as the Grandview Hotel with a series of mysterious disappearances of blonde women. The latest golden-haired beauty to check in, Dolores Hamilton (Diane McBain, THE MINI-SKIRT MOB), is stabbed to death in her suite by a madman wearing an inside-out rubber mask, and her body vanishes too. Womanizing hotel detective Rick Stewart (David Bailey, CHANGE OF MIND) is on the case, and is soon propelled into an awkward situation when his ex wife, sultry lounge singer Lisa James (Tiffany Bolling, THE CANDY SNATCHERS) arrives to do a gig at the hotel nightclub. She has words with the young hotel electrician Jason Gant (Randolph Roberts, one of two “Chuck Cunninghams” on the early episodes of “Happy Days”) when he doesn’t do her stage spot-lighting correctly, but she ater apologizes and befriends the strange fellow over a cup of coffee. But when Lisa dons a flashy blonde wig to wear in her act, she is stalked by Jason, who obviously has an inner hatred towards fair-haired females. As attempts are made on her life, Lisa is protected by Rick as they rekindle their romance, but when the police believe they’ve apprehended the suspect, ex-cop Rick is convinced the killer is still on the loose.

Producer/director/screenwriter Richard L. Bare was a director of mainly sitcoms who was pushing 60 at the time this was made, and one has to wonder if they thought a new cinema trend would be popularized when this was sold to MGM, or if the struggling studio was just looking for another exploitation film to release. The split screen process was utilized a few times during key scenes in Brian De Palma thrillers, as well as the concert film WOODSTOCK, but here it lasts the entire film (and of course it would have to be a horror film) with the exception of a handful of single screen shots. So with this being the only entire film of its kind, it’s actually not bad and quite underrated for its entertainment value, with the split-screen technique working in its favor, never being an eyesore or a nuisance. Even though the plot is thin and culls ideas from several Hitchcock films and other psychological thrillers of the 1960s, it’s the unique visual style and tongue in cheek attitude (with a few truly “laugh out loud” moments) and dark humor which make it work. Not so much a mystery as it is a thriller, the film reveals early on that Jason is the killer, and his strange behavior (which includes binocular voyeurism, embalming and human taxidermy) is on display from the beginning. The suspense here is in what his next sicko action is and when he will eventually be discovered and caught. The Duo-Vision process lends itself not only to showing simultaneous parallel action, but also truths and untruths (with some wickedly humorous contradictions) and flashbacks and future visions. Dialogue comes from one side of the screen at a time, so as to not overlap or cause confusion.

In his first feature, Roberts makes a particularly convincing nutso, and his innocent, fair looks contrasts the typical movie killer, which he easily conveys (if the film would have performed better at the box office, he probably would have had more of a career). Bolling, who tried a singing career but became better known for her drive-in movies, makes a good damsel in distress, but affable co-star Bailey (who is kind of reminiscent of actor Ross Hagen) was relegated mostly to commercials and TV soaps before his death in 2004. Another element of WICKED, WICKED which works greatly in it favor is the quirky characters played by some notable TV and movie actors including Edd Byrnes (GREASE) as the athletic-obsessed gigolo hotel worker with a criminal background, Madeline Sherwood (the mother superior on “The Flying Nun”) as a widowed, fund-deprived has-been dancer with a dubious back-story, Scott Brady (SATAN’S SADISTS) as a stern police detective (something he portrayed numerous times), Arthur O’Connell (7 FACES OF DR. LAO) as the kindly veteran hotel engineer who helps trap the killer, Patsy Garrett (BENJI) as the housemaid who gets a face full of blood from a fawcett, and Roger Bowen (Col Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s MASH) as the cantankerous hotel manager.

Aside from several pop tunes sung by Bolling, WICKED, WICKED’s soundtrack is made up of the original score from the 1925 silent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (as performed by organist Ladd Thomas off screen) with actress Maryesther Denver (William Castle’s PROJECT X) seen playing the organ on screen (or one side of the screen, that is) in campy, macabre bits unrelated to the actual storyline. Independent filmmaker Charles B. Pierce (THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN) served as the set decorator, and it was filmed largely in and around the historic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. It’s interesting to note that WICKED, WICKED was originally rated R but quickly changed to PG before theatrical showings. It’s unclear whether anything was actually removed before release, but there is a fair amount of violence and a pretty disturbing childhood incident (Jason is portrayed in childhood flashbacks by uncredited “adult” actor Bobby Porter, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) so it wouldn’t be surprising if the MPAA intended to impose a restricted rating on this.

Admittedly, WICKED, WICKED works much better on the big screen (for those who caught it on its original release or are lucky enough to see it in a revival showing), but with a decent-sized TV screen, the experience can still be enjoyed in your living room. The dual image here is shared on a single anamorphic frame, so no dual-projection was utilized when this was shown in theaters. Whether Warner’s DVD transfer was made from elements or a print source is unclear, but the image here is comparable and slightly better than what aired on TCM. The anamorphic widescreen image is framed at 2.40:1 and looks correct throughout and only a bit tight on the left side of the screen during the opening credits. The complicated opticals originally used for the dual image leave behind quite a bit of dirt and debris which is more or less sporadic here. The image is reasonably good but on the soft side, with colors appearing correct if somewhat muted on occasion. Digital artifacting can be detected in darker scenes, and it’s obvious no major restoration was done for this title. The outcome is acceptable but far from ideal in an age where numerous low budget 1970s horror films are getting HD overhauls. The Dolby Digital Stereo audio has decent range, and you can easily detect the intended separation in a number of scenes. The only extra is MGM’s original theatrical trailer which is single-screened and anamorphic. (George R. Reis)