Everybody has probably been haunted or permanently tramatized by some movie they saw as a kid that burned images into their brain they couldn’t process or handle. For me it was a sick little B-movie that popped up on the late show called The Hypnotic Eye (1960), which I saw at the age of nine.
This wasn’t your typical horror film. There was something very unhealthy about the whole thing that made me realize even at the time that I shouldn’t be watching it but I couldn’t stop. Obviously my parents were either out of the house or asleep because they would have made me turn it off.
My favorite horror films were from Universal Studios such as The Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula and conjured up fantasy worlds that were pure escapism for me. The Hypnotic Eye was something else. The monster was not a supernatural being or a scientific experiment gone wrong but a malicious human being and the innocent victims – the ones that lived – were the ones who became monsters of a sort. The whole tone of the film reminded me of one of those lurid, sleazy covers from True Crime or Police Gazette or Detective Dragnet that you’d see at the newsstands.
If seeing a horror film like The Hypnotic Eye at an early age marred me for life in some indiscernible way, I was not alone. Several friends have had similar experiences of being haunted for years over some horror film glimpsed in part or its entirety in their pre-teen years. One was fascinated by a few seconds of Blood Feast (1963), seen on a drive-in screen as his father drove past it on a dark night in Alabama – it was, of course, the famous tongue extraction scene. Another friend was so terrified by the appearance of the title creature in the opening minutes of Curse of the Demon (1957) that she became physically nauseated and had to be taken home. Even my wife, never a horror film fan until she caught the bug from me, recalls being traumatized at a friend’s birthday movie party where 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) was the featured film. The Ymir, especially in its earlier stages after it had hatched out of an egg, was the stuff of nightmares for her – slimy, reptilian, ferocious and lethal.
Which brings us back to the opening of The Hypnotic Eye which is unforgettable and has the same kind of shock value and sense of disorientation that Samuel Fuller injected into the opening sequence of The Naked Kiss (1964). A sexy blonde sashays into her kitchen carrying a towel and a bottle of shampoo and lathers up her hair. She then wanders over to the gas stove and we see her from the burner’s point of view as she turns on the flames and proceeds to “shampoo” her hair over it, suddenly jerking her head up into the frame screaming as her head is engulfed in flames. So what if the flames look superimposed? It’s a wild surrealistic image that packs a punch.
Cue the opening credits and dramatic police siren music and we’re off and running (spoilers ahead). Police detective Dave Kennedy (Joe Patridge) arrives on the scene and finds the severely burned victim already heavily bandaged and near death. Casing out the apartment, he is told by the attending medic that the victim’s self-inflicted injuries were just an accident. “Are you trying to tell me she couldn’t tell that range from that sink?” he asks to which the medic responses in classic Dragnet-fashion, “Dave, I just try to patch ‘em up the best way I can.” The flat, deadpan nature of the dialogue often has a dual effect; on one level, it’s morbidly funny if unintentional but it’s also reflective of and true to the movie’s cynical, exploitative nature.
We soon learn that the burn victim was only one of many recent self-destructive acts committed randomly by women with no rhyme or reason. “One of ‘em stuck her face into the blades of an electric fan. Thought it was a vibrator. Another one sliced her face with a straight razor. Thought it was a lipstick brush.”
“How do you explain it?”
“I don’t. That’s your job.”
All of the female victims seem to have one thing in common; they all attended, at some point, a performance of The Great Desmond (Jacques Bergerac), a popular hypnotist and magician, and all of them had also been audience volunteers who were willingly hypnotized by Desmond. Detective Kennedy’s low opinion of hypnotists affects his better judgment and he discounts the coincidence but his girlfriend Marcia (Marcia Henderson) thinks Desmond is somehow behind the mutilations after their friend Dodi (Merry Anders) attends a show with them and is hypnotized. Later that same night Dodi goes home and washes her face in sulfuric acid. After that, Marcia decides to investigate Desmond on her own and puts herself in great jeopardy.
The scenes of female disfigurement qualify The Hypnotic Eye as a true horror film in the same way that the facial surgery scenes in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959) place that film squarely in the same genre. A similar pattern prevails here as beautiful, sexy women are served up as candidates for mutilation and sadism for the titillation of the audience – predominately male – for this sort of B-movie fare. Though tame by today’s standards, this was rough stuff for its era and certainly not for children though it was easily accessible via television showings.
