Saturday, February 2, 2013

Video Cheese: PLAYGIRL KILLER (1966)

(This piece was originally seen at as part of a series called "Video Cheese." The piece is reprinted here with the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg. Some of the text has been slightly edited.)


The short version: "Psycho artist can't get his models to hold still, so he kills them."

The full story:

   During the first half of PLAYGIRL KILLER, the phrase “sensory overload” kept running through my brain. It seemed at times that the film had been made specifically for me! Beautiful print, gorgeous color. Low budget 60′s exploitation movie shot in Los Angeles. Packed to the brim with 60′s bikini babes. Guest star: Neil Sedaka, who provides a song during a pool-side party.

   I’m not sure I could have asked for more. I mean, there were so many shots of 60′s-type bikini bunnies that I didn’t dare leave my seat to get a much-desired drink for the first half hour! The second half shifted focus somewhat, though, so the finish wasn’t quite as spectacular as the start.

    I checked with the IMDB, and there seems to be some confusion. Firstly, they have it listed under a re-issue title, Portrait of Fear, and list the date as 1968. They also claim the film is Canadian. This puzzles me, because during my viewing I was convinced this was LA. The background scenery is all-too-familiar, and I think parts of the film were shot in Beverly Hills. One scene where our titular murderer is driving around at night sure appears to be the Sunset Strip. One clump of wooded hills I’m convinced was seen earlier in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which I have no doubt AIP shot in California. I wouldn’t have thought I’d misidentify this setting after years of cinematic visits to California….

    Okay, I know some folk aren't fans of Mr. Neil Sedaka. No doubt his casting was more of a draw in '66 than it would seem today. I’ve always been a fan of Sedaka’s pop music, though. He's responsible for some of the great hits of the early to mid 60's. “Calender Girl”, “Stupid Cupid”, “Stairway to Heaven”, the list goes on and on.

   His successes were many, and he can claim a top seller by using the same song twice! “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” was a chart-topper in the 60′s, and Sedaka would make the song an even bigger hit by slowing it down and making it a ballad in the mellow 70′s. I’m more a fan of his 60′s work, however, and he offers up a tune in fine voice. Unfortunately, he’s a pretty wooden actor, so he doesn’t stick around long.

    Our star is a goatee-d William Kerwin, a busy actor fairly early in his career. Most exploitation fans probably know him as “Thomas Wood.” That was the name he used most often when appearing in drive-in junk (why he’d use his real name here is a mystery), although he did a few early sexploitation vehicles as “Thomas Sweetwood.” I’m sure nobody made the connection. 

   Even in those films, though, he displays quite a lot of talent. In 1962's GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BARES, he plays a night club comic who is best friends with the headlining crooner. The pair come to discover that they're dating a couple of nudists and the sparks fly until the girls talk them into visiting the camp and seeing the other side of things. Kerwin comes across very natural and amusing in a part that could have been just annoying in the hands of another actor, although in the final two reels I must admit I saw a lot more of Mr. Kerwin's natural state than I ever cared to.... (Interestingly, the film works pretty well as a comedy and a light drama. It's actually as a nudist film that it's least effective!)

   Back to our current subject. We get a quick pre-credit scene to establish the twisted nature of our main character, Bill. Bill is a painter, but is most often seen making quick rough sketches of his models. (Now, I’m not one of my own fans, but even I think I’m a better artist than Bill is. Seeing other characters look at his crude sketches and say “this is really good” doesn’t do much for my own self esteem as a cartoonist!)

    Bill and a model paddle out to a seemingly secluded dock where he starts his sketch. The model moves, Bill tells her to keep still, she laughs at him. The voices in his head go on about how “they always move” and Bill lets the girl have it with a spear gun. This is witnessed, though, and soon the police are chasing Bill through the woods.

    Bill finds himself a lot closer to civilization than he appeared to be before the credits began, and he quickly disappears into the concrete jungle. He returns to his shabby apartment, gathers up some things, and then takes it on the lam. We then transition to a new scene and meet some new characters. Bob (Sedaka) and Betty are having fun in the pool.

    The two are due to be married soon, but Betty’s older sister Arlene drops by to tempt Bob. This burns Betty and she drags Bob away from the pool, leaving vamp Arlene to giggle to herself before taking a dip in the pool. She then has a brief talk with her father, who is heading off to a safari in Africa.

    Arlene will close down the house for the winter, and she insists she can handle the job alone despite her father’s wish to leave the butler behind. She wins the argument, and will be left alone when the others take off.

    Pool party! You know the drill. Girls in bikinis shake their duffs and kick their legs at the camera. (I love the 60′s!) Bob steps up to perform a number himself (I wonder if Bob was intended to be a singer, or if they changed this when they discovered they could get Neil Sedaka for the part). Arlene then strips out of her dress and shakes around in a black bikini, impressing Bob no end. Her vamping of Bob makes Betty cry and run off.

   Later that night, Arlene is hot to trot, so she sneaks into Bob’s room and into his bed. They show her leaving the next morning, but nothing ever comes of this. Bob and Betty head off to get married, Dad and the butler to the airport. That seemingly major plot element introduced and then dropped like a hot potato, we move on.

