Schizoid/Murder by Mail (1980) -***
In the United States at least, the most widely used handbook on the diagnosis and classification of mental illness is the American Psychiatric Associationís Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its revised fourth edition, generally known as the DSM-IV-TR. The DSM-IV-TR defines schizoid personality disorder as ďA pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts,Ē and gives as its standard for diagnosis any combination of four or more of the following symptoms:
For reasons that will soon become apparent, I would like to have consulted the earlier DSM-III, which was in use in 1980, but my local library doesnít have it, and thereís simply no way Iím paying for a subscription to Psychiatry Online for the sake of a fucking movie review. In any case, I gather that mainstream psychiatric thinking on how to spot a schizoid has remained more or less stable for the last 30 years or so. Interesting then, isnít it, that in the entire cast of Schizoid, there isnít a single character who can be observed to meet any of the above criteria? Maybe Iím being churlish. Maybe I should simply accept Schizoid as part of the proud and ancient tradition of giving horror movies one-word titles that make some kind of reference to insanity, but considerÖ Norman Bates was indeed a psycho. Frank Zito was indeed a maniac. Mrs. Trefoile was indeed a fanatic. These words mean something, and if youíre not going to use them to mean what they mean, then you ought to use some other word instead, even if all you really want is a catchy title for a movie about a serial killer.
The meaninglessness of the title is underscored by the fact that the plot of Schizoid revolves around a psychiatrist and the therapy group with whom he meets every Tuesday and Thursday! Somebody is stalking the female patients of Dr. Peter Fales (Klaus Kinski, from Jack the Ripper and Count Dracula). If the behavior of the POV cam during a hot-tub party at the home of Rosemary Boyle (Swamp Countryís Kiva Lawrence) is any indication, the five women are being spied on and photographed from the bushes in the backyard. Julie (Mariana Hill, of Blood Beach and The Baby), who writes the ďDear JulieĒ advice column in one of the Los Angeles newspapers, has also been receiving threatening letters made from words cut out of magazines and glued onto blue construction paper. And when Sally (Runaway Nightmareís Cindy Donlan), who is leaving the group and moving to Tennessee, departs from Rosemaryís place on her bicycle, someone driving a babyshit-yellow Volvo runs her off the road, chases her into an abandoned house, and stabs her to death with a pair of scissors after bringing her to bay in the garage. Sallyís body is found several days later, by a pair of 30-year-old teenagers who had snuck into the crumbling old place to have sex.
So whom are we to suspect of committing these dirty deeds? Well, I suppose we could look to the other members of the therapy groupó I mean, we already know they must all have something wrong with them, right?ó but the only one apart from main protagonist Julie who gets enough screen time to be a credible contender is Gilbert (Christopher Lloyd, from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), and he canít possibly be the killer. First off, heís got his card from Red Herrings Union Local 130 pinned right to the outside of his shirt pocket, and of at least equal importance, steam fitters donít generally drive Volvos. So how about Julieís newly divorced husband, Doug (Craig Wasson, of Ghost Story and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), whom she still has to see every single day because they both work for the same paper? Heís actually a pretty decent suspect, despite his seemingly unfeigned surprise when Julie tells him about the cut-and-paste letters, simply because Schizoid wants very, very badly to be a giallo, and in gialli, the killer frequently turns out to be the one character with absolutely no apparent motive or opportunity to commit the crimes. Or it could be Dr. Fales himself. Not only is he played by Klaus Kinski (which is usually enough to place even the most outwardly saintly movie character under suspicion), but his relationship with his teenage daughter, Alison (Donna Wilkes, from Grotesque and Jaws 2), has an icky sexual edge to it, and he appears to be sleeping with every single one of his female patients. Also, Pat (Flo Gerrish, of Donít Answer the Phone and The Naked Cage), the second one to die, gets hers right after Fales comes to see (and fuck) her at the bar where she works as a stripper. (ďA topless dancer with a masterís from Wellesley!Ē Pat wistfully observes of herself at one point. Having dated a Wellesley girl, I must say I donít find that state of affairs to be nearly as ironic as writer/director David Paulsen thinks it is.) We should also save a place in our suspicious little hearts for Alison, who is rabid with jealousy over the time and attention her father devotes to his patients (both at the office and in the bedroom), and who sees Julie specifically (sheís the doctorís favorite) as an affront to her dead motherís memory. I wonít pursue this any further, since the real solution is actually sort of clever in a couple of respects. However, it wouldnít be giving away anything at all to mention that Lieutenant Donahue (Richard Herd, from Trancers and Hercules in New York) and his partner, Jake (Joe Regalbuto, of Invitation to Hell and The Sword and the Sorcerer), the detectives investigating the murders, turn out to be about as useful as a petunia-scented, papier-m‚chť lugwrench.
As I said, Schizoid tries hard to be a giallo, which is rather surprising coming from an American film released during the same year as Friday the 13th. Unlike most other contemporary body-count movies, Schizoid makes a good-faith effort to function as a murder mystery; it focuses the story primarily on adult characters; it makes at least a ritualistic bow in the direction of having some sort of official interest in solving the crimes. It also takes most of its stylistic cues from earlier Italian thrillers, right down to the fetishization of the killerís black leather gloves. And like a great many gialli, it is both intermittently effective and intermittently hilarious. One of my favorite moments comes when Fales and his daughteró both of whom are equally plausible suspects at this pointó confront each other, initially over what look like mutual suspicions. (This, by the way, is the first serious hint that the true resolution to the mystery will be more complex than we might expect.) As happens so often in arguments between people who love each other, the dispute quickly shifts its focus to the subtext, and Fales and Alison are soon hollering at each other over the circumstances of Mrs. Falesís death. It starts out as a well conceived and even mildly poignant scene, but the acting of the two principals (to say nothing of the ludicrous escalation that comes when Alison locks herself in the garage) sends it spinning off into unwitting farce well before the halfway point. A lot of actors would have a hard time selling a father-daughter shouting match conducted through a garage door while one of the participants attempts to gas herself to death with engine exhaust; now imagine it with Klaus Kinski as the overwhelmed dad, and you might arrive at some inkling of how far astray this scene finally goes. And while it may represent an extreme case, the whole of Schizoid resembles the garage hissy-fit and its lead-up to one extent or another. Oftentimes the music is at fault for scuttling an effective moment, especially in the scare scenes. Even when the scare isnít a false one (and Schizoid is unusually well endowed with unusually risible false scaresó youíre not going to believe the spring-loaded homosexual, for example), the increasingly frenetic plonking, zizzing, and booping of the mostly electronic score undoes all but Paulsenís most carefully considered attempts at suspense. At other times, itís the acting, with Craig Wasson seeming particularly out of his depth. And any time the two cops put in an appearance, itís a good idea to take a couple of steps to one side or the other, because the movie is about to fall flat on its face. As one of the rare attempts by Hollywood (here represented by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) to make a thriller on the giallo model, Schizoid is certainly worth a look, and for fans of Klaus Kinski, it is an absolute must-see. Otherwise, its appeal is decidedly of the ďmorbid fascination of failureĒ variety.