The Side-by-Side Suspense of Wicked, Wicked (1973)

WICKED WICKEDBilly Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot is often considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. Though much of the film takes place at a fancy hotel in Miami, it was actually filmed at the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego. The hotel has a very distinct look and has been a California Historical Landmark since 1970. A few years later, the hotel was used as the location for another film. This one may not be considered a “classic,” but it does utilize a unique filmmaking technique the filmmakers dubbed “Duo-vision.” That’s right, folks, most of the story unfolds with the screen split in two, showing us two different images at the same time. There’s a killer on the loose in 1973’s Wicked, Wicked.

Our story takes place at the beautiful Grandview Hotel. The management has been having a bit of a problem lately, however. It seems that several young women have checked into the hotel, only to skip out before paying their bill the next morning. So the hotel manager (Roger Bowen) puts the house detective, Rick Stewart (David Bailey), on the case. However, Rick soon starts to suspect what we, the audience, know already…that these women, all young and blonde, are actually being murdered.

WICKED WICKED 1Now, all the while we know who the killer actually is…one of the hotel’s electricians, a young man named Jason (Randolph Roberts). There’s just something about attractive young blonde women that makes Jason want to brutally murder them. This creates a problem for the shy young man when he meets Lisa James (Tiffany Bolling), the hotel’s new lounge singer who also happens to be Rick’s ex-wife. She’s got dark hair…that is, until she takes the stage in a blonde wig. This makes her Jason’s next target. Luckily, Rick is putting the pieces together and slowly following the clues to Jason’s lair hidden behind the walls of the hotel.

WICKED WICKED 2My first thought when watching Wicked, Wicked is that William Castle must’ve loved this thing. The Duo-vision split-screen technique would’ve been right up his alley. I expected it to be kind of cheesy, and at times it is. At other times it’s headache inducing. Trying to follow action on two sides of the screen is more work than is usually expected of me as a viewer. However, I admit that I really go into it as the film moved on. Writer/director Richard L Bare actually does a very effective job of letting the story unfold visually. By the end I was really having fun with Duo-vision. I won’t claim that it’s all put together skillfully; in fact there are a few real rough patches in terms of editing. For the most part though, the gimmick worked on me.

WICKED WICKED 3The film is also very interesting as a bit of a precursor of the slasher films that would really start to take off just a few years after this film was released. Halloween was still five years away, and the more famous “Jason” wouldn’t show up for a few years after that. This killer does wear a strange mask when committing his crimes, but the film makes no effort to hide who the killer is. It does try to throw us a bit of a curveball, though,  in the form of a bellboy, played by Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip fame, who likes to get cozy with some of the female guests. Sure, this Jason isn’t wielding a machete, but the kills are still pretty violent, and his hidden lair we see at the film’s climax is downright ghoulish.

WICKED WICKED 4The biggest surprise, though, is that the film is pretty funny…and I don’t mean in an unintentional way. The script is very clever with several funny lines that help soften the unsettling nature of the story a bit. Now, truthfully, the actors need a bit of work in their delivery of the script. Several of the performers could, at best, be described as stilted. However several of the supporting players do shine through. Roger Bowen, famous for playing Col. Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H is funny as the hotel manager. I also enjoyed Madeleine Sherwood as the aging starlet Mrs. Karadyne, a 20-year resident of the hotel who can no longer pay her bills and who may have murdered her husband in the past.

WICKED WICKED 5One of strangest aspects of the film, that I found oddly entertaining, was the music. The film uses the organ score for the 1925 Lon Chaney classic The Phantom of the Opera, so all the dramatic scenes have this thundering organ music. But that’s just half of it! Thanks to Duo-vision, we often get to see the organist, a creepy looking old woman, actually pounding out the music as the scenes unfold. It’s truly bizarre and, honestly, I loved it.

WICKED WICKED 6If the makers of Wicked, Wicked set out to make a unique movie viewing experience, I think they definitely succeeded. There are times when it’s a bit rough around the edges, there are times when it’s even a bit sloppy. It also manages to be a fun early slasher film that makes it clear to the viewer that you shouldn’t take it too seriously. In many ways it actually parodies slasher films before their popularity really took off. As for Duo-vision, you’ll probably either love it or hate it. It won me over, for sure.

Todd Liebenow is a movie geek. It’s that simple. From Denver, Colorado, he writes the blog Forgotten Films and produces the Forgotten Filmcast podcast—both of which focus on “the movies that time forgot.” He also happens to be a professional puppeteer.