    Arlene is having trouble getting a garage door to close. Seeing Bill walking by trying to hitch a ride, she asks for his help. In the proximity of something wearing pants, Arlene starts purring again. Her sex drive more powerful than her brain, she hires Bill to help her close down the house. Bill proves to be a good worker, but Arlene is a professional tease and she continually baits him. (This is like a feature version of a Hitchhiker episode!)

    During one of Bill’s breaks, Arlene asks him about his sketches. (Although he’s only been seen making rough pencil sketches, she quickly figures out that he’s actually a painter. I’m not sure how she made this leap, unless she was thinking back to his carrying case from earlier and knew what a painter’s grip would look like. And if that is the case, why would she just now put 2 and 2 together?)

    Arlene asks Bill why he paints, and we get Bill’s backstory. Years before, Bill was in a shipwreck. He heard some girls crying for help as they bobbed in the surf, but Bill was too scared to do anything. Ever since, he’s been haunted by a dream of girls in the water begging a woman with a crossbow to save them from a shadowy figure standing on a boat.

    Although the symbolism here seems painfully obvious, Bill’s doctors couldn’t figure it out, so they told Bill to try and paint the scene. He’s been trying to duplicate this scene ever since, but his models keep moving and breaking his creative flow. Muttering “they always move” to himself, Bill storms off. Arlene again shows how stupid she is by asking the painter who just chastised her for moving while trying to sketch her “who” always moves!

   Arlene again feels frisky before going to bed (which I think might be repeated footage from earlier, or at least a different take of the same action), and she decides to lure Bill out by taking a nude swim in the moonlight. She stays in the shadows the whole time, for those wondering, and indeed that tells you how mainstream the film is meant to be. It was 1966, and the plot easily could have been fodder for the kind of nudie horror flick that was in vogue at the time. Instead, we have a film likely hoping to be sold to television after it's theatrical run was over, which was probably a good decade or so.

    After her swim, Arlene takes a seemingly unmotivated stroll around the grounds, so turned on she’s practically on fire. Bill pops out from behind a tree and strangles her. Exit Arlene. 

   I was thinking Arlene would be the focus of our story, but I forgot that this was made after PSYCHO. Just as Janet Leigh’s character was just a set-up to get us to Anthony Perkin’s troubled misadventures, so too was Arlene just there to provide some exposition from our killer before he continues his spree. Bill moves into the house, and then begins lining up new victims.

    First is a pretty young woman answering an ad to be a companion for an invalid. Bill doesn’t even give her a chance to muff modelling for him, he drugs her and strangles her within a few minutes. Then he takes on the town and picks up a torch singer. He offers her $50 an hour to pose for him, which was a staggering amount of money in 1966. She quickly agrees and doesn’t stay long in this world. 

Turn back now should you not wish to learn the ending of the movie.

   Bill has some pretty good progress made on his painting. Turns out he solved his moving model dilemma by freezing them into position in the house’s huge meat locker! 

   One of Arlene’s friends drops by to visit. If anything, she’s even more oversexed than Arlene was! She vamps Bill, and asks to be his model. Bill is game, although I’m not sure at this point if he’s wanting to paint her or kill her. She opens the freezer door, though, and Bill lays her out. Rather than kill her, he ties her wrists and hangs her from the ceiling. Spent, he retires, leaving his guest gagged in the basement. The power goes out during the night.

    Bill wakes when a man from the power company knocks on the door to explain the power outage. Shocked to learn the power is out, Bill rushes down to the freezer. The power company man is puzzled by Bill’s behavior. He’s about to leave when he hears the bound girl moaning for help. He manages to get her loose while Bill is freaking out over his frozen models.

    With the power out, they’re beginning to thaw and lose their positions. Arlene has been posed with a bow and arrow. (And I can’t imagine how that works. The way this is set up, it appears Bill held Arlene’s hands in position waiting for them to freeze solid!) Now that the body is starting to thaw, the arrow is starting to pull free from Arlene’s fingers. Well, no need to drag this out. The arrow is released and Bill gets it through the neck.

    This final image (Bill’s shocked death expression) dissolves into a painting of same. Given Bill’s dead now, I don’t know who painted this. Weirdly, this has even been painted into the corner of Bill’s mural! Oh, so that’s it. The girls in the sea were seeking protection from Bill! Who would’a guessed?!

    As you can tell, not the best movie ever made. Still, irresistible in that low-budget, 60′s exploitation movie sort of way. Not really bad, but drawn out longer than the material would seem to be fit for.

    One problem is the lack of a hero character to oppose Bill and catch him in the end. The closest we get is the man from the power company, and he’s just some guy who wandered by at the right moment. Everyone we spend the bulk of our time with is either a psycho or a victim, or SHOULD be a victim. It almost seems ahead of it’s time, meant more for a 70′s aesthetic.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn it was the inspiration for DEATH PROOF. (Oh. In that light, I enjoy PLAYGIRL KILLER a lot less now……)

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