Monday, July 17, 2017

William Castle

The Psychotronic Zone

By Jonathan Saia

In 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. 

William 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.

Castle 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.

Castle’s 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 actresses.

For 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 Crawford.

Combining 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.

Three of my favorite Castle films follow. All are of equal value and artistic merit.

Homicidal is 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. 

The 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?

Ever 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 Marnie) 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.

A 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.

Castle 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 cockroaches.

Castle 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 direct Rosemary's Baby. 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.

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