January 16, 2012
Assisted by its attention grabbing title, Two on a Guillotine is one of those movies that just sounds really cool from the minute you know it exists. The black-and-white film (framed well in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect) follows a young woman who is required to spend seven nights in the home of her deceased father, a macabre magician played by TV's The Joker, Cesar Romero. (And, in case I forget to mention it for the rest of the review, Romero's brief performance is flat out fantastic.)
Any horror fan worth their weight in jumpscares should know that "spend a night in this awful place" is one of the oldest tricks the genre has to offer, and due to this there are times when it appears that our film might fall into cliches we've already seen. Thankfully, there are plenty of moments in the film that had my eyes attached to the screen, and I think a lot of that is owed to the unique vision of director William Conrad.
In an odd twist, Two on the Guillotine was the third movie directed by Conrad to be released in the first five months of 1965. (All three films - Brainstorm, My Blood Runs Cold, and this one - are available via the Warner Archive Collection.) Conrad is best known for his career as a character actor - which led to late career popularity when he starred as title characters on TV shows Cannon and Jake and the Fatman - but now that I've seen two of these films (Brainstorm is one helluva psycho-noir, folks) his work as a director has completely caught my eye.
Perhaps the greatest gift that Conrad brings to the film is his willingness to linger on certain moments. Like Brainstorm, one sequence pumps up a jazzy musical number while the characters share an awkward romantic moment, and there's something kind of hypnotic about the director's willingness to overplay this moment completely. More in tone with the horror genre, Conrad utilizes this patience late in the film as the magician's daughter - played adequately by Connie Stevens - finally is moved to terror by the house and the camera settles in on a doorknob that we just know is going to move at any moment. The camera waits....and waits...and waits...and the tension skyrockets through the roof.
From that moment forward, the film powers through the final act to an interesting conclusion. Screams are screamed, secrets are revealed, and hammy acting is used in the best possible way. The cliches of the script are pretty easily forgotten as the film turns psychological at the end, and the result is an incredibly fascinating thriller. It's not quite a full-fledged horror movie - to quote a famous dude, the biggest thing the characters have to fear at times is probably fear itself - but it's got real tension, a few surprises, and that guillotine that the title hangs over the viewer's head. Two on a Guillotine isn't quite William Castle at his best, but it hits a lot of the same notes and should please anyone who loves a good old fashioned creepy house picture.