our current era of $12 movies, digital streaming, and Redbox,
Hollywood has returned to one of its oldest gimmicks to get people
back into the theaters: 3-D. Created in the 1950s, 3-D was one of
many ploys to get audiences up from their new fangled television sets
and back dishing out cold hard cash to Hollywood. It made going
to the movies an event again, on par with the theatre, an experience
you couldn't get anywhere else. Nor forget. But for William Castle,
3-D was for amateurs.
Castle excelled at the hard sell. With the personality of a carnival
barker, Castle worked his way through Columbia's ranks, first as an
assistant to George Stevens and Harry Cohn and eventually became a
dependable director of "B" crime dramas. But after seeing a
screening of Les Diaboliques (1955), he knew he
wanted to make horror films. So he mortgaged his house and
self-produced his first film, Macabre (1958), where
a father has to find his buried alive daughter before it's too late.
was afraid that the film alone would not get people to see it. With
his house on the line, he needed a sure fire hit. So he came up
with a gimmick: patrons could sign up outside of the theatre for a
life insurance policy from Lloyds of London (a real policy, to boot)
that would pay their beneficiaries $1,000 if they happened to die
from fright during the movie. The audience loved it. The $90,000
film ended up making $5 million.
subsequent films all had a gimmick attached, one more elaborate than
the next. House on Haunted Hill (1959) had "Emerg-o"
– a skeleton that flew over the audience; The
Tingler (1959) had "Percept-o" – electric
buzzers that shocked the seats; 13 Ghosts (1960) had
"Illusion-O" – a special pair of glasses that helped you
see the spirits; Mr. Sardonicus (1961) had the
"Punishment Poll," allowing the audience to "choose"
the fate of the antagonist; Homicidal (1961) had the
"Fright Break" – a 45 second countdown to the climax
where audience members who were too scared could leave the theatre
and get a refund; Zotz! (1962) handed out "magical"
amulets; and 13 Frightened Girls (1963) got
attention for supposedly holding a worldwide casting call for the
his next two films, The Night Walker (1964)
and Strait-Jacket (1964), Castle used the greatest
gimmick of all: bonafide movies stars Barbara Stanwyck and Joan
his macabre sense of humor with horror and his very public
interaction with his fans, Castle became known as the Low Rent
Hitchcock. But this is an injustice to Castle. Only seeing
him as a lesser version of a master or the King of the Gimmick sells
him short. Castle was not merely some Barnum-like con-artist,
shucking his snake oil on 42nd Street. He was a talented director and
a brilliant producer.
Even though his films were shot on the cheap
and the quick, Castle elevated them to "A" entertainments,
yes with the aid of the gimmicks, but more importantly with the
craft. In fact, there are times when the gimmicks feel
superfluous and more like a crutch than a desperate plea for
people to buy tickets. Most glaringly is Mr. Sardonicus,a
fine period piece full of chills and thrills and a well-written
climax that doesn't need the so-called "Punishment Poll" it
tacks on the end. When Castle has well-written material, he
flourishes with the dialogue scenes, getting the best out of his
actors (the highlight of House on Haunted Hill and The
Tingler are the domestic disputes between Vincent Price's
characters and their wives). But what comes through most in Castle's
work is his love for the material – and his audience. His main goal
is to entertain us. And he succeeds.
of my favorite Castle films follow. All are of equal value and
a fantastic thriller and great compliment to its progenitor, Psycho.
A woman, whose mother forced her to live her life as a man, kills to
keep her secret. The opening sequence is brilliantly paced, the score
can only be described as Hermann-esque, and Jean Arless (who was
really Joan Marshall using an alias) in the dual role of
Warren/Emily is award worthy. Highly recommend this film.
Tingler is often cited as John Waters' favorite film
(alongside Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Vincent Price
is exceptional as a scientist who discovers a parasite that
forms on our spine when we are scared. How to kill it? By screaming,
of course. A true "B" classic. (By the way, The
Tingler plays every year at CineFamily in Los Angeles during
Halloween Week, complete with "Percept-o"). The
Tingler is probably Castle's greatest work that you could
call 100% his own.
But Strait-Jacket may
just be Castle's crowning achievement. Off the success of What
Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Castle gathered the
writer of Psycho Robert Bloch and the star
of Baby Jane, Joan Crawford, to try and
make a real "A" picture, void of gimmickry. It tells the
story of Lucy Harbin, a convicted ax-murderess who is returning home
after 20 years in an asylum. But as people wind up dead, her family
wonders: Is She Cured?
the diva, Crawford was in charge from the beginning. She chose her
own camera man, her own co-stars, and demanded caviar and bourbon in
her trailer at all times. As Pepsi's sitting Chairman of the Board,
Crawford even got prominent product placement for her famous brand
and a role for one of her fellow board members, Mitchell Cox, as her
psychiatrist. Castle, eager to make a great picture with a great
star, relented to her every desire, even shooting an extra scene when
Crawford realized her co-star (Diane Baker, fresh off Hitchcock's
had given a great performance during the climax. And it paid
off. Strait-Jacket is
a wonderful film with a twist too good to spoil here and an Oscar
worthy turn from Crawford. Ever the showman, even with a film
that could stand on its own, Castle had a gimmick: passing out
cardboard axes to the audience.
few years later, Castle got a hold of a manuscript for a new horror
novel. He loved it so much he bought the rights and took it to Robert
Evans at Paramount. He knew it had the potential to be a huge hit.
Evans agreed that he could produce it, but was leery about leaving
millions of dollars in the hands of a "B" director. So he
brought Roman Polanski over from Poland to make his American debut.
was riding high from the success of Rosemary's Baby (1968)
and thought he would go on to finally be an "A" producer,
maybe even an "A" director. But the negative backlash from
the conservative audience, labeling him a consort with the devil, in
addition to the unfortunate death of Polanski's wife Sharon Tate at
the hands of the Manson Family, and Castle's own failing health,
derailed him from the mainstream. When he returned to work, Hollywood
had changed its course to more a cynical type of filmmaking. Castle's
brand of campy horror had become passé as the movies made way for
the gritty realism of Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin
Scorsese. Castle returned to "B" movies, turning in
low-rent films with titles like Project X (1968), a
sci-fi spy movie, and Bug (1974) about mutant
was the last of a dying breed, a true showman who understood the joys
of going to the movies, not only for the art or the entertainment,
but for the experience (the closest we have today would be James
Cameron). Sometimes I wish Castle would have been allowed to
It definitely retains some of his humorous take on horror,
particularly in the character played by Ruth Gordon. And don't get me
wrong. Polanski made one of the greatest films of all time. But maybe
so would have Castle. Maybe he finally would have made his
masterpiece and received the respect he deserved.