As they often do, this story starts innocently enough, sort of a behind-the-scenes showbiz picture about a magician and his assistant/wife planning a new finale for their act. They’ll soon be heading out on a European tour and hope to shock audiences with a beheading illusion inspired by Marie Antoinette.
Flash forward to 1965 and Cassie, the daughter of this magician and his wife, is now an adult… attending her father’s funeral. Cassie and her father became estranged after her mother disappeared, her father sending her to live with her aunt in the Midwest.
Cassie learns that her father has left her an inheritance of $300,000, but she can only get the money if she stays in his strange and spookily-decorated mansion for seven days.
Two on a Guillotine was written by Henry Slesar and John Kneubune. The film was directed by William Conrad.
Connie Stevens plays a dual role in this film, starring both as Cassie and as Cassie’s disappeared mother, Melinda. Cassie is not much like her mother — very soft-spoken and mannered. Stevens does a nice job with both of the roles, though her part as Melinda is quite brief.
To help Cassie in her quest to gain her inheritance, an undercover reporter named Val comes along. He hopes to get the scoop about Cassie and her odd family, but instead finds himself endeared by her. Dean Jones plays Val, and his performance is kind of goofy, but likable.
Perhaps the best player in this film is the mansion, rather than any one person. With Cassie’s father being a magician, his house could easily be described as an eccentric abode. It’s full of dark wood and rigged with gags like a flying skeleton. As Val says, “Haunted houses have ghosts. This one just as tricks.” The house could be more sinister, to add a stronger spook factor to the film, but as it exists it says a lot about Cassie’s father.
There may not be an intense spook factor here, but there is plenty of fun to be had. Scattered thrills and chills begin about 35 minutes in. There are a lot of periods of lighter mood, such as Val and Cassie’s cute carnival date.
When it does aim to spook, the film is quite conventional and old-fashioned, offering a few of the usual jumps you’d expect from a haunted house film, like eerie disembodied voices.
The simple fact is, Two on a Guillotine doesn’t seem sure whether it wants to be a California version of Roman Holiday or a smaller-cast version of House on Haunted Hill.
But strangely, I didn’t mind the mix at all. The photography is nice, the performances are fine, and I got several laughs out of it. Some of these laughs may have been unintentional (that over-the-top nightmare sequence!), but they’re certainly entertaining. There’s also, on the more serious side, some interesting exploration of grief and loss.
The final half hour or so is the strongest portion of the film, horror-wise, as Cassie is left alone in the house and finds the dreaded guillotine mentioned in the film’s title. It would be great if the whole film had the same suspense found in this final act, but still, on the whole, I enjoyed it!