Beautiful terrified women have always been a horror film staple and part of the genre’s appeal. Many of the more famous movie monsters have always been girl crazy from King Kong pursuing Fay Wray to Boris Karloff immortalizing Zita Zohann in The Mummy to The Creature from the Black Lagoon stalking Julie Adams to Christopher Lee sinking his fangs into Barbara Shelley in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Lust, even if it was never overtly addressed, was always part of the equation. Sure, monsters like to kill too but in pre-1960 American horror films, the level of sadism and misogyny in The Hypnotic Eye was unusual for the genre.
The trend had already started in Europe with England and France leading the way with Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and Eyes Without a Face. The shocking opening sequence of the former – where a blonde with an hourglass figure looks through a pair of binoculars and has her eyes gouged out by the spring-loaded spikes inside – might have even inspired the makers of The Hypnotic Eye to follow the same tactics.
1960 was the same year that Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors were released and, along with Horrors of the Black Museum, are often lumped together as examples of Sadian horror by such renowned film historians as David Pirie (A Heritage of Horror), Ivan Butler (Horror in the Cinema) and Carlos Clarens (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film). Mario Bava should also be mentioned here as well for his 1960 classic Black Sunday which opens with Barbara Steele having a spiked mask being nailed to her face. Bava’s subsequent Blood and Black Lace (1964) was an even more overtly violent horror film whose female victims – all fashion models – were subjected to the most disturbing demises. That film makes The Hypnotic Eye look demure in comparison to the loving detail Bava lavishes on the stalking and slaying of his heroines, a tradition that would be further stylized in the blood-drenched cinema of Dario Argento.
But the black and white world of The Hypnotic Eye places it visually in some amoral film noir universe which seems appropriate for its less than reputable stage hypnotist protagonist (shades of Nightmare Alley) and the police manhunt scenario. Despite the unsavory nature of the film, this is a superior B movie in many ways with fast-paced direction by George Blair, who cut his teeth on poverty row programmers and TV episodes. The impressive makeup effects by Emile LaVigne (World Without End, Queen of Outer Space), and engaging performances by the two female leads, Marcia Henderson and Merry Anders are also major assets. The male stars are considerably less impressive. Joe Patridge makes a stiff dim bulb of a detective hero and Jacques Bergerac comes off like a bargain basement version of Louis Jourdan (ironically, both of them appeared together in 1958’s Gigi).
Bergerac strikes the right sinister note but his French accented English is more often amusing than chilling. Though he looks appropriately dapper and cunning as The Great Desmond, the real surprise of The Hypnotic Eye is that he is NOT the twisted woman-hater behind the gruesome mutilations. In fact, the culprit is a woman which adds a further note of misogyny to this male-produced endeavor. As for Bergerac, he would eventually leave the film business to run the Parisian office of Revlon (he was also formerly married to actresses Dorothy Malone (1959-1964) and Ginger Rogers (1953-1957).
The Hypnotic Eye exudes a perverse fascination for me, not only because it scarred my psyche as a kid but because of other pop culture elements in the mix such as the famous audience participation segment of the film (which was referenced in the theatrical poster as “HypnoMagic”) and the odd epilogue disclaimer. It also features cult horror icon Allison Hayes (the sultry star of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman) and Fred Demara, the famous imposter and master of fake identities, who inspired the biopic The Great Imposter (1960) starring Tony Curtis in the title role.
Demara as the doctor who treats the disfigured Dodi has almost zero screen presence in his small part, which is surprising considering his real-life notoriety. He is practically forgotten today yet in in the late fifties, he was described by Time magazine as “an audacious, unschooled but amazingly intelligent pretender who always wanted to be a Somebody, and succeeded in being a whole raft of Somebody Elses.” In some ways, you could say he was a precursor to Frank Abagnale Jr., the identity thief subject of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002). Demara’s participation in The Hypnotic Eye, however, is less a reflection of his acting aspirations than the marketing genius of the filmmakers who managed to get Demara on the Jack Paar Show to plug the film.
One of my favorite scenes in The Hypnotic Eye, because of its odd casualness, has Dave and his psychiatrist pal Dr. Philip Hecht (Guy Prescott) discussing the sick perpetrator of the crimes and his motivation while playing a game of darts in the office. And the dartboard is an image of Jayne Mansfield, prominently displaying her backside where the darts are strategically aimed.
Another favorite sequence is when Desmond takes Marcia out on what is clearly supposed to be a very classy date. First they dine at a fancy restaurant where a chef prepares some alcohol-based flaming dish for them (any restaurant that brings flaming dishes to the table is high class, right?) and then top off the evening with a visit to the local bohemian dive, a beatnik hangout, enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, where hipster poet Lawrence Lipton (father of James Lipton of TV’s Inside the Actors Studio) does a rap to the bongo accompaniment of Eric “Big Daddy” Nord. Both Lipton and Nord were associated with the Beat Movement and were fixtures at the Gas House café in Venice, California. While this scene was not shot at the Gas House, it was clearly the inspiration for it and the club was already an inspiration for the beatnik café scenes of Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959).
