Although often erroneously attributed to legendary producer William Castle, the 1965 chiller Two on a Guillotine certainly has all the hallmarks of one of his productions: a modestly-budgeted scarefest backed by an intense, sensational marketing campaign. In fact, the film was, perhaps improbably, produced and directed by William Conrad- that's right, the same character actor who originated the role of Matt Dillon on the Gunsmoke radio program and who would enjoy leading man status in the 1970s as the star of the popular Cannon detective series on TV. The off-beat story begins in the 1940s and finds Cesar Romero as 'Duke' Duquesne, the world's greatest magician and illusionist. Everyone is enamored of him except his wife Melinda (Connie Stevens), who is tired of being a beautiful prop in his act. On the eve of presenting his most ambitious stunt, which involves faking Melinda's beheading on a guillotine, she mysteriously vanishes. Obsessed with grief, Duke sends their two-year old daughter Cassie to be raised by an aunt. Cut to twenty years later. Duke has passed away and Cassie attends her estranged father's funeral. A showman even in death, his will is read to her by his attorney on stage at the Hollywood Bowl (an extraordinary sequence that shows the place completely deserted.) In order to inherit his mansion, Cassie has to spend seven consecutive nights there. You don't have to be a super sleuth to realize that, from minute one, strange things occur in the cavernous home- making Cassie suspect her father might be capable of fulfilling his deathbed promise to return from the grave. Her only support comes from Duke's long-time agent and her former nanny (both well-played by Parley Baer and Virginia Gregg), but since they stand to benefit from her losing her inheritance, she instead turns to an affable young man named Val (Dean Jones), who is seemingly on the scene to protect her but, in reality, is a reporter looking for a exploitation story to sell newspapers.
The film contains all the key, standard ingredients for a haunted house tale: things that go "bump" in the night and a nervous young heroine who nonetheless takes it upon herself to investigate a gloomy mansion to find the source of the frightening noises. What sets the movie apart is the tie-in with magic and mysticism. The angle of having Duke's old 'death traps' strewn around the mansion makes for some clever sequences and I remember that, as a kid, the film was quite scary to a nine year-old. Helping matters is the charismatic cast. Stevens makes for a somewhat sexually liberated (for 1965) leading lady and Jones, refreshingly out of Disney's grasp and able to portray a horny young guy, is a stalwart leading man. The scene stealer is Romero, but as to how he fits into the story- well, telling would be providing a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the climax of the film is a real doozy and director Conrad pulls out all the stops to provide maximum suspense. Mention should also be made of the crisp B&W cinematography by Sam Leavitt and the eerie score by none other than the legendary Max Steiner (!).
Two on a Guillotine is far from a horror film classic, but it is a more than pleasing entry in the genre. It is available through the Warner Archive and the DVD contains the original theatrical trailer.