Getting an audience into a theater can be a tricky business. You have to dazzle them. You have to promise them glory. And when that fails, sometimes you just have to trick them outright. When a simple trailer won’t do, you have to resort to a gimmick, and let’s be honest… some gimmicks are better than others.
The history of cinema is littered with gimmicks. Some of them wind up becoming industry standards, like 3-D or widescreen or synchronized sound. All of those major developments sprang from an initial release or releases that promised audiences something new and different, something they had never seen before. The audiences flocked, Hollywood responded, and now practically every movie is a “talkie” in widescreen, and a whole bunch of them are currently in three-dimensions.
But some gimmicks are just stupid gimmicks. Audiences went to see the film, realized the novelty wasn’t worth the ticket price in the first place, and so – for example – we never saw another movie in “Emergo” ever again. Don’t know what “Emergo” was? It was a fabulous new effect invented for the movie House on Haunted Hill, in which a skeleton was dangled over the audience on a wire. Nobody used Emergo after that, because it was too easy to knock it down with a well-aimed handful of Ju-Ju-Bes.
Which brings us to the topic of the day, what about the gimmick films that fell somewhere in between “good” and “lame?” What about a film in which the gimmick was actually a pretty good idea, one that could have inspired other filmmakers to approach the art form in a new and novel way? And what if nobody saw the danged movie, so the gimmick was deemed a non-starter, and fell completely into obscurity?
Folks, I give you the 1973 serial killer thriller WICKED, WICKED and its clever filmmaking novelty: DUO-VISION.
The film’s trailer (above) plays a little like bit Morpheus trying to explain The Matrix. “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself,” says the man who knows perfectly well that the words “You are living in a virtual reality simulation of the real world” would have encapsulated the whole concept quite nicely.
As for DUO-VISION, it was a split-screen effect that ran throughout the entire running time of WICKED, WICKED. That’s about it in a nutshell. For example, the film opens with a blonde bombshell checking into a hotel and getting cozy in her room on one side of the screen, while a serial killer stalks her on the other side. Get the picture(s)?
Split-screen effects were nothing new in 1973. The 1960s were well-populated with films that made use of the visual effect, ranging from THE BOSTON STRANGLER to THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Years later, Quentin Tarantino would use the effect in KILL BILL, VOL. 1 as Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) snuck into a hospital to murder The Bride (Uma Thurman), but that scene was more of an intentional homage to Brian De Palma’s SISTERS… a film that happened to open in 1973, the same year as WICKED, WICKED, and a film that gets a lot more credit. (Mostly because it’s a better film).
But no other film committed as completely to the split screen mechanic as WICKED, WICKED, and perhaps only Mike Figgis’s TIMECODE has notably pull off the same effect for the same duration. But TIMECODE simply told the story of four different characters simultaneously. What makes WICKED, WICKED so much fun is that writer/director Richard L. Bare cleverly plays with the many possibilities of the format.
The plot of WICKED, WICKED is very straightforward. A serial killer is stalking blonde women at a posh hotel, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that the killer is one of the hotel’s custodians, named Jason (Randolph Roberts). It takes a long time for the hotel detective, Rick (David Bailey) to figure it out, probably mostly he’s distracted by the return of his old flame Lisa (Tiffany Bolling), who is singing in the hotel lounge while wearing… uh-oh… a blonde wig.
When WICKED, WICKED is just going through the motions of a serial killer plot it can be a little stodgy. Watch the killer on one side, watch the victim on the other. But we don’t know them very well so it’s hard to get particularly excited about either half of the action. The concept is novel but it can’t carry a whole movie. But when the film’s more bizarre cast of characters begins to interact, WICKED, WICKED reveals the more amusing storytelling potential of the DUO-VISION format.
Watch, for example, as the spinster Lenore Karadyne (Madeline Sherwood) tells Jason old stories about her luxurious career as a high-class entertainer on one half of the screen, while the other reveals the depressing truth that she was a stripper who blew her one shot at stardom. Also, watch as casual conversations between Jason and Lenore play out simultaneously with the flashbacks of his traumatic childhood, so we can clearly see the way his personal tragedies are affecting literally every interaction in his life.
And watch as an old lady – who is never a character, and never has anything to do with the rest of the film – practices playing the orchestral score to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at the film’s most dramatic moments, just because it’s nifty. Watch as, while the detective wraps up everything at the end, a pair of gawkers lets their baby play with the blood from the crime scene. Watch as, in the presidential suite, two lovers have a post-coital conversation while Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait leers over them lasciviously, having just watched them fornicate. That naughty ol’ POTUS…
DUO-VISION was originally intended to run on two 35mm projectors simultaneously until the studio, MGM, realized that was a huge waste of time and money and decided to just put both images together on the same film stock. But was one of the easier problems to solve. It was a lot trickier to get audiences to actually see the danged movie, in part because of a marketing campaign that probably played too coy for its own good, and because the movie itself – while capable and enjoyable – was hardly a masterpiece of suspense, so hardly anybody saw it.
Adding to the tragedy of WICKED, WICKED was the fact that – unlike practically every other movie ever made – it was a film that absolutely could not be converted into the “pan-and-scan” format, in which the sides of a widescreen film were cropped to allow it to play on square home television screens, which were the norm for many decades. The film fell into obscurity until it was released by the Warner Archive in 2014, where it stayed in obscurity until just now, when the odds are exceptionally good that you have just read about it for the very first time.
WICKED, WICKED is a fascinating experiment and a reasonably entertaining movie, one that’s just campy enough in its highlights to get you through all the humdrum serial killer plotting. When the DUO-VISION gimmick finds a new way to surprise you it’s an amusing surprise, and it makes you seriously wonder why more films didn’t at least experiment with this versatile filmmaking technique. WICKED, WICKED is double your pleasure and double your fun, and it’s worth looking out for.