CHAMBER OF HORRORS. Warners, 1966. Cesare Danova, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Laura Devon, Jeanette Nolan, Marie Windsor, Jose Rene Ruiz, Wayne Rogers, Patrick O’Neal. Written by Stephen Kandel and Ray Russell. Directed by Hy Averback.

   If you only watch one movie in your lifetime, it should be Chamber of Horrors.

   This gaudy comic-book of a film was originally conceived as the pilot for a projected TV series to be called House of Wax, with Cesare Danova and Wilfrid Hyde-White as co-owners of a Baltimore wax museum, circa 1900, who solve the grisly crimes on display in their emporium. When the result was judged a bit too intense for network TV, a few scenes were added and it was released as a feature film. Something similar happened in 1964 over at Universal with their updated version of The Killers, as the once-rigid line between big and small screen began to blur.

   The result in this case is hokey but fun, with an able cast and some dandy bits of business to delight the adolescent boy in all of us. Chamber offers splendid sets, lurid color and tricky camerawork to highlight the efforts of several perfectly-cast players: Cesare Danova fills his shirt neatly as the strapping hero, Wilfrid Hyde-White is his lovable old self as his partner-in-detection, Laura Devon (who would cap her brief career the next year in Blake Edwards’ Gunn) looks awfully good in a part with a bit of range, and Jose Rene Ruiz (billed here as Tun-Tun, his persona in several Mexican films) adds diversion as a diminutive helper. But the film really and truly belongs to Patrick O’Neal as a mad killer named Jason — think about it.

   Jason makes his entrance here forcing a preacher at gunpoint to marry him to a corpse, and from there on, things just get fruitier. Apprehended through the efforts of the Police (Wayne Rogers) and our team of amateur sleuths, he escapes from the train taking him to his execution by cutting off his own manacled hand and leaping from a bridge into a river where he is presumed drowned.

   But we know better, don’t we?

   We next see Jason with a leather apparatus attached to his arm in place of the missing extremity, being fitted by a sinister Oriental (Barry Kroeger, one of the slimiest bad guys of Hollywood’s noir days) with a variety of attachments to suit his sinister needs: hook, scalpel, cleaver, etc. and preparing to enact a baroque revenge on his erstwhile nemeses.

   Given a part like this, many actors would have been tempted to ham it up in the campy Batman style of the times, and O’Neal does give it a full-blooded (sorry) rendering in the classic Lugosi style, but he stops short of self-parody. When Jason has a victim in his clutches, O’Neal really seems to enjoy it:

         JUDGE: (Surprised) “But-but you’re dead!”

         JASON: “Yes. Won’t you join me?”

   … and when he celebrates his triumphs with a cigar, you can almost feel the nicotine rush. This is a movie villain in the classic style, one who enjoys evil for its own sake, and he approaches a fitting climax in a running battle through the wax museum as good-guy and bad-guy fight with prop spears, torches and battle axes, set against a background panoply of gruesome wax murders.

   In all, a film to savor, and I hope you do, but I should add that what they tacked on to turn this into a feature film is sort of absurd: the “Horror Horn” and the “Fear Flasher.”

   When Jason is just about to butcher another victim, a horn sounds and the screen flashes “So that the faint-hearted can look away or close your eyes” an announcer tells us in a prologue.

   Fine, except that there’s no gore and very little blood to be seen, and when the lights and noises come, it’s generally to presage a moment of almost tasteful metaphor: Jason swings his ax, the camera pans decorously away… and what was all the fuss about?

   Still and all it’s a harmless bit of fun in a film you shouldn’t miss.