Two on a Guillotine (1965)

The Phantom of the Ville takes a look at this obscure Groovy-Age-of-Horror’s old dark house thriller recently dug up from the cinematic graveyard and remastered on the Warner Archive Collection! Greetings from the era of social distancing, Halloween and horror fans, it’s The Phantom of the Ville coming to you from my hillside, cobwebbed antebellum mansion. As an incorporeal entity, I’ve spent the greater part of the last century in social isolation, but for some of you this experience is a severe test of your mortal mettle. Fear not, for I am here to recommend a ghastly forgotten cinematic gem or two to help you pass the time until you can return to the abject horror of your normal lives.

Today’s recommendation comes from the Groovy Age of Horror of the 1960’s. It’s a real chiller diller, old dark house mystery that offers a sprinkle of Grand Guignol, a dash of spooky fun and a couple of genuine jump scares along the way to a shocking conclusion all set to a magnificent score by the legendary Max Steiner (“King Kong,” “Gone with the Wind”)!

“Two on a Guillotine” (1965) was directed by prolific character actor/director William Conrad, probably best known for playing plus sized lawman, Frank Canon, in five seasons of the “Canon” TV series in the mid-70’s. His deep, resonant voice is also instantly recognizable as the always energetic narrator of “The Bullwinkle Show”. The film stars a plucky, young Dean Jones just prior to becoming a Walt Disney contract player where he starred in dozens of family film comedies for Disney well into the 1980’s (“That Darn Cat!”, “Blackbeard’s Ghost”), but he is certainly best remembered as the driver of Herbie “The Love Bug” in the original film that spawned three sequels and a TV series.

The films stars actress/singer Connie Stevens as the grown daughter of The Great ‘Duke’ Duquesne, a professional stage magician with a Grand Guignol style show that thrills audiences with various bloody illusions and simulated murders, usually involving his wife and assistant, Melinda. On the eve of introducing his latest murder prop, a vintage guillotine that he intends to use to recreate the death of Marie Antoinette, Duquesne’s wife disappears, apparently leaving him and his infant daughter. Grief stricken, Duquesne retires from performing and becomes a recluse in his creepy Gothic mansion for 20 years. Played by the great Cesar Romero, beloved for his portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime in the 1960’s “Batman” TV series, Romero embodies the Great Duquesne with the perfect qualities of theatrical bravado and maniacal ego to cast a shadow over the entire film.

Upon his passing, his now adult daughter, Cassie (Stevens), is summoned to the funeral which involves a coffin with a view window and chains & padlocks to make his “escape” more difficult. At the reading of the will, Cassie learns she has inherited his entire estate, but there’s just one catch. She must spend the night from dusk until dawn in Duquesne’s mansion for seven consecutive nights during which time the Great Duquesne will contact her from regions beyond in an attempt to return from the grave!

Jones plays the role of young reporter, Val Henderson, on the scent a good story who pretends to be a real estate agent interested in the property in order to ingratiate himself to Cassie who invites him in to investigate the house. The magician’s mansion is a virtual funhouse of gags built by the eccentric performer. Skeletons on wires pop out of second floor balconies at the flick of a light switch, pianos play ghostly tunes by themselves and strange moans & groans echo through the halls at odd hours of the night. When Cassie asks Val to stay in the house with her to ease her nerves, a romantic relationship begins to develop between them.

Is the mansion haunted? Is Duquesne trying to contact Cassie from beyond the grave? Is there something that Duquesne’s former press agent and caretaker, who were both left completely out of the will, know that they aren’t saying and could one of them be involved in the ghastly things occurring in the house at night?

The answers await you in the Warner Archive Collection’s remastered Blu-ray edition. Warner should be commended for delivering a pristine 2.35:1 widescreen print for this relatively obscure spooker from the 1960’s. The image is crisp with deep blacks and wonderfully high contrast bright highlights. The film never saw much of a release on the home video format previously, skipping VHS and laserdisc, Warner previously released a DVD version in 2010, but the new Blu-ray is superior in image quality. The only extra is a remastered theatrical trailer.

While not really worthy of any top tier list of haunted house thrillers, “Two on a Guillotine” makes perfect quarantine escapism for fans of spooky black-and-white chillers. The appearance of familiar family entertainment faces like Jones and Romero (who also contracted with Walt Disney for a series of films with a young Kurt Russell) gives the film a fun, groovy vibe that lulls the viewer into a warm comfortability and then shocks them with a pop out severed head, shrieking skeleton or well-orchestrated jump scare underlined by a Max Steiner stinger on the soundtrack.

For further discussion, I will leave you with a question I haven’t quite answered for myself, and I hope you’ll offer your own theories in the comments section. What is up with that rabbit???

The Phantom of The Ville

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