While the easiest route to success post Halloween was to copy that particular formula, not everyone followed the slasher template; elements to be sure, but some films chose to borrow from their Italian brethren and dive into the giallo pool. Case in point: Schizoid (1980), an effective thriller that leans much more towards whodunit and shadowed menace.
Given a limited release by Cannon Films stateside in the fall, Schizoid was soon relegated to home video for Klaus Kinski Kinky Kompletists only and no one else, it seems. I saw it as an adolescent and took it as just an okay notch on the burgeoning horror belt; a revisit has shone a stronger light on its surprisingly potent themes of manipulation and toxic masculinity. That, and Klaus, of course.
After a quick opening scene of our heroine and reporter Julie (Marianna Hill – The Baby) working on an article in her home at night, we pick up the next day at a hot tub party with a group of middle aged women. Our POV shows someone is watching them, and when they finish with their festivities, this someone follows one of the women by car as she leaves on her bicycle; one auto versus two-wheeler chase later, an abandoned home in the woods, and a pair of sharpened scissors spell a quick end to our ninth-billed femme.
Next we are introduced to psychiatrist Pieter (Kinski – Crawlspace) and his daughter Alison (Donna Wilkes – Jaws 2) as he prepares for his group therapy session hosted at his house; and by prepare I mean he stares at his daughter as she gets in the shower. (Don’t worry, she doesn’t seem to mind!) We meet the group as they arrive: our aforementioned reporter; the creepy building repairman (Christopher Lloyd – Back to the Future); a lonesome stripper; and a few others who are basically given one session, and if they’re fortunate, a death scene.
Julie starts receiving death threats via cut and paste stalker mail, in which someone threatens to snuff her out with a gun. Meanwhile, all of her therapy mates are being offed by the arts and crafts killer. Who’s interfering with her quest for a peaceful mind: could it be the repairman, who just happens to always be working in her building? Perhaps her ex-husband (Craig Wasson – Ghost Story) who also happens to be a contractor in the same building? What about Alison, who seems to resent any woman being around her dad? Or maybe the doctor himself has developed a cost cutting method for curing his patients? Find out in the last 10 minutes in true giallo style!
Despite the exploitative title, Schizoid does not use mental illness as a crutch to lean on; Pieter’s patients are simply everyday people dealing with issues of paranoia, loss, detachment – there are no darkened psych wards or insidious hospital staff, nor any patients with outwards outsized afflictions. Of course, you still get your exploitation the old fashioned way; gratuitous nudity from Wilkes (she was so pure on Diff’rent Strokes!) and others, and the requisite quota of phallic stabbings. It’s just refreshing for mental illness not to be the driving force behind the terror.
What does drive Schizoid though is male aggression, sometimes latent, other times overt; Pieter uses his power to ultimately assume control over his female patients (he seems to bed them all), Lloyd uses Julie’s fear of him as a misguided tool of seduction, and her ex plays friend to insinuate himself back into her life. All men using different means to the same unfortunate end: control. Which I’m happy to say, Julie does not relinquish - although why she would fall for Pieter is beyond me; that’s the biggest script conceit to swallow. But the film isn’t above using standard contrivances to push the plot forward, even as it proves itself to be cut from a more foreign cloth.
Clearly director David Paulsen (Savage Weekend) is a fan of giallos; our killer stays in silhouette most of the time, with darkened emphasis on his black brimmed hat, coat, and omnipresent scissors. The procedural angle is there too, with Richard Herd (V) and Joe Regalbuto (Invitation to Hell) adding to Julie’s invisibility as two detectives who don’t believe her until it’s nearly too late. Paulsen demonstrates a keen eye for wringing suspense from a simple setup; the car/bike chase near the beginning being the best example.
Paulsen the writer manages to inject a fair amount of icky weirdness into his script; well, specifically with the intimation of incest between father and daughter. Pieter certainly has designs, but one gets the feeling that Alison is assumed as a potential red herring and nothing more. (One also gets the feeling that anything Kinski is involved in is colored by his real life proclivities.)
As for that resolution, in true giallo fashion it wraps up in quite a hurry, and you’ll guess the slayer if you follow this simple, time worn formula: (familiar actor) + (limited screen time) = killer. Hell you’ll probably get there without it, but that’s never stopped anyone from enjoying a little murderous mayhem. The cast are all onboard; Hill is a resilient heroine, Wasson is solid, Lloyd is terrific, and surprise, surprise, Kinski is considerably subdued to fit in on the other actors’ wavelength. There’s a particularly effective scene between Pieter and Alison later on in the film that even throws a little sympathy towards him.
Schizoid isn’t the film promised by the lurid title, and perhaps that’s why it isn’t talked about more often; it’s certainly more subdued (and nuanced) than its place on the video store shelf would suggest. I’m not saying it belongs over with the Fellini’s; this is still essentially a body count movie. But it does offer a somewhat deeper look at masculinity that nudges it a shelf or two closer, bloodied cutting instruments notwithstanding.
Schizoid is available on Blu-ray as part of a Scream Factory Double Feature with X-Ray.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977)