Beautiful women disfigure themselves under the hypnotic control of a suave stage hypnotist and his sinister assistant. Part I (here) consists of a description of and the history of the movie: subsequent parts will include selections of the promotional material and press images (from my extensive collection) generated to promote the movie.
Description: Detective Dan Kennedy (Joe Partridge) is trying to figure out why beautiful women are disfiguring themselves without realizing why. He consults police psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Hetch (Guy Prescott) who is carrying on a diatribe against stage hypnotists, especially the current target of his wrath, the stage hypnotist “the Great Desmond” (Jacques Bergerac). Their jobs coincide when they and their friends Dodie (Merry Anders) and Marcia (Marcia Henderson) attend one of Desmond’s performances, after which Dodie disfigures herself with acid. Dan and Phillip can’t explain the connection, because they’re sure they saw Dodie get into a cab and return home alone after the show. (What they didn’t see was her leave the cab and walk backstage after they left.)
The next night, under the watchful gaze of Dan and Phillip, Marcia attends another of Desmond’s performances, where she volunteers to be brought up on stage to be hypnotized; unbeknown to her, his assistant Justine (Allison Hayes) picked her out specifically from the throng of eager volunteers. When they meet later that evening, she tells Dan and Phillip that she had resisted being hypnotized on stage. She also tells them that she was given a post-hypnotic suggestion to return to Desmond’s dressing room later that night, much to their surprise and disgust, an appointment she plans to keep.
Upon her arrival, Marcia’s curiosity brings her to search through Desmond’s dressing table and eventually to open the box that holds the Hypnotic Eye, a strobe light in the shape of a large eyeball. The bright flickering light within the Eye immediately captures her attention, and Desmond hypnotizes her from off camera, this time for real. Desmond takes advantage of Marcia’s compliant hypnotized state to escort her on an extended date, followed dutifully by Dan and Phillip. That date featured dinner at a fancy restaurant and later drinks and dancing in a smoky nightclub called the Gas House, a popular “beat” nightclub in Venice, California. (The owner, Eric “Big Daddy” Nord, played the bongo drummer during this scene and the poet who recited his works was Lawrence Lipton, sometimes called “The Poet Laureate of the Beatniks” and author of “The Holy Barbarians”, a well received history of the Beat Generation.)
When Desmond returns Marcia to her apartment, they engage in a brief moment of subdued passion, but Justine interrupts them, having overheard Marcia tell Desmond her address before they left the theater. Justine reinforces Marcia’s hypnotic trance as Desmond departs, leaving Marcia under Justine’s hypnotic control. Justine leads Marcia into the bathroom, where she plans to have Marcia scald herself in steaming hot water, under the hypnotic guise of it being a soothing shower. Only the fortunate appearance of a worried Dan prevents the tragedy, and Justine slips out the window and escapes.
Based on their new evidence, Dan and Phillip re-interview the disfigured women: they all denied attending Desmond’s show, including Dodie, which is obviously false. Armed with this evidence, Dan and Phillip rush to Desmond’s performance, in part because Marcia is not answering her phone. They realize that she has somehow succumbed to Desmond’s hypnotic powers again and is in the audience. Desmond begins to hypnotize the audience (and the movie audience: this is the audience participation part of the movie) through the use of a suggestion test involving an inflated balloon. When Dan bursts into the theater, Desmond tries to use the Hypnotic Eye on him, but he shakes off the effect and attacks Desmond. At the same time, Justine is threatening the entranced Marcia. Confronted, Justine rips off her mask, revealing the scarred ugliness underneath, the source of her jealousy. During the fight, both she and Desmond fall to their deaths, ending their reign of terror.
History: The initial concept for the movie, and much of the movie’s look, was the result of the screenwriter, William Read Woodfield. A magazine and celebrity photographer, Woodfield began writing scripts in Hollywood for such early TV series as “Seahunt” and “Death Valley Days” while continuing to work as a photographer. It was in the early pre-dawn hours while he was driving back to Las Vegas from a photo shoot on the set of the movie “Spartacus” in the Nevada desert that he encountered the well‑known phenomenon of “highway hypnosis”. He thought he could use that imagery to create a movie that would hypnotize the audience into believing they were seeing the greatest movie ever, a feat of illusion and deception well suited to someone who had been a child prodigy as a stage magician.
The movie, as he described it to his agent, Charles Bloch, would begin exactly as he had imagined it: a highway, with the white line passing before the audience. A narrator would put the audience through a simple suggestibility test. Those in the audience that didn’t respond were invited to leave, then the movie would begin to hypnotize the rest of the audience, telling them that they were seeing the best movie they had ever seen, and to tell their friends about it later. Given the interest about hypnosis in the wake of the Bridey Murphy phenomenon a few years earlier, it just might have worked.
But when he pitched the movie to Allied Artists, the producers were enthusiastic about the idea, but they actually wanted a movie. The idea was fine, but they wanted something with a plot. To get it, producer Ben Schwab paid Woodfield approximately $30,000 write a script based on the idea. Woodfield called the movie “The Screaming Sleep”, a slogan that would eventually appear on the advertising material.
The idea of hypnotizing the audience remained, although it have a William Castle-like twist, framed as part of the story line (and used in the movie promotions.) Each member of the audience would be given a balloon with the “hypnotic eye” logo upon entry. In the climax, when Desmond instructs the audience in the movie to blow up the balloon and use it as part of a suggestibility test, the audience in the theater was to do likewise. Thus was born the “Hypno-Magic” audience participation routine.
To make the stage hypnosis scenes more authentic, the producers hired famous stage hypnotist Gil Boyne. Boyne not only trained Bergerac on how to perform as a stage hypnotist, he even went so far as to work with the actors who would be part of Desmond's stage and hypnotize them into performing the suggested stage hypnosis scenes on film. Boyne also hypnotized the actresses to go into trance on cue and would stand behind the camera and trigger their trance on cue, so when Dodie or Marcia are supposed to be hypnotized on film, most likely they are really in a trance.
As a publicity stunt, the producers also got the noted serial impostor Ferdinand Demara to make a cameo appearance as the masked doctor near the beginning of the movie. Merry Anders was a personal friend of actor Tony Curtis, who was playing the lead in a movie based on Demara's career on a nearby soundstage. Demara was also present during the filming, which resulted in his being invited to appear. Unfortunately his real-life ability for impersonation didn't translate to on-film acting ability.
The movie was shot in approximately 12 days and cost $365,000, including the payment to Woodfield for the script. Included was an external (and extraneous, as even Woodfield now admits) scene shot at the Gas House, a popular “beat” nightclub in Venice, California that was the location for Desmond and Marcia’s date.
Commentary: In the stereotypical hypnotic horror movie, the terror comes from either the loss of life or the loss of control. But here, the terror is from the loss of beauty. But is that loss significantly different?
In this movie, women mutilate their faces and bodies under hypnosis. Just as their beauty (since only beautiful women were being targeted by Justine) and therefor their physical image was destroyed, so too was their self image and self worth, judging from Dodie’s severe depression and reluctance to being seen. This reaction is another way of demonstrating a loss of identity, and that loss is the same as exemplified by the loss of control, because the loss of control results in a loss of self as powerful as disfigurement would bring. While this may seem sexist, men, too, can react in much the same manner, although, for them, it more likely would be the result of a loss of a limb than disfigurement.
It should be noted that the loss of beauty is derived from a loss of control on the part of the victims: their surrendering to the hypnotic power was what made them follow Justine’s suggestions that led to their disfigurement.
And the victims are not the only ones suffering from a loss of control in this movie. Desmond demonstrates guilt over his complicity in Justine’s crimes, and he could stop her at any time by simply not providing her with any more victims, but he stops short when given the opportunity with Marcia. Based on his on-stage relationship with Justine, he should be able to control her actions, but, instead, he has no control over her in his off-stage relationship with her. Given his attitude, it is possible that he is cooperating with Justine’s plot out of a sense of guilt, as though he were the cause of Justine’s disfigurement. That question is left unanswered, an point that should have been addressed in the movie, because, without it, Justine’s actions lack any attempt at sympathy and are simply seen as resentful jealousy: lacking that rationale, Justine seems as out of control as Desmond, verging on the psychotic.
Recommendation: As a lost treasure only now legitimately available on DVD, it is worth seeking out if only for the Gil Boyne connection and influence, but its hype and history also recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in hypnosis and the way it gets represented in the movies.
- The Astounding B Monster: “Hype, Horror and HypnoMagic”, Issue 11.
- The Astounding B Monster: “Ode to a 50 Foot Woman”, Issue 10.
- The Astounding B Monster: “10 Names Ever B Lover Should Know”. Issue 16.
- The Astounding B Monster: “What Makes a Gimmick Film Classic?”, Horror Issue.
- Guillory, Crystal: “Not Entranced by the Hypnotic Eye”, Horror Wood Webzine
- Hefferman, Kevin: Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953 1968, Chapter 3: “Look Into the Hypnotic Eye!”
- Johnson, Floyd: “Controlling Desmond: The Hypnotic Eye and Other Power Struggles”, Delirious: The Fantasy Film Magazine, Number 4, pp15-22.
- Reader Review: “The Hypnotic Eye”, “It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad Movie”
- Weaver, Tom: “Interview: Hypnotic Eye Leading Lady, Merry Anders”, ?, ?, pp 20-21
- Weaver, Tom: “Stare Into the Hypnotic Eye”, Famous Monsters, Issue 195, pp 67-70, 82.
- Woodfield, William Reed: “The Hypnotic Eye” (final shooting script)