Wicked, Wicked DVD Review: The Best Bad Gimmick Movie Ever

Towards the end of his career in the motion picture industry, director Richard L. Bare – the sole individual behind the camera for virtually every episode of Green Acres ever as well as the same man who penned and directed the Joe McDoakes series of theatrical shorts – hit upon an idea. As he looked down the freeway, he noticed it took on the appearance of being split into two separate screens by the divider. It was then, according to legend, that the filmmaker who had spent darn near the entire span of his métier in Hollywood directing comedies and westerns decided he was going to make a campy horror thriller told via split screen; the fact other filmmakers had already begun using a similar motif in his films being undoubtedly moot.

Of course, Bare’s employment of the process was to be of a decidedly different nature. Whereas someone like De Palma would film the same scene from two different angles in order to display the action of a certain moment simultaneously, Bare went all-out by opting to shoot an entire feature from alternate points of view. The tongue-in-cheek film was annoyingly entitled Wicked, Wicked (to really emphasize the split screen bit, apparently) and the proposed revolutionary process was dubbed “Anamorphic Duo-Vision” (the advertising campaign promising “Twice the tension! Twice the terror!” to moviegoers). Originally intended to be displayed on the big screen from two projectors, the trailer of the feature attempted to lure patrons in by saying they could only show single projector images from the feature.

Alas, the world Bare manufactured his moviehouse gimmick for had long since past, and the days of the William Castle marketing ploy were little more than a roadshow curiosity. By the time the final cut of Wicked, Wicked found its way to theaters – following a relatively easy short shoot and a grueling 32 weeks in the editing booth piecing the ultra-ambitious project together (all this before the days of computers, kids) – the proposed two-projector part of the exhibiting had been sacked. Instead, Bare and his former producer in the world of Warner Bros. television, William T. Ott, had opted to squeeze all of the movie(s) together onto one strip of film. This would make it easier for theaters all across the nation – possibly the world for that matter – to show the movie without any special brouhaha, even with the unusually wide 2.65:1 aspect ratio factor the completed film now sported.

Alas, the filmmakers of Wicked, Wicked could have offered free sex partners in addition to guaranteed payments of $15,000 in cash to each and every person who bought a ticket and it still wouldn’t have made a difference. For you see, exactly as the whole bizarre premise of the movie suggests, Wicked, Wicked is a wickedly bad gimmicky gasser of a motion picture.

Combining horror and suspense with equal amounts of humor and silliness, Wicked, Wicked was filmed almost entirely at the historic Hotel del Coronado, and anyone who has stepped foot inside the amazing Southern California landmark will surely get a kick of seeing how the joint looked in the early ’70s when lounge singers and disco were at their prime (more on that in a bit). Here we witness the plights of a deranged hotel electrician named Jason (effectively and memorably played by a completely unknown David Hyde-Pierce lookalike named Randolph Roberts, who sadly, never had a break in film) who enjoys killing blonde women who check in to the hotel, as well as the hunt conducted by the house detective (remember when such creatures existed?) to figure out why so many women have run out on their tabs.

As it turns out, our detective, Rick Stewart (former Mitchum deodorant model David Bailey), is a former police officer, whose bad judgment of shooting first and asking questions later has resulted in him being blacklisted from public security (whereas he’d be placed on paid leave and cleared in no time today). But he’s a nice guy for the most part, in fact. Heck, so is the killer Jason! Sure, he’s a creep and all that, but he’s always there for the hotel’s record-breaking delinquent guest, a failed actress (Madeleine Sherwood, of The Flying Nun fame) who is secretly broke and has nowhere else to go. Jason is so kind to this motherly-type figure that he slides money under her door to help her out. She’s not a blonde, after all, so anything goes.

In fact, Jason is such a nice guy that when Stewart’s ex-wife (Tiffany Bolling, of The Candy Snatchers and Kingdom of the Spiders fame), a rising lounge singer (?) performing with a funky disco group called Kirk Bates and the Leaves of Grass (whom I believe were a real group hailing from Chula Vista, and who are quite good, in fact – especially with Bates’ outrageous costume raided directly from the personal wardrobe of Austin Powers) arrives at the hotel, he begins to fall for her; reaching out to creepily stroke her beautiful dark brown hair after she scolds him for not being trained properly on the art of using a spotlight. She pours him a complimentary cup of coffee, they have a meaningless conversation about Jason’s interest electronics and embalming, and he has a vision of them on the beach together – which, thanks to Anamorphic Duo-Vision, doesn’t mean we have to cut away from the action.

And then the dumb twit walks out on stage that night sporting blonde hair. D’oh! To make matters even more cumbersome, she’s one of the worst goddamn lounge singers I have ever heard in my life. (I’ve worked in several shitty one-horse town bars and a cheap rural Native American casino, mind you.) Seriously, Bolling’s singing is out of this world in an enjoyable terrible way, and her acts only go to make Wicked, Wicked even funnier than it already isn’t supposed to be. The truly hysterical part here is that Bolling was herself aspired to be a recording artist, having released one (and only one, which I have decided I must own now) album a few years before that failed to make any waves, and signed on for this movie because the part required singing. But once you discover her timing is only slightly worse than a nuclear holocaust right before you’re supposed to go meet a hot sexy date, you have to wonder how tone deaf everybody was in the ’70s. Fortunately, Ms. Bolling soothed the blow of her performance here by posing for the April ’72 edition of Playboy.