The scenes depicting Desmond’s stage act are wonderfully bizarre as well, particularly the show where he hypnotizes the game Merry Anders and levitates her stiff-as-a-board body. At another he reduces a row of male volunteers to the level of animals with one guy growling and snarling as the meanest dog on earth. This is also the type of movie where newspaper headlines, whenever they are shown, reflect a distinct tabloid sensationalism: “Acid-Burned Beauty Found Unconscious.”
Some reviewers of The Hypnotic Eye have written that they feel the big “HypnoMagic” segment of the film, which occurs near the climax, completely kills the suspense and momentum that had built to that point. Others have also complained that they feel the revelation of the real villain and the film’s conclusion is too rushed and lacks closure. I don’t feel the same way and, in fact, the “HypnoMagic” part of the movie is where The Hypnotic Eye goes through the roof in terms of craziness. Flashing his secret device of the title at his audience (and the movie screen audience as well), Desmond performs a mass hypnotic act that transforms a theater full of patrons into mindless robots. They lift their arms, twirl their hands, go limp like rag dolls, blow up balloons and play with them and stomp their feet in unison. All of this madness is punctuated with Desmond yelling at them, “Why don’t you stop? You can’t stop! Try to stop!” It is utter madness…and hilarious.
Come to think of it just about every scene in The Hypnotic Eye has a nutty, off-kilter quality, whether it is subtle or obvious, such as the depiction of certain characters; the arty, refined psychistrist, for instance, shown at home in his dressing gown and playing classical music on the piano while his dog stretches out on the top of it. Or the mysterious, enigmatic Justine (Allison Hayes) trying to coax the hypnotized Marcia to take a shower in scalding hot water, “You must not neglect that perfect skin…get in the cool, cool shower Marcia.”
Though Justine is a relatively minor character though crucial to the plot, she does get some of the juiciest lines, especially in her final scene where she is trapped in the theatre rafters, threatening to push Marcia to her death.
Dr. Hecht: Justine, please come down. You’re young yet. You have your whole life ahead of you.
Justine: What kind of a life? What kind of a life with my face?
Dr. Hecht: Your face? Why you have a beautiful face.
Justine: If you like my beautiful face so much, you may have it! (she pulls off her mask and throws it at him, revealing the hideous scarred face behind it).
Tom Weaver has conducted interviews with both Merry Andrews (in his book Attack of the Monster Movie Makers) and screenwriter William Read Woodfield (on the internet site The Astounding B Monster) and both are highly recommended if you have read this far. Andrews had nothing but fond memories of making The Hypnotic Eye, going into detail about her acid-face makeup and noting how Jacques Bergerac and Fred Demara were so charming and likable.
Woodfield, on the other hand, had some intriguing things to say about the production, mentioning that Bergerac was not his choice for Desmond; Pedro Armendariz was his first pick. Armendariz wasn’t available though so Bergerac got the part and Lawrence Lipton and Eric “Big Daddy” Nord were hired for small bits to lure in the younger Beat audience. His own opinion of the film is not very favorable: “It was cast badly, and it wasn’t a very good movie by any stretch of the imagination [laughs]. I went on to do better things. This was an early, quick effort. I must tell you, I never took it very seriously, it was all just sort of a lark. The funny part about the movie is that a little magazine called Films in Review, a publication of the National Board of Review, listed at the end of each year the Best Films of the Year on the back page. And among the best films that year was The Hypnotic Eye [laughs] — I couldn’t f**kin’ believe it! That and Ben-Hur! I can’t figure that out. I’m not ashamed of The Hypnotic Eye. I’m not proud of it either. But I want to tell you something: Most people never make a movie. And this came out of probably the most wacko [idea for] making a movie in the world.”
All I can say is The Hypnotic Eye was forbidden fruit for a nine year old that once seen was never forgotten. Seeing it again recently on the remastered edition from Warner Archives, which was first released in November 2010, reminds me of why it made such an impact on me. It certainly fits my description of a horror film and one in which man is the worst monster of all. And now if you dare, look into the hypnotic eye!
Other links of interest:
Such a great read. So glad I found this blog. Googling ‘black and white movie blonde woman hair on fire’ produced inadequate results overall, until this blog. Thanks – same experience. Now have to watch it.