William Conrad was an actor with a long and varied career in Hollywood, however I always think of him first for his unique voice. In fact, he often served as narrator for various productions. For me he will always be the voice of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Others may remember him more for Jake and the Fatman…he was the Fatman. In addition to acting, he also directed quite a few television shows and a handful of films. His first feature film directing gig was this unique little horror thriller from 1965…Two on a Guillotine.
The film follows a young woman named Cassie (Connie Stevens). Her estranged father was a famous magician, the Great Duquesne (Cesar Romero). He has recently passed away and left his daughter his entire $300,000 fortune, not to mention the creepy old home he lived in. There is a catch, though. She must spend a week in the old mansion before claiming the loot. Plus, the old magician swore before his death that he would return to the home from beyond the grave within that time.
Various local reporters are anxious to get more on this unique story, but one in particular, Val Henderson (Dean Jones), manages to worm his way into staying with Cassie in the creepy old house. The magician was a bit of a prankster and he’s got everything rigged with spooky noises, pop out skeletons, and things that go bump in the night. Eventually, Cassie and Val start to fall in love with each other. Meanwhile, strange things are happening at the house that seem to point toward Duquesne indeed returning and trying to restage the guillotine trick that killed his wife with Cassie in her place.
I’d say that Two on a Guillotine is only kinda sorta a horror film. To be honest, a big chunk of the film focuses more on the blossoming relationship between Cassie and Val…which I really didn’t mind too much. I thought their relationship comes across as quite genuine and there is certainly a chemistry between Stevens and Jones. The final act of the film is really where the horror elements take prominence and it ends up being the strongest part of the film. Without the padding of the film’s first hour this could’ve made for an episode of Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone. That’s not to say that the bulk of the movie isn’t well done, it just isn’t all that important to film’s climax.
If anything, the romantic side of this story does a pretty good job of lulling the audience into a false sense of security. It really does start to feel like we’re watching a love story until things shift gears. I do wish a few more spooky moments had been peppered throughout the film, though, instead we get to see Stevens and Jones enjoy a date an amusement park. A scene like that definitely breaks the momentum of any building horror tension.
The amusement park sequence isn’t the only strange element of this film. Director Conrad seems to have a strange obsession with a little white rabbit that keeps showing up throughout the film. It’s a magic rabbit, used in the old magician’s act and still lurking around the mansion. The bunny ends up providing a few of the jump scare moments, which are fairly effective. But then he keeps showing up in odd places, including Connie Steven’s dream sequence. She’s being tormented in her dream by a number of sinister images and then all of the sudden, there’s the rabbit! He’s even accompanied by the same silly music we hear every other time he appears. The rabbit doesn’t do anything terrifying…he just does a little cameo in the scene; like he’s Hitchcock walking out of the pet store.
In the end, I enjoyed Two on a Guillotine primarily for it’s final act and the strength of the cast. I also really appreciated the look of the film which has some creative black and white photography at play. The film all over the place tonally, though. The payoff at the end is good, but it’s a bit of an unfocused journey getting there.