Once more, thanks to Anamorphic Duo-Vision, you not only get to hear every cringe-worthy missed beat that sounds like it was from an entirely different song than the one Leaves of Grass are playing, but you get to see every frame of Bolling aurally assaulting a showroom full of extras (who were hopefully well-fed and thoroughly intoxicated) . Apart from the lounge numbers, Wicked, Wicked‘s musical score consists of organ music from Universal’s 1925 masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera – and one side of the screen or the other occasionally jumps over to forgotten bitplayer Maryesther Denver as the hotel’s resident organist (with the actual score played by Your Hit Parade organist/”Love is Strange” co-writer Ethel Smith), whose departure from the picture has a very funny “OK, that’s it, I’m out of here. Deuces, bitches!” vibe to it.

Edd Byrnes co-stars as a sleazy beach bum hotel employee who moonlights as a gigolo for the older lady guests, the great Scott Brady is a local police sergeant who doesn’t buy Bailey’s theory about blonde women being kidnapped from the hotel, Arthur O’Connell is Roberts’ maintenance supervisor, and Diane McBain, Roger Bowen, Hal K. Dawson, and a still green behind the gills Ian Abercrombie also appear in this delightfully dumb thriller that will leave you howling. (I had to rewind the climax wherein our antagonist gets his just desserts several times. It’s positively epic, trust me. And wait until you see the “love” scene, replete with uproariously cliché imagery of rockets, a charging cavalry, and even an atomic explosion!) Charles B. Pierce, the late mind behind such cult classics like The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown served as set decorator.

Needless to say, Anamorphic Duo-Vision failed to make a splash at the box office. It annoyed many patrons who couldn’t figure out what to focus on, citing one critic to joke about it being a pity they couldn’t come up with enough material to make a single film with. Indeed, looking at Wicked, Wicked, it almost seems like it was the first motion picture constructed entirely out of B roll footage (or someone successfully passed laziness off as creativity to a couple of high MGM executives). Anyone with a keen interest in video editing will no doubt be assembling a complete single-image version in their mind as the film plays out, and I’m sure the reported two-year restoration job the Warner Archive did on this bizarre B movie antiquity (wherein nearly every lead’s last name starts with the letter B, thus ensuring it really is a B movie) was just as taxing of a task as was the original editorial process.

That said, this Warner Archive Collection presentation is sadly missing approximate one minute of the film’s bloodier, gorier material. I have a copy of the film from an older TV airing that features the excised footage, but I cannot say as to whether or not this represents the original theatrical release. Since the movie was issued to theaters with a PG rating, chances are this it here (the sound is edited in a way that the cuts aren’t noticeable). And while it’s a pity this material is missing (including a scene wherein we learn what happened to Sherwood’s pet pigeon, and another where Roberts tosses a severed embalmed head at a pursuing Bailey and Brady!), it doesn’t ultimately distract from anyone’s enjoyment of the movie.

After all, the movie is terrible no matter how you look at it, whether it be from the left, the right, or both simultaneously via the (presumably unpatented) process of Anamorphic Duo-Vision. Even if it has been sanitized, Wicked, Wicked is still great goofy gimmicky fun. In fact, I’ll wager it’s quite possibly the best of the worst when it comes to gimmick movies (there’s a reason William Castle stopped with the cinematic luring devices when he did), and anyone who enjoys bad movies will be in heaven during each and every dual-sided frame. Order it, set up a movie night with your friends, and break out the booze, because this one’s a real laugh-inducer.

The Warner Archive’s DVD-R presents the feature in an anamorphic (duo-vision) 2.40:1 aspect ratio, which means we’re missing out on a little screen information as compared to the original 2.65:1 theatrical presentation. The audio track retains the original split stereo sound (yet another gift bequeathed to us from Anamorphic Duo-Vision), and the classic exploitative trailer for the feature is also included (wherein our short-lived, seemingly gimmick is hyped up to be the next best thing). Appearance-wise, the print for the main feature looks quite nice overall (the trailer looks beautiful, but then, it was a single-image affair).

The print occasionally bears a reddish or bluish hue to it, and the black levels look fairly flat in some scenes (and/or sides), but this must be taken into account since the movie was essentially two different prints pressed onto another. Had Bare and Orr gone ahead with the two projector treatment for the film, we might have been looking at something altogether on home video; something perhaps akin to the Cinerama recreations several Blu-ray releases have made. Of course, it would take a financially suicidal backer to fully restore a turkey like this from its original elements for a High-Def release (somebody start a Kickstarter campaign, pronto!), and so, any look at this rarely-seen, unintentionally hilarious thriller is welcomed. Missing gore or otherwise.

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Luigi Bastardo

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