I imagine Psycho was a hard act for other directors to follow. Released in 1960, it still stands as an example of the perfect horror film––a singularity of artistic vision expressed with supreme confidence––so perfect that many horror “shockers” of the 60s look like clunkers in comparison. Indie director H.G. Lewis spent the 60s trying to “out-shock” Hitchcock with fakey gore grinders like Two Thousand Maniacs! and Blood Feast, while most of the major studios continued to release the same harmless horror grub they’d been churning out since the war ended. Case in point: 1965‘s Two on a Guillotine, a hard-to-find Warner Brothers film finally getting a DVD release via Warner Archives.
A dead magician wills $300,000 to his estranged daughter, but only if she can spend seven nights in his spooky, booby-trapped mansion. It’s a premise that was utilized to superior effect in genuinely frightening haunted house classics like Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) or The Haunting (1963), but any intended shocks in Two on a Guillotine are hijacked by its silly romantic subplot.
Within moments of returning to her home town, estranged daughter Cassie (Connie Stevens) is bombarded with questions from annoying reporters. Her dead father, goateed master magician The Great Duquesne, has vowed to visit Cassie from beyond the grave, and the local press are desperate to get inside his haunted mansion for the scoop. Ace newspaper writer Val Henderson (Disney stable boy Dean Jones) knows that Cassie hates reporters, so he tries to get her story by posing as a dude who’s “into real estate”. She’s squirrelly at first, so Val ramps up the Dean Jones charm, and before long she’s inviting him inside to explore the mansion and perhaps stay over for roast beef sandwiches (we know what that means). You can practically hear the baritone preview voiceover: A man and a woman, from two different worlds, searching for romance in a haunted mansion! He’s secretly a reporter; she loooathes reporters! Can their love survive?…Once she finds out the truth!!!
So rather than trapping the audience in a single haunted house environment and going for scares, Two on a Guillotine is happy to simply flounce around from one cutesy rom-com scene to the next––from a joyous carnival montage, perhaps, to a boisterous 60s dance club for a frisky make-out––and leave all that boring spooky stuff on the back burner. For the sake of accuracy, the guillotine on the DVD cover should be replaced with a B&W still of a Jones and Stevens embrace fronting a haunted mansion waaaaaaaaay in the background. Two on a Guillotine is a fantastic horror movie title. Too bad this isn’t a horror movie. Maybe Two on a Train to Squaresville was already taken.
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