Schizoid has always been one of those horror films that just couldn’t catch a break.  It was marketed as a slasher film, always the least critically reputable of horror subgenres.  Slasher fans have had an ambivalent attitude for it: it bypasses splatter or a rollercoaster-styled barrage of thrills in favor of an old-fashioned murder mystery approach. However, those horror fans willing to give Schizoid a fair chance will discover that it boasts an intriguing blend of old-school elements and sleaze that has its own kind of charm.

Schizoid‘s premise has a certain “end of the ’70s” vibe because it revolves around an encounter therapy-type group, one presided over by Pieter Fales (Klaus Kinski).  Julie (Marianna Hill), an advice columnist and soon-to-be divorcee, is the best and brightest of the patients but her relationship with the doctor is conflicted by the fact that they are attracted to each other.  He’s also sleeping with another female patient in the group – and he’s got a strained relationship with his emotionally fragile teen daughter, Alison (a pre-Angel Donna Wilkes).

Despite this Peyton Place-level of lust and dysfunction, the encounter group has a bigger problem: a black leather-clad psycho has begun to send threatening letters to Julie.  When she doesn’t respond publically to those letters, the psycho starts bumping off members of the encounter group.  Suspects and corpses pile up in equal measure as Julie tries to stay alive and discover who the mystery killer is.

Schizoid was written and directed by David Paulsen, who has one other proto-slasher to his credit (1976’s Savage Weekend) but is better known for his later t.v. career, which entailed producing and directing prime-time soaps like Dallas, Knots Landing and Dynasty.  This career history is worth mentioning because Schizoid feels less like a slasher movie and more like a t.v. movie-scaled murder mystery livened up with a little R-rated blood and skin.

Unlike like the slasher flicks it’s lumped in with, Schizoid is genuinely a script-driven enterprise.  It does a good job of juggling the mystery material and stalking scenes with moments that build up personal histories for its major characters.  It can also be pretty inspired at how it doles out exposition: when Alison reveals why she has such a grudge toward her father, it’s couched in a tense scene where she attempts to commit suicide in a garage while Pieter struggles to break in.  Some viewers may guess who the killer is before that person is unveiled but it’s worth noting that the reveal is couched in a pretty exciting showdown that incorporates a gun and an axe.

Paulsen’s direction of this script is low-key but confident.  He chooses effective L.A. locations and uses Norman Leigh’s cinematography to give the film an earthy, naturally lit look that is unusual for an ’80s horror flick – and Craig Huxley’s quirky synth score will bring back fond memories of Don’t Answer The Phone. His direction of the thrills is workmanlike but solid, with the occasional inspired touch: highlights include a fake scare in apartment building that has a comic ending and the reveal of one corpse in an unusual location.  Exploitation fans will admire how Paulsen caters to their whims: both Wilkes and Hill have nude scenes, plus the other patient Kinski is having an affair with is a stripper!

Schizoid also boasts an unusually good cast for a film consigned to the slasher bin.  Hill brings a nice mix of emotional fragility and bravery to her character, who is more of a genuine “modern woman” than you see in this kind of film.  Kinski has no problem establishing a creepy vibe early on but the film actually allows his character to become dimensionalized and sympathetic as the film goes on – and Kinski does a fine, atypically subtle job that stands out amongst his b-movie work.  Wilkes gets one of her best roles as the daughter, showing an impressively fiery chemistry with Kinski during their arguments.

The supporting cast is also full of familiar faces: Christopher Lloyd has fun playing the most suspicious of the patients, Craig Wasson offers a solid turn as Hill’s ex and reliable t.v. character actors Richard Herd and Joe Regalbuto make a convincing pair of police detectives.

All in all, Schizoid is a modest but effective affair that is much more entertaining than it gets credit for.  It’s the kind of horror film that actually works better on the small screen than it would on the big screen, where it’s t.v.-horror-goes-R-rated approach feels as